Best Practices for Evaluating ELL Educators: Lessons Learned in Syracuse, NY

In Syracuse, a unique peer evaluator program is changing the conversation around teacher evaluation and shifting the focus to professional growth. In partnership with the AFT, Colorín Colorado had the opportunity to film a new video showcasing a full observation cycle featuring elementary teacher Jesus Ortiz and Areli Schermerhorn, Syracuse’s peer evaluator for bilingual and English as a New Language (ENL) educators. The video highlights some unique considerations related to evaluating educators of English language learners.

This video is part of our special project on best practices for evaluating ELL educators from Syracuse, New York.


Jesus: Who's from Puerto Rico or has family from Puerto Rico? Me too, right?

Cuba? Raise that hand nice and high, Aytanna! Be proud, ok.

Jesus Ortiz is a bilingual third-grade teacher in Syracuse, New York. Mr. Ortiz started his career as a teaching assistant … before becoming a classroom teacher.

Jesus: This goes back to when I was eighteen years old. I was here at Seymour volunteering right after I graduated high school in Puerto Rico.  It was like a light bulb went off. And I said, “This is what I’m meant to be doing.”

Later today, Mr. Ortiz will have a visitor in his classroom.

Areli: I’m Areli Schermerhorn and I am a peer evaluator for the Syracuse City School District and I work most closely with the English as a new language teachers and the bilingual education teachers in our district.

Ms. Schermerhorn conducts more than 100 observations each year as part of Syracuse’s innovative peer evaluation program.

Areli: There was a lot of anxiety associated with the whole evaluation process and my approach was, “I need to learn more.”

Today, Syracuse’s peer evaluation program is changing the conversation around teacher evaluation.

Areli: Oftentimes we don't see evaluation as a support for our teachers.  I believe that one of the things that we have done here in Syracuse City School District is to start to  change that, to start to change the mindset that evaluation is just a process that we need to go through to check off a box.

Jesus: I continue to work closely with my reading coaches, math coaches, my evaluators, administration. I’m always looking forward to what can I learn.

Areli: It's not about having the perfect lesson. It's about being able to see, “How do I continue to get better?”

Ms. Schermerhorn has noticed that teachers have welcomed this shift – especially if they have been evaluated by someone who was not familiar with best practices for English language learners, or ELLs.

Areli: I believe it is really important for administrators to understand how their language program works for their English learners in their building. And the reason is sometimes you may misinterpret what you see.

ELL expert Susan Lafond gives an example of how this might happen.

Susan: If you have English learners who are relatively newcomers, they’re not going to be talking much. And if the observer or the administrator who’s doing the observation doesn’t understand that  they’re going to mark the teacher lower, saying, “I didn’t see the students say this or that.”  It’s so critical to understand that level, that secondary language acquisition on the part of English learners and what they can do at those different levels of proficiency.

Areli: If an evaluator is coming in to observe a class that they have very little background on or have very little expertise, it can be very frustrating for the teacher.

Susan: Everybody should be on the same page. Evaluation shouldn’t be a “gotcha” situation. It should be, “How can we improve our professional practice, our professional knowledge to help our students achieve?”

To see peer evaluation in action, let’s sit in on an observation cycle with Mr. Ortiz and Ms. Schermerhorn. We’ll share some of Ms. Schermerhorn’s notes along the way.

Jesus: Hi, Areli.  

Areli: Hey, good morning, how are you? 

Jesus: Good morning, good. How are you? 

We’ll start with the pre-conference, which is a meeting that takes place before the observation. It’s a chance to discuss ELLs’ language levels, preview the lesson, address the teachers’ questions, and go over the evaluation process.

Areli:  I'll be coming to take a look at the math class this afternoon.Tell me a little bit about the students.

Areli: One of the things that I love about being able to sit in a pre-conference with a teacher is to learn a little bit more about the students and the classroom and the goals that the teacher has for those students and if there are any special circumstances that I'm going to be observing. It is an opportunity to have that information ahead of time.

Jesus:  I have 16 ENL students and so some have level threes, level fours, level twos. 

Areli: Understanding and knowing the background of your students, knowing the language of the students, knowing their strengths, and knowing their weaknesses  those are all pieces that I know when I have conversations with Mr. Ortiz that he has that background.

Areli: What would you like them to learn today? What is your goal for this lesson? 

Jesus: I want them to be able to look at a data from a from a graph and use it in a pictograph. So they're going to see the data in a little chart. I'm going to start by modeling with them…

Areli: I can't stress enough the importance of using that gradual release approach. Some may describe it as the “I do, we do, you do.” But it's really about modeling for the students the expectations for the lesson.

Areli: As you know, I’ll come in and I’ll be sitting in the back of the room with my computer and I’ll be taking notes. Really, I am going to be trying to capture the language that is being used in the classroom. How you ask questions, what type of questions you ask, how do the students respond, how are you checking for their understanding throughout the lesson and their comprehension of the language?  The focus is going to be the students and it's going to be the way that you are designing your instruction so that they can learn.  

Jesus: Oh, that makes me feel a lot better. Thank you. 

Areli: Oh, I’m glad.

Areli: We like to make sure that the teachers understand the process.  And oftentimes if you know what to expect it really does make you feel a little bit more at ease.

Once the observation starts, Ms. Schermerhorn takes her place in the back of the room. One thing she is checking to see is whether the objective for the lesson is clear.

Jesus: Let's take a look at today's objective. I can use data to answer questions about a pictograph. Pictograph -- say with me, ‘Pictograph.’ What word do I hear in there? What other word do you know?

Student: Picture.

Jesus: Picture, right. Let's work together. There are 20 students in class. Which is their favorite animal? That's what we're trying to find out.  Could someone read to me this sentence. Aytanna?

Aytanna. Let’s look at the data of the information provided.

Jesus: My favorite word in this sentence is “data.”  When you go to college, you’re gonna find that word very useful, especially in math classes. 

Ms. Schermerhorn is taking note of a few things. First, she is listening carefully to the language that Mr. Ortiz and the students are using.

Jesus: How many pictures of horses do we need? Oh, look at all those hands. Look at all those hands. Aidan?

Student: Five.

Jesus: How do you know it is five, Aidan?

Student: Because I looked at the data.

Jesus: You look at the data up here? Ok, very good.

Areli: We really wanted to hone in, in the use of “data.”  We need them to not just see it, they need to repeat it, to say it. They need to work with it and that is something that was very clear that was happening in this classroom today.  I saw the fact that students were asked to use those key words and they were asked to, really in an explanation even in the small group, even when no one was actually taking what it seemed like taking note they were using the language in their private conversations. That’s when you know you got it.

When it’s time for students to apply what they have learned, Ms. Schermerhorn watches how Mr. Ortiz supports students, differentiates instruction, and taps student leaders in each group.

Jesus: What number times 2 equals 16? 8. Ah, now you see it better, right?

Jesus: Zoexy, what are you working on over? Zoexy is adding 16 + 12. That's a really good start.  Right here, girl. You’re in charge of this team. Take it away. 

Areli: Using the visuals, using the support of the whiteboard, using the peer assisted learning, it's all can contribute to the success of the students in achieving his instructional goals.

On the day following the lesson, Mr. Ortiz and Ms. Schermerhorn meet for a post-conference, a meeting after the observation. The post-conference is a great time to talk about how the lesson went, look at student work, talk about the teachers’ strengths, and talk about areas of growth.

Jesus: It’s like I am reliving the lesson all over again.

Areli: One of the strategies that I use as an evaluator is to try to capture the language that is being used in the classroom by the teacher and by the students.  I do find that transcribing pieces of a lesson can be extremely helpful for a teacher.

Jesus: Once I saw that the one student in each group that was like, “Oh, I have to add first and then we're going to subtract it.” That was the biggest a-ha moment from me when that those students were able to take charge and show the others how to do it. After that, they just cruised right after that. 

Areli: I see a lot of effective practices. Is there an area that you would like to improve in?

Jesus: So I know that we have to do sometimes language objectives and content objectives and that is something that it escapes me sometimes, so I would like to be more consistent with writing those language and content objectives in each lesson. 

Areli: I’m glad you mentioned that because that was one of the considerations I noted it in the report. Can I share some resources with you?

This process shows the potential for what teacher evaluation can be and how it has supported a teacher like Mr. Ortiz.

Jesus: Her expertise in a dual-language setting have always been helpful to me because if I need strategies for teaching my ELLs, for example, she has a great deal of resources that she can share with me in both Spanish and in English.   She always has a calm demeanor about her.  And nowadays I feel much more comfortable when it comes to the evaluation process.

So what can ELL educators do if they are evaluated by someone without ELL experience?

Areli: I often hear teachers tell me, “I’m so glad you’re here because you understand English learners, and because you understand what works with English learners.” So it made me think that maybe they had been evaluated by someone who doesn’t understand English learners.  And my advice is always to first, be respectful, be courteous with the person that you are conversing with and really try to engage in a collegial conversation in which you may have some resources  and a review of the latest research.

And Ms. Schermerhorn encourages teachers to look for additional support if needed.

Areli: There may be times when certainly part of the advice is for teachers to know that they can have an administrator reach out to support staff such as instructional coaches who are experts in the field of English learners.

Jesus: If an evaluator came in with their little experience with ELLs, I would share right away, let that person know that I have students that are native language speakers in both Spanish or English. And I would inform that person about the process of a second-language acquisition in my classroom. So that way they don’t feel like they’re missing parts in my lessons, or they can evaluate me more precisely. So working closely with that type of evaluator, letting them know ahead of time would be a better outcome for the evaluation process.

Areli: We need to take a look at the way we can empower each other beyond a professional development session  because districts can really benefit from creating opportunities for that collaboration to happen between the experts in English language learners and the evaluators or administrators in their district.

This is the kind of long-term support that can help keep teachers like Mr. Ortiz stay in the classroom for a long and productive career.

Areli: Well, I would like to really thank you for the hard work that you're doing with our students and for you to go ahead and continue to provide the best instruction for the students of our district and the students in your classroom. Thank you so much. 

Jesus: I’ve been fortunate enough to have taught students of students of mine when I was a teaching assistant. Their parents were in third grade back then. So now I’ve had their children. And that, to me, has been a beautiful experience because I’m like, “You look just like your mom when she was your age.” They can’t believe it. They’re like, “No, You don’t know my mom.” I’m like, “Yes, I do know your mom.” So that is a great motivator to build those relationships that are going to last a lifetime.

Jesus: When see this, it takes me directly to when I was your age. I feel like a kid back in Puerto Rico when I see these titles. “Shake It, Morena.” There’s a song – do you know it? Here we go. One, two, three!

[Students sing “Shake It, Morena”]

For more resources related to ELL educator evaluation, please visit

This Colorín Colorado video was made possible by the American Federation of Teachers.