New London - David Iler, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, holds master's degrees in science and elementary education, but that certification doesn't come close to preparing a teacher for the classroom, in his eyes.
"I didn't have the skill set ... to really know how to make my students as successful as they could be. Not knowing how to do what I needed to do, it almost killed me," he said last week.
Iler suffered a heart attack on the last day of school three years ago. He attributes the episode at least in part to stress and uncertainty about his job performance.
Now, in his third year, Iler is praising the school system's two-year-old teacher and professional development evaluation plan.
Through intensive, almost daily, support from the school district's literacy coaches, Iler has made a "180-degree shift" in his teaching style, he said, that is reflected in the organization of his classroom and the way he works with his students.
The aim of the new evaluation system is to clearly outline what's expected of a teacher in the classroom, give a teacher ways to improve instructional practices and, ultimately, to raise student academic performance levels.
"Before this evaluation plan, it was really a free-for-all," Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School Principal Alison Ryan said in an interview.
"There wasn't any standard in which teachers were being measured. There wasn't any clear direction from the administration or the district letting teachers know what was expected of them during a lesson and as an evaluator, our evaluations were really superficial."
While the plan stops short of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal to link teachers' job security to student performance, it has moved New London schools to a system of structured support for struggling teachers, with consequences for those who don't improve.
The teachers union remains wary. Fredricka Gunther, president of the New London Education Association (NLEA), said recently that the pressures of being evaluated and the issues the school district is facing as a whole make the atmosphere difficult to work in because teachers, administrators and even students feel pressured.
To complement the evaluation plan, administrators, NLEA members and a representative of the Connecticut Education Association have come up with The New London Project, an evaluation support program that provides teachers with opportunities to improve.
That project has been cited as a first in southeastern Connecticut because of the way it was developed, with and including participation by the union and the administration.
Opportunities include being paired with an exemplary teacher, watching videotapes of their classroom instruction and receiving peer feedback in preparation for an evaluation or observation.
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New London's formal evaluation plan has 10 standards on which a teacher is evaluated. Each standard includes a list of prompts as to what its execution in a classroom should look like.
Principals, assistant principals, deans and other administrators normally serve as the evaluators. Every teacher is expected to meet the 10 standards every day. Normally, non-tenured teachers are evaluated three times a year.
A main criticism of the union president is that the formal standards don't give room for teachers' learning or professional styles or for a teacher's professional judgment about a specific child. Fredericka Gunther said that even though the union and school administration have worked consistently to address what a fair teacher observation and evaluation should entail, she isn't convinced that all issues have been resolved.
"The old evaluation system wasn't as punitive, and it does seem a little punitive now. There's no place to put what someone does well," she said. "People, I think, feel like someone is out to get them. In the past, teachers would welcome someone to come into their room, they were excited to have someone observe. But when someone comes in with a checklist it becomes so exacting that the teacher as a whole is lost in the list."
Gunther said it isn't just New London's teachers feeling the pressure - it's felt nationally.
"We have a very dedicated group of hardworking individuals and we teach here because we like working with the kids and we enjoy the challenges, but anything that makes it more difficult for us to teach will hurt the kids. We know these kids and we know what they need," Gunther said.
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The evaluation plan includes three levels of structured assistance, the last of which could lead to termination if the superintendent of schools decides the teacher has not been able to demonstrate improvement based on the standards.
Since the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, 27 of the district's 272 certified teaching staff members have been placed on the structured assistance plan. Seven teachers have remained on it from 2010-11 through this school year and eight teachers in total have have been deemed not to need assistance under the plan any longer. Each level of the structured assistance plan carries additional responsibilities and requirements for a teacher to become eligible to come off the plan. For teachers who have been identified as struggling there are options for extra support.
A "very small" number of teachers have been terminated or have submitted their resignations because of the rigors of the plan, a school official said.
David Iler was not one of those who had to go into structured assistance. He praises the plan's checklist.
"The refining of the evaluation last year let me know where I was successful and where I wasn't successful, but the re-tweaking of it this year has made it so good that I've done very well on my evaluations," Iler said.
He said he went from being "someone who was having a difficult time" to a teacher whom the school now uses as a model.
"In my opinion, if you're in the building and you're not there completely and utterly for the kids, you need to go somewhere else. If you're not willing to recognize the data and the (improvement) plan derived from it, you need to go somewhere else," he said.
"The bottom line is that this (the district's efforts to help improve teacher performance) is going to release all the pressure if everybody plays along."
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Regardless of what happens to education reform in the General Assembly, New London will have to revise its evaluation plan again within the next two years to reflect a new state education requirement.
The state's Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC) unanimously adopted new teacher evaluation guidelines tied to multiple indicators of student achievement, although the guidelines do not link compensation and tenure to student performance.
The current version of the controversial education reform bill, S.B. 24, continues to go through revisions with less than two weeks left in the legislative session.