As a first year teacher in 1994, I struggled: my language skills were still new and still very much intermediate, I had no formal training in second language acquisition, and the only planning I knew how to do was to move from page to page in the textbook as I covered new material. First year teaching is kind of like a reality show… you just hope you are still standing at the end and don’t get voted off the island.
The problem began when, in year two, I took out the same plan book and copied the lessons I’d done the year before into the new cells. If it had only been 2 years, that would have been less of a failure but I went on like this for 6 years.
My first principal was an easy evaluator. When you had your very first evaluation, you received a needs improvement, the second and third were good and at the end of your second year, when it was time to give you tenure, you received an excellent. And excellent you stayed… Until he retired.
When the new principal came in 1998, he was full of big ideas. By the time he evaluated me in 2000, I was a 7th year teacher. I mean… I was a pro, right? I had SO MUCH EXPERIENCE NOW. I went in for my post evaluation conference expecting the usual “great job, you’re so excellent”. That’s not what I got.
Mr. Fritchtnicht said: “You’re not bad… but… Have you ever considered trying some new things in the classroom? There are a lot of language teachers who are using pod seating, using centers, engaging the students with methods like TPRS… The textbook doesn’t have to be your only tool.”
Internally I said: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, MR. HOTSHOT NEW PRINCIPAL??? I AM AN EXPERIENCED LANGUAGE TEACHER.” Externally, I said: “The things I do in my classroom are the things that I was trained to do in college. They are effective.”
But the problem was, they weren’t. Not at all. I had 80 Spanish 1 students, 55 Spanish 2 students, and 4 Spanish 3 students. Kids were not engaged, did not see value in language study, and were gaining zero proficiency. But I was not growth minded. Rather than deal with the reality of what he saw in my room, I ran away. I took another job and tried to bury my head in the sand.
The funny thing is, Mr. Fritchtnicht’s evaluation was like the grain of sand in an oyster. The more I tried to soothe myself by saying he didn’t know what he was talking about, the more I tried these new tricks in the classroom.
In 2005, when I did not pass the National Board process I was forced to really reflect on where things were going wrong. It was a turning point for me. I started teaching kids over content and teaching for mastery over teaching for coverage. That little grain of sand stopped being irritating because it was turning into the pearl of a language program bursting at the seams!
It is HARD to hear critical feedback. It is hard to grow when you’re comfortable in a rut. I tried to run away but the truth always finds you! Honestly, I’m so glad it did. I am SO happy in my classroom today. I’m completely free to teach the students I have in front of me.
Yesterday, for the first time in 19 years, I saw Mr. Fritchtnicht. I was attending a local conference and saw his name on the presenter list. He’s a superintendent now. I went to his session and told him that for the last few years, his ears had probably been burning as I told the story of his evaluation and my eventual transformation. I was so glad to have the opportunity to thank him for challenging me.
It’s probably evaluation time in your district too. Just know that the things that sting can sometimes be the very thing you needed to hear… even if you aren’t ready to hear it at the time.
Jeff, if you happen to see this, thank you for your impact.