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Evaluating teachers is a delicate conversation

Mr. Bethel and Mr. Harris

Eric Bethel, left, holds a conference with Chris Bergfalk, a science teacher at Eaton Elementary School.
Eric Bethel, left, holds a conference with Chris Bergfalk, a science teacher at Eaton Elementary School. (Washington Post)

And so Mr. Bethel and Mr. Harris, as they called each other, settled down to try.

Bethel, crisp in gray slacks and shiny loafers, introduced himself. A former D.C. elementary math teacher with a master's degree, he told Harris that he understood the anxiety about the new system, because he went through it as a teacher last year.

Though initially skeptical, he found the new system a huge improvement. Instead of generalized praise, he received concrete advice based on a clear set of principles-a specific language for discussing the craft. Things he had done instinctively, such as checking whether students understood the lesson, were now expressed in the standards, which encouraged him to practice them more systematically. His teaching got better.

Still, Bethel had wavered about the evaluator job, wondering if he had the stomach to deliver difficult critiques to more-experienced teachers. He finally decided he could perhaps "bridge the gap" between teachers' anxieties and a tool he was certain could make even a great teacher better.

In Harris, he had a fine test. A part-time cartoonist of artistic temperament, Harris described IMPACT as "a sword hanging over my head." He majored in math in college, and he has been a D.C. teacher since 1989, since December at Beers. But he worried that his freewheeling teaching style would bomb under the new system. And in his case, classroom observations would count for 75 percent of his overall rating.

He tapped the pencil.

"So," said Bethel, who had observed Harris teaching a fourth-grade class. "I can tell you the key things you have to celebrate or key areas to grow on."

"You can start off by what I did right," Harris said. "Just start there."

Harris scored well in creating a "supportive, learning-focused classroom community."

While many teachers view the standards as a kind of "to do" list - one teacher, for instance, thought she had to lecture her students on being supportive - Harris had demonstrated the principle, Bethel said.

He had observed an easy rapport between Harris and his students that was evident in their attentiveness to Harris's instructions.

"What kind of solidified it was that you had a student, she wanted to get up, and you let her move around some but were able to keep a good balance," Bethel said. "That was great."

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