Ezra Stoker-Graham, a lead preschool teacher at Educare of Seattle, writes about how classroom evaluations have changed his approach to teaching.
The prospect of someone walking into my classroom for four 20-minute observations to assign a score for how I interact with children was initially intimidating. But in the time since we began using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) at Educare of Seattle, my approach to working with young children has become more effective and my classroom teaching team has grown stronger.
My initial fears toward the evaluations were eased when I learned the assessors would be looking for what I and the other teachers intuitively already knew was good teaching. Among other attributes, the CLASS system intends to measure our ability to create a positive climate in the classroom, be sensitive to children’s needs, relate concepts to students’ lives, ask them open-ended questions and help those who were struggling. These were all concepts we believed in and were motivated to improve in our work.
CLASS helped my teaching become richer and more intentional. One example is how the evaluations helped me reconsider my large-group sessions. I typically followed a comfortable routine of singing a few songs, followed by reading a picture book. These group times were successful but not as effective as they could be; an observation the evaluator noted in a middling score for “effective facilitation.” In my follow-up conversation with the evaluator, we discussed specific ways to engage children in their own learning.
Now my group times offer students a variety of ways to be involved and interact. They have opportunities to ask questions, talk to each other one-on-one and then share back to the large group, vote on ideas, write down their thoughts, and build a lesson plan together.
As a result, these group sessions have come alive. They are times of joy, thoughtfulness, focus, and shared learning. They have become a foundation for the way we build classroom community and point the way for further learning.
CLASS has also helped me support the growth of my teaching team. This year, a new teacher with superb instincts but little experience joined our classroom. Together, along with the third member of our team, we reviewed the expectations and practiced the concepts outlined in CLASS. The system gave us clear benchmarks and a shared language and vision that allowed us to bring deep intention and heart to our work.
CLASS is not perfect. One time I was assessed when two substitutes were in my classroom, making it difficult to truly gauge how my classroom operates on a typical day. And the in-and-out nature of the observations can be disruptive. Some teachers feel there are children in their care who become distressed when an unfamiliar person enters the classroom, creating a more difficult environment for teachers to perform at their best. With the CLASS observations occurring just once a year for a total of only 80 minutes, it’s very possible that the assessment could occur when a teacher is simply having a bad day.
Even with these challenges, CLASS is effective at Educare of Seattle because teachers are given the support needed to grow. Our program’s leadership provides training and generous planning time to help teachers make gains in identified areas of need. In addition, the evaluators are warm and respectful, and the academic and social well-being of the children is always at the heart of the conversation.
CLASS energized my teaching and helped me become more intentional. It has helped create a cohesive classroom team working toward common goals.
Ezra Stoker-Graham is a preschool lead teacher at Educare of Seattle, a program that’s located in White Center and serves approximately 130 students from low-income families.