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Peer Review: Colleague, Mentor - Judge?

How some local unions take responsibility for improving teacher quality.


By Alain Jehlen

A mentor who barely survived her own first year.

A new teacher struggling with a tough class.

A veteran who stumbled but regained her footing.

Three human stories from a bold and controversial effort by educator unions to raise the quality of their profession.

“Peer Assistance and Review” (PAR) has amassed a decades-long record of success. It is not just the hot idea of the moment. But neither has it taken public education by storm.

It’s the Review part of PAR—master teachers evaluating other teachers and helping to determine whether they keep their jobs—that some object to. But Rochester (New York) Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski insists, “It’s controversial only where it doesn’t exist. There was fear that this would lead to divisiveness. It doesn’t.”

Cory Velazco listens for the sound of learning while his PAR consulting teacher, Dale Alkula, takes notes on his performance.

Photo by Randy De Puy

But Urbanski says PAR only works where the union is strong enough to be at least an equal partner in decisions.

“When someone comes to see a teacher, there’s always a silent question: ‘Who sent you?’

“The right answer is, ‘Everyone, including your union and your peers.’ If the answer is ‘Management,’ you’re not perceived as a mentor, you’re a snitch.”

Is power a problem?

Teachers in cities like Rochester and Columbus, Ohio, with long-established PAR programs credit PAR with both excellent mentoring and getting those who can’t do the job out of the classroom.

But will a shaky novice really open up and trust someone who could ultimately get him or her fired? Overwhelmingly, mentors and mentees interviewed in Columbus and Rochester said they do form a genuine bond, one that can last for years.

Most new teachers said they were too obsessed with succeeding with students to worry about impressing a mentor. “If something’s not working, I need to know,” said one. “I’m not going to do a dog and pony show.”

Not everyone feels that way. “When you’re a PAR consulting teacher, you never have an authentic interaction because you have power over their destiny,” said Columbus consulting teacher Jane Roth. And former Columbus mentee Neil Moore said, “There’s a fear there. She could show up any time. It keeps you on your toes. But that’s not a bad thing.”

PAR consulting teachers typically visit every week or two, observe a class, and then talk. That meeting is usually filled with encouraging comments and very gentle criticism combined with specific suggestions. The consultants are trained for this.

Again, there are exceptions. “She was ripping me to shreds,” said one art teacher about his former mentor.

He got a new one this year, moved to a different school, and now he’s bursting with enthusiasm. So is his new PAR mentor, who admires his ability to get students excited about German Expressionism.

‘PAR protection’

The most heated debate over PAR focuses on a very small piece of it: “intervention” with tenured teachers.

Only a tiny number of tenured teachers wind up in intervention. And while consulting teachers do sometimes conclude that a tenured teacher isn’t up to the job, PAR also saves careers.

Columbus Education Association President Rhonda Johnson says 95 percent of teachers in PAR intervention refer themselves, often to block a hostile principal who has taken the first steps toward dismissing them. Intervention stops that process.

“Some people call it our ‘PAR protection plan,’” she says. Since teachers shaped PAR, it has strong safeguards to protect teachers from personal vendettas.

Johnson thinks more teachers need intervention. In Rochester, union leader Martha Keating strongly agrees. Keating, who has played a central role in PAR from its start, says there have been some years when not a single teacher was in intervention. “With 3,500 teachers, that’s kind of suspect,” she says.

Keating blames lazy administrators who find that the easiest way to get rid of a weak teacher is to get them to transfer to another school.

Some districts with PAR use intervention more often.

Rochester also has a much bigger “professional support” program for veteran teachers. It’s associated with PAR but there’s no reporting, just help (more at

Columbus union leader Johnson says she’d like to go beyond PAR and take over the entire teacher evaluation process.

“Ours is the only evaluation that works,” says Johnson. “When we leave it up to the principals, they don’t do it.”

The intern: Cory learns a tough job

Cory Velazco is not having a great day. Books slam. Trumpets blare. Drums are knocked off stands. Cory calls across the room, “Pick it up! Don’t talk! Stop squeaking the stand!” Nobody pays him any mind.

It’s a tough job, teaching instrumental music to seventh- and eighth-graders in an inner-city school in Columbus, Ohio. He’s the fifth teacher to try it there in five years.

“I student-taught in a suburb where you told kids once and it was done,” he says. That’s not how it is here.

And now comes his roughest class.

Cory sends a parade of students to the office before class even begins. Soon, an assistant principal leads them back. An imposing figure, he delivers a stern warning: Mr. Velazco is here to teach you. If you’re not willing to learn, you’ll be suspended. “Am I clear?”

The class is half over before anybody’s making music.

Then, improbably, they do start to play. First, “Jingle Bells,” very slowly. Next, “Twinkle, Twinkle,” and some of the kids are really getting into it. They sound good!

There’s still random talk, but it doesn’t keep Cory from helping some students learn to handle their instruments.

One boy sits down at the piano, unbidden, and starts playing “Lean On Me.”

But almost before it starts, the class is over.

“I knew teaching was going to be hard, but not this hard,” says Cory. “But I’m not going to cut and run.”

Once at a friend’s house, he watched Glee, the television show about a high school glee club. “It made me so angry, I had to leave. They were making it out to be so easy.”

The subject Cory teaches is a problem in itself. Playing trumpets is a lot noisier than learning math. He has to get his students to first quiet down—and then immediately get loud.

Plus, most of his students have never touched an instrument before, and the few who know how to play are bored.

‘I would find another place’

After class, Cory wearily sits down with his consulting teacher, Dale Alkula, himself a music teacher.

Alkula offers practical advice: Try a hand-clap pattern to get the kids quiet. Send the more advanced students off to another room to practice a piece.

Cory: “I tried that. They just mess around.”

Dale: “Try again. Tell them, ‘I’d like you to perform this for the concert.’”

Does Cory like having Dale watching him, seeing his worst moments?

“It’s scary, but I’m not here for me. I’m here to give these kids what they need. I know how I hated it when teachers wasted my time.”

And he feels Dale is on his side. “I don’t have a problem telling him something’s not working. Worst-case scenario,

I would hate to get fired, but I would find another place where I could be effective. Teaching is what I want to do.”

The Mentor: Chandra Has Been There

For Rochester, New York, teacher Chandra Cunningham, the low point of her first year came on a beautiful spring day. “I had a tough fifth-grade class,” she recalls. “There was a problem in PE and when they got back to my class, some boys started fighting. I tried to stop it. I put my body between two boys who were bigger than I was. I got punched, there was blood on my clothes—I thought, ‘I’ve tried to do so much for them!’”

Chandra Cunningham (right) consults with Tracy Sherman, an experienced teacher new to the primary grades, who asked for help through Rochester’s “professional support” program: Peer Assistance and Review without the Review.

Photo by Matt Wittmeyer

Afterwards, Chandra needed someone strong and experienced to talk to. Her principal was of little help, so she turned to her mentor, Maybelle Thomas.

All year long, Maybelle had shown her the basics and the fine points of teaching, often demonstrating how it’s done. But after the fight, her support was more emotional. “She said, ‘Don’t give up. Make every day a new day.’”

That was 20 years ago.

Today, Chandra is the mentor. Meeting with one teacher who’s new to second grade and having trouble adjusting to the maturity level of seven-year-olds, Chandra spends 10 minutes on pencil policies and then turns to activity centers: how often they should be changed, and what kinds of activities work well. “They love to cut, paste, and color, and with that they can practice their phonics,” she points out.

Awful Things to Report

Chandra teaches a second-grade class half-time, paired with another mentor. She loves mentoring, but there’s one part of the job she hates: writing reports that could cost someone their job. She chokes up recalling the time she had to write about a 22-year veteran who could not learn to control her class. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says quietly. “I had to write about the awful things that happened—a student walking on the tables who refused to sit down, kids racing around the room—and I could picture how she would feel reading my report.”

But Chandra has also had wonderful successes—like Kelli Briggs, whom she mentored eight years ago, and recommended for rehiring even though the principal said no. Kelli is now a model math teacher in a different school: Other teachers come to Kelli’s room to watch and learn.

One benefit of the PAR program is that it creates a challenging new role for master teachers like Chandra without taking them out of the classroom. Her colleague Jeffrey Feinberg says PAR has probably kept him in the profession. “Ten years ago, I was getting bored,” says Feinberg. “I needed a change.” Now, he says, “I’m blessed to be in this position. I eat and breathe it.”

Intervention: Does Susan have the right stuff?

Two years ago, after decades as a primary grades teacher, Susan (not her real name) lost her grip on her class.

“Kids were throwing blocks and hitting each other,” recalls her principal, and Susan says, “One day, it was too much for me—[the principal] relieved me in the classroom that day.”

Looking back, Susan believes her problem was an unhappy combination of new personal obligations and more difficult students. “The way I used to do things didn’t work anymore. Ten years ago, the kids could walk quietly in line. We did more paperwork in class. And their homes were different. I had a little bit of burnout.”

Her principal started proceedings to dismiss her. So Susan entered “intervention” in her city’s PAR program.

How did she feel about having a colleague assigned to teach her how to do her job? “I was a bit bent out of shape. But then I got together with three or four others in the same situation. We weren’t alone.”

In some interventions, the PAR consultant or mentor (the term varies with the district) comes to believe the real problem is a personality clash with the principal, and moving to another building solves it.

Sometimes, however, the consultant concludes that a teacher either can’t or won’t make essential changes.

PAR consulting teachers don’t fire anyone, they only report what they see. But since the consultant has more firsthand knowledge of what happens in the classroom than anyone else, that report carries great weight.

In most cases, the veteran teacher improves enough for the intervention to be rated a success. That’s what’s happening this year for Susan.

Conferring after one recent class, she and her mentor worked hard on the details of how best to handle individual students, but there was no sense of crisis.

Susan’s principal was dubious at the start of intervention, but she’s changed her mind: “I have to say, it’s working.”

'Professional support' in Rochester

You’re new to second grade—you’ve never taught younger than eighth before. You could struggle through and learn by trial and error, but in Rochester, New York, there’s a better option: Ask for “professional support" and someone who really knows second grade will be assigned to help you—someone who has the time and skill, because he or she is a PAR mentor.

According to Marie Costanza, who administers the Rochester PAR program, roughly 100 to 150 veteran teachers ask for professional support per year (out of about 3,500 teachers, so it’s a little under five percent). Unlike the much smaller PAR intervention program, there’s no report at the end, no formal paper trail at all. Costanza doesn’t track them, but she believes about half of the requests result in a support program in which a mentor comes back repeatedly and helps a colleague solve classroom problems.

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