Four years ago, Regina James learned that she did not meet two standards on her evaluation, and was referred to her district’s Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program to work with a mentor so she could improve her teaching. Her job was on the line.
“I was angry and I was in disbelief,” says James, who had taught for eight years previously in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento. “I had always gotten excellent evaluations. This was the first time I had ever received anything negative.”
James looks back on that difficult time in her life and admits that personal problems were impacting her teaching. She was going through a divorce and raising two teenagers. A relative brought her 5-year-old twins he was unable to care for, and she took them into her home to keep them out of foster care. The previous year her district closed the school where she worked, and she was transferred to Oakview Community School, where she now teaches third grade.
“My personal life was in such chaos that I wasn’t putting enough into my professional life,” says James, a member of the San Juan Teachers Association (SJTA).
She calmed down, took a breath, and decided to make the best of it. And she was pleasantly surprised by what happened next. Her PAR support provider, also an SJTA member, gave her constructive advice that was extremely helpful.
“She was an unbiased critic,” says James. “She told me I needed to spend more time lesson planning, and gave me some good tips. She gave me a better understanding of how to determine whether my students needed reteaching in certain areas. She even got me supplies, including white boards for students to write on and hold up in the air to let me know whether they are getting it.”
The experience made her realize that she had been afraid to ask for help, even though at times she felt as if she was drowning.
“Teaching can be so isolating,” she explains. “You can fall into a rut. And when things aren’t going well, a 9-year-old isn’t going to tell you how to fix it. Sometimes you need another professional adult to say, ‘You do these things really well, but there are other things you really need to fix.’”
Turning the corner
After James let down her defenses, she began to see the experience as a gift rather than a punishment. She made huge strides. Although PAR is a two-year program, she was told after a year it was time for her to exit. Oddly enough, she didn’t want to leave.
“I said no, let me stay, I don’t want to go,” she says with a laugh. Even though her PAR support provider also had an influence on her evaluations, James says, the evaluation made her feel grateful to receive the help she badly needed, rather than threatened.
In the four years since exiting PAR, James has received good evaluations from her administrator. James is also better off from what she learned in PAR, and believes that all teachers could benefit from the program. She advises those who enter PAR to keep an open mind and accept the assistance being offered to them, instead of worrying about the stigma.
“Teachers are just like everyone else,” she says. “Sometimes we need help. Don’t be afraid to take it.”
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