One of the most profound moments I ever had when leading a workshop was the first time I asked a group of educators this question, “What might make a teacher feel unsafe at school?”. I was speaking to a group of principals in Michigan and there were over 100 in the crowd. They answered using Menitmeter, creating a word cloud. Here it is:
Evaluation? Evaluation?!? I couldn’t believe my eyes. This group of principals thought that teacher evaluation was the biggest cause of teachers feeling unsafe at school. Over school violence? Over interpersonal conflicts with colleagues? Over aggressive students? I was shocked because in Michigan we have lots of flexibility in how we implement the teacher evaluation process which, in my mind, lends itself to utilizing the system to coach and empower teachers.
Let’s liken teacher evaluation to student grades in the classroom. If we asked a group of teachers what might make students feel unsafe at school, what would we think if grades was the number one answer? We’d say, “Really?!? With all the challenges our students have to face from each other, from their home lives, from their own development, we make grades the scariest thing for them to face? Don’t teachers have control over how grades feel to our students?” Yes, yes they do. Just like principals have lots of control over how evaluation feels to teachers.
Research helps us recognize that there is little correlation between teacher evaluation systems and student achievement. When looking at John Hattie’s research, we see that practices such as collective teacher efficacy, self-reported grades, and response to intervention have big effect sizes and can significantly improve student achievement. Teacher evaluation systems often do not focus on the things that have the biggest impact on learning and they do not take into consideration that many of the practices that impact learning the most are systemic and not solely dependent on individual teacher performance. Bottomline? Most of our evaluation systems do not work to increase student achievement. But, we can use required teacher evaluation systems to coach and empower teachers which will contribute to teacher job satisfaction and professional growth.
- Prioritize the feedback meeting
Most evaluation systems call for at least a couple teacher observations throughout the school year. In Leveraging Leadership, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo suggests that feedback meetings that follow observations be prioritized. When studying his work under the leadership of Debbie McFalone, I revamped our school’s observation protocols and began scheduling feedback meetings first. Teachers knew that I would be coming in to observe them sometime in the 24-48 hours before our feedback meetings, and they could trust that they would get prompt feedback because the meeting was already scheduled. As a principal, seeing teachers and students in action is important but it means nothing to that individual teacher without feedback, and one-way feedback is not nearly as effective as two-way feedback in person.
- Tell the teacher the good stuff, ask about the bad stuff
One of the best pieces of advice new principals can get is from George Couros, and it is to find out a strength of every teacher before making any changes. Veteran principals, can you name a strength of each one of your teachers? Do your teachers know that you see this strength in him/her? And, are you looking for new emerging strengths every time you observe them? The feedback meeting provides a wonderful opportunity to highlight all the big and little strengths you observe. Be as specific as possible and focus on the impact the strength has on students.
We know that teachers are incredibly hard on themselves and the majority of teachers are very reflective. When principals observe teachers in action, we want to identify next steps for the teacher so we can help propel them to the next level. Whether we observe something we are concerned about or an idea we have for growth, it is best to first ask a question about the topic to give the teacher an opportunity to share his/her thinking. Often, the teacher has already identified the concern or the area for growth and that can serve as a launching pad to help the teacher make an action plan. What could have been perceived as criticism and crushed the teacher is now a team effort to help the teacher grow.
- No “dog and pony show”
There are SO many reasons we want to avoid having teacher observation feel like a “dog and pony show”. First of all, it does not give evaluators an accurate picture of the day-to-day learning in the classroom. Second, it places unnecessary stress on a teacher as he/she plans to deliver the show. We want teachers’ focus to remain on students and their learning, not on principals coming into observe. A simple way to accomplish this is to have most observations be drop-ins. When structuring observations this way it does take deliberate effort for principals to make sure they observe at different times and different subjects throughout the year in order to get a complete picture.
In addition to drop-ins, I like to offer teachers an opportunity to ask me to come in and observe a particular lesson. This happens periodically throughout the year, but when a teacher is asking me to come in for a lesson they are excited about, I know that it is because of the student learning and engagement that will be happening.
- Do not make the evaluation process “extra” work
I cringe when a teacher from another district tells me that they were up late at night completing their pre-observation forms. First of all, our teachers need rest. Second of all, if they are spending their precious evenings working on something, it better be something that will make a major difference for students. Maybe your pre-observation protocols for teachers check that box, but none that I have ever seen do.
Teachers work hard both inside the classroom and outside the classroom. We need to be looking at what we can remove from their plates rather than adding things to their plates. Planning and reflecting are crucial to professional development, but focusing those efforts on teacher collective efficacy rather than mindlessly filling out observation system forms would be a much better use of teacher time.
- End with summing up main points
If you read ten emails singing your praises and one that has a stinging criticism, which do you remember? Teachers are the same way.
Can we toast the sandwich method? (See what I did there?!?) For those of you unfamiliar with the sandwich method, it is when we “sandwich” a criticism between two compliments. First, the recipient of this baloney sandwich only remembers the criticism. Second, regular users of the sandwich method will find their listeners always waiting for the other shoe to drop and won’t even hear the compliment–even when it isn’t followed by criticism. Third, the sandwich method makes the evaluator feel better but doesn’t make the teacher feel any better.
Instead, have an honest conversation where you highlight strengths, ask questions to promote growth, and help the teacher make a plan for next steps. Then, before you end the meeting, ask the teacher to sum up the main points of the conversation. It can go something like this:
Principal: Wow! That was a great conversation. I am so proud of where you are and where you are going. We said a lot, so let’s wrap up with a summary. What are the main points you are taking away from our conversation?
Teacher: <shares areas for growth and action plan but omits strengths discussed>
Principal: Yes! I am excited about your plan and ready to help you. However, you left out some important points we talked about. What are the strengths we discussed?
Teacher: <blushing> Oh yeah, I forgot to mention those. Well…
One of the most important parts of the feedback conversation is the summary at the end, especially when there are some pretty significant areas for growth. After a summary like this, the teacher will leave with clear direction and feeling empowered about his/her strengths. Please note that it is very important that the teacher doing the summing up because the person who is talking is the person who is thinking.
If principals can use teacher evaluation to build relationships with teachers while helping them see strengths and plan for continuous improvement, we have an opportunity to make teacher evaluation a teacher empowerment tool rather than something to be feared. What ideas do you have to empower teachers through evaluation? Leave your ideas in the comments or tweet them out using #SerendipityEDU. We are better together!
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
– John Quincy Adams