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Do Your Evaluations Improve Teachers' Practice?

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It is evaluation season; a time to reflect on practice and performance for teachers, principals, and superintendents. But is that what is happening? A recent phone call from a respected colleague placed us in a frame of mind that warranted our reflection and brought us to write this piece.  The conversation began, "I'm feeling good.  I've got all my walk-through's done and am on schedule to finish all my evaluations on time." 

On the surface, that is a very good thing.  When we are on time and up to date with our to-do lists, most of us feel satisfaction. Managing the work of an educational leader and meeting deadlines is harder than folks outside education can imagine. Between urgent student issues, concerned parents arriving without scheduled appointments, phone calls to be answered and returned, a bus problem, a substitute teacher that didn't arrive, board meetings, the list goes on...being able to schedule observations, reflect on them, write them up, meet with the teacher, and contribute the observation to the evaluation is a deeply thoughtful and time consuming process.  So, getting it done on time is a relief worth sharing.

Evaluation. It sounds final. And unless we do something differently, it will remain so. How a teacher performed in a classroom observation and how they performed for the year, now, in many places is determined by a comprehensively detailed rubric.  Evidence is required to support the observers' appraisal. Evidence contributes to the opportunity to specifically point out to what standard the teacher performed and how they know it is so. 

Question The Use Of Evaluation
Through this manner of evaluation, making it a summative judgment rather than a marker on the path toward success, is likely to produce  unhappiness. Once again, we think about local control. This can become an opportunity for change rather than a sad state of affairs. Question the use of evaluation, its meaning and its purpose.  The conversations are necessary with the entire community not just teachers and principals because a rethinking of the emphasis on teacher evaluation can and should influence how students experience the evaluation process also.  All may not be able to reach the zenith, but all are able to learn and do more and do well; students and teachers alike. 

Improved practice and achievement involves feedback, motivation, coaching, support and belief in the impact principals can have on teachers and teachers on their students.  It involves questioning the manner in which evaluations, all of them, are accomplished. If we want teachers to develop students, modeling it in the assessment of teachers by principals, and of principals by superintendents is key.  When principals, teachers, and students are being coached, supported, encouraged, and motivated rather than graded and labeled, the path toward success for all is cleared.

The challenge comes from the way most have been socialized and their experiences in schools themselves.  Assessment and evaluation have traditionally been a "final grade."  One issue for both teachers and principals is whether or not they are good at identifying the behavior that could be changed and teaching a new behavior that will accelerate understanding and learning. The same change that could inform the teacher evaluation process can inform the evaluation of students.  We want success for teachers and their students. What can make the difference? 

Begin With The Data
One of the successful methods teachers use when analyzing student work is looking for trends in errors and strengths.  Data driven decisions are made when teachers find these trends and use that information to inform how they will reteach concepts...and teach forward.  The data gathered is based upon actual learning behaviors and mistakes and right decisions made by their students.  Why not use this method in the observation and evaluation of teachers? 

Make Improving Teaching Practice a Building Wide Responsibility
This is an opportunity to develop an environment in which learning becomes a shared experience, rather than the principal making suggestions to a teacher. In the high school, it is not unusual that the principal cannot make suggestions about how to better engage students in learning a physics concept, foreign language grammar lesson,  a coding method, or a political ideology. We assume if a teacher can do something better and doesn't, it is because he or she does not know how.  That leaves two people in the room who know little about how to improve. But if the environment is created where open talking, risk taking and sharing of successful practices, in which the trends identified in the building wide observations and evaluations done can be shared within the faculty, even the principal can learn more about the teaching and learning that can result in improved student achievement. So even if "all the walkthroughs are done and you are on track to finish all evaluations on time", there is still time to make it an important process, and not just a nerve-wracking final evaluation for the year. 

Help teachers feel safe to speak their minds. Analyze the results from all observations and evaluations to help identify strengths and weaknesses that exist among the school's faculty. Develop faculty meetings to become places for discussions about teaching practices that are shared and modeled. Develop your Professional Learning Community* with next year's focus on professional development, directed by the data collected, and accesses the strengths that already exist in the building. In this way, the building will work together to grow and learn what they can from each other.  Identify and prioritize what is to be learned and decide from where specialized trainers are needed. Being done with observations and closing in on finishing evaluations can be the beginning. Make next year a coming together, finding talent and sharing it, and allow the observation and evaluation process to promote learning and improving as an organization.

*The Annenberg Institute describes a professional learning community as having: the potential to enhance the professional culture within a school district in four key areas; they can:

  • build the productive relationships that are required to collaborate, partner, reflect, and act to carry out a school-improvement program;
  • engage educators at all levels in collective, consistent, and context-specific learning;
  • address inequities in teaching and learning opportunities by supporting teachers who work with students requiring the most assistance; and
  • promote efforts to improve results in terms of school and system culture, teacher practice, and student learning. 

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

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