Principals' Corner

A Broken Teacher Evaluation System

About this time last year, I comforted a co-worker after her first post-observation “conversation.” The principal had berated her without allowing my co-worker to defend her lesson plan. Just a few weeks earlier, I had been the target of a post-observation meeting. The principal claimed that my lesson plan was ineffective and not “best practices,” even after I showed research and NCTE’s support of my activities. My co-worker said, “I don’t know what to change. [The principal] is upset with me, but I don’t know how to fix it.” Non-tenured teachers lived in fear throughout the year. During my final observation window (principal could pop in anytime during a two week period), I was a wreck. For three years, everything I did was not good enough, and even when I asked for my department chair to guide me for my evaluation she couldn’t figure out what the principal wanted.
Meanwhile, central office administrators asked me to write curriculum and plan professional development days. Why does the evaluation system allow these mixed reviews? Now, a year later, I am the one writing evaluations for my building’s staff. While I work on these evaluations, I hoped that I would gain insights to my previous principal’s practices, but instead, I find myself more frustrated than ever as I accept the truth: that evaluation system was not designed to benefit the teacher.
The evaluation system was not designed to benefit the teacher Click To Tweet
Problem 1: High Stakes Observations. My last school’s evaluation was primarily based on two observations: one scheduled, one unscheduled (typically given a 2-week window). Additionally, the policy allowed the principal to formally observe at any time. Quickly, the staff realized that the principal used observations as a form of punishment. If she walked by your classroom and saw something “curious,” instead of asking for context, within a few days, she’d walk in with her laptop in hand and observe your classroom. When I was observed, I’d write a document explaining the context of my lesson and list objectives and essential questions. Every time, my document was ignored. Simply, you can’t judge the quality of a movie based on a five-minute clip. Likewise, you can’t judge the quality of a teacher based on a single lesson.
The policy allowed the principal to formally observe at any time. Click To Tweet
Sometimes we make mistakes- it’s part of the learning process. Some lesson plans aren’t as rigorous as others because we are establishing a foundation for a more difficult skill. Additionally, my administrator never acknowledged that students act differently when a stranger is in the classroom; they believe the observer is watching them. Even my honors students quieted because they didn’t want to “mess up” in front of the principal. As I write my staff’s evaluations, I consider countless moments throughout the semester. Instead of focusing on a single mistake, I consider how they overcame shortcomings and setbacks. I value the progress they have made. Evaluations shouldn’t be limited to classroom observations.
Problem 2: “Must Find Something Wrong” Philosophy. The principal told the department chairs that every time they walk into a classroom for a pop-in (less than five-minute observation), the department chairs need to find something wrong about the lesson. Department chairs who didn’t report errors were scolded. It was a Where’s Waldo game. My current institution believes in focusing on staff members’ strengths. We use our strengths to overcome challenges and struggles. While working with students as they prepared for the ACT, I realized that students showed more progress when I identified the skills that they knew best and then selected a few weak skills to strengthen. They were encouraged by their strengths, and that feeling motivated them to overcome their mistakes.
My current institution believes in focusing on staff members’ strengths. Click To Tweet
When I focused too heavily on their mistakes, they were too discouraged to study. My former principal glossed over teachers’ strengths by highlighting and detailing their “failures.” To what benefit? As I write these evaluations, I am not looking for errors in my staff members’ work. Instead, I am identifying their strengths and further challenging them in those areas. Obviously, if they are not meeting expectations of the job, I am addressing those areas with specific goals, but for the most part, I am confident in my staff’s abilities. After all, they were hired for a reason.
Problem 3: Untrained Evaluators. When the central office discussed changes in the evaluation system in accordance with state law, it was clear that the principal interpreted guidelines differently. For example, the principal told us that engagement was measured by “conversation, movement, and interaction with other classmates.” Several teachers were marked low on the engagement factor because students were completing individual work at the time of their pop-ins and observations. By that logic, state and national tests aren’t engaging, and therefore not effective measures of students’ abilities. This definition was questioned in front of central office administrators, and these administrators explained an expanded definition.
A year later, I hear that the principal continues to rate engagement based on her definition. Furthermore, not all principals know how to read and analyze data. If data is to be used in evaluations, then the evaluator needs to be properly trained. Survey result usage is mandatory for my department’s evaluations, but I understand (after taking a few statistic courses) that there are limitations to the numbers. My director told us not compare staff members’ numbers to each others’ numbers because there are countless variables that affect the data point. These statistics are used to guide feedback; they are not feedback themselves.
Problem 4: Lack of Accountability for Evaluators. When my principal claimed that I ignored “best practices,” I found several resources that supported my classroom practices. I spent hours writing a rebuttal to her observation, arguing that her statement was merely an opinion. In accordance with the policy, I filed the rebuttal. No one read it. Through analyzing board policy, I discovered that teachers in that district could only argue evaluations after the board voted to not offer a contract to a teacher. One person controlled so many lives. So even if a teacher believed that he was being misrepresented in evaluations at the beginning of the year, he couldn’t refute claims until dismissal papers were filed. So, if the principal told a teacher in September, “There’s no way that I will renew your contract,” the teacher was powerless to argue until the principal followed through (this scenario reportedly happened). As a teacher, if a student fails, I have to prepare a document explaining the failure. However, my supervisor had no accountability for the teachers she failed beyond her opinions. She could make unsupported claims, and the teachers couldn’t disprove her until it was too late. How does that benefit our teachers and students?
I spent hours writing a rebuttal to her observation. No one read it. Click To Tweet
At my new institution, if a staff member disagrees with my evaluation, they submit a written rebuttal, which I must respond to within a set period of time. If I do not change my evaluation, the staff member can formally request to meet with my supervisor. It’s the same process for progressive discipline. The reality is administrators are humans who make mistakes. Our evaluation system needs to have an appeal process to protect teachers.
I believe that evaluations should be used as a learning tool. Teachers have enough stress attached to their demanding jobs, so they shouldn’t be walking on eggshells around evaluators. My staff members aren’t afraid to ask questions or to debrief about challenging job situations; they know that I won’t evaluate them on a single moment. They are not stressed about evaluation week because they trust that my goal is to help them become better at their job. I am not here to tear them down regarding one misstep. My institution’s evaluation policy was created with the purpose to enhance staff members. Countless k-12 schools have lost sight of this purpose.
I believe that evaluations should be used as a learning tool. Click To Tweet

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