It’s Time to Rethink Formal Teacher Evaluations

When it comes to our current observation processes, is anyone winning?

On November 29, 2019, a teacher from Ontario posted a heartfelt, transparent update about his experience with a formal observation, something he calls a teacher performance appraisal (2:50). It’s worth a watch.

What strikes me most about his story is the sheer relief he expresses. It’s visceral. The observations are over, the report has been written, and he was given a stamp of professional approval.

There’s some pride and satisfaction there, for sure. But what I sense most strongly is the relief. He celebrates the fact that he won’t have to endure this process again for another four years.

Sadly, most educators can relate to that feeling.

Similar processes of formal teacher evaluation have been in place in most North American school districts for decades. They usually involve administrators sitting in classrooms for a series of classes in order to observe the teacher’s every move: their instruction, their feedback, their classroom management, the ways they interact with students, and much more.

Checklists and clipboards are present, and long reports follow.

And despite vigorous efforts to spin it otherwise, formal observations of this nature feel like a giant magnifying glass has been focused squarely on the teacher. It’s gotcha at its worst, and most teachers dislike the whole ordeal immensely.

It brings out all the insecurities and imposter syndrome like few other experiences in education. And it creates a lot of sleepless nights.

Yes, the teacher receives written feedback on their performance in the form of formal reports once the observations are said and done.

But aren’t there better ways to support teacher growth?

The instructional coaching model packs powerful potential

Enter the instructional coaching model, which has been making incremental gains in schools across North America over the last decade. More and more districts are recognizing the fact that instructional coaching is far and away the most effective tool for professional development.

Conferences are great. Workshops can be transformative. Books, podcasts, online courses, and YouTube content can all be inspiring and helpful.

But nothing can touch the power of another education professional in a teacher’s classroom who shows up, encourages, asks questions, and offers constructive feedback day after day for a planned series or season of classes.

Image Source: https://readingraphics.com/book-summary-the-coaching-habit/

And the very best part for many teachers: an instructional coach is usually not a part of the school’s administrative team. Their records and observations aren’t included in professional evaluations and files, and they don’t report their experiences to the principal or board.

This is a game-changer. With time — and as trust accumulates — the teacher starts to see the instructional coach as an ally, a professional friend, and someone who is safe. The coach is in the room to help, back up, promote strengths, ask thoughtful questions, and even join in the instruction.

That’s all wins and no losses. It’s the professional learning dream.

The challenge schools face without instructional coaches

Unfortunately, the reality for many schools and districts is that no such person exists on staff. Perhaps the school isn’t large enough to support the added salary, or the district hasn’t made it a priority.

Whatever the story, an instructional coach isn’t always available. Which brings us back to administrators and their formidable formal assessments, or as the teacher from Ontario calls them, teacher performance appraisals.

Man, that just sounds terrifying.

More formative, less summative = more teacher growth

It’s been well-established that students don’t learn a lot from summative assessments, especially those which allow no opportunity for review, revision, or reflection. Perhaps the worst offender in this category is the standardized test, which is typically administered as an isolated event and offers little connection with learning that came before it.

It’s a snapshot, and it gives the evaluator some information. But left by itself, it doesn’t move student learning forward a single inch.

On the other hand, we know that students learn a whole lot from ongoing, conversational feedback. Like learning to ride a bike or play basketball with the help of a coach, it’s real-time feedback for real-time learning. Growth can be instantaneous and sustained.

As Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy write in Embedding Formative Assessment, “The biggest impact happens with ‘short-cycle’ formative assessment, which takes place not every six to ten weeks but every six to ten minutes, or even every six to ten seconds.”

No, principals and vice-principals don’t typically have the time to sit beside teachers with the kind of sustained frequency that full-time instructional coaches can. And the fact that principals are involved in the hiring and firing of teachers works against the kind of safety and trust that can be found in a coach.

Image Source: Edtechteam.com

But there’s still plenty of opportunity for administrators to move away from an evaluative mindset and into one of coaching:

Fewer checkboxes, more encouragement.

Fewer reports, more learning conversations.

Less written analysis, more curious questions.

Less critique of weaknesses, more identification of strengths.

Less catching the teacher in non-compliance, more celebrations of growth.

It’s a paradigm shift.

Can formal evaluations be scrapped altogether?

As I close, we have to acknowledge an uncomfortable fact: as things stand in K-12 today, formal evaluation processes are difficult to eliminate completely.

Formal observation reports can actually be quite valuable for teachers when they decide to apply to other schools and districts. Few things say “This teacher is a an exceptional educator and competent professional” with more authority than the kind of in-depth analysis and commentary that these reports provide.

By the same token, formal documentation is quite important when principals are faced with the unpleasant task of dismissing incompetent teachers. Teacher dismissal can be a formidable task at the best of times — so onerous that most public school teachers across North America are basically un-fireable short of egregious professional misconduct. But if and when dismissal or remediation is required, proper documentation is an essential part of the conversation.

That’s not to say that formal evaluations must stay.

Would teachers experience vastly better professional growth if all the time and energy spent on formal evaluation processes was spent on coaching in classrooms instead?

Yes.

Would staff wellness, culture, and climate in most learning communities improve?

Yes. (For principals, too — formal evaluation reports eat up huge amounts of time and energy.)

Can formal observations and evaluations be scrapped completely?

I’m not sure.

But let’s keep moving in a coaching direction.


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School Leaders Reflect on Wins and Challenges from 2020

In this edition of the Roundtable, host Tim Cavey connects with six inspiring education leaders to discuss the wins and challenges of 2020. After this historic year, what can we dare to hope and dream for 2021?

Questions That Guided Our Discussion

  • 1:02 – Who are you and what does your learning community look like right now? Tell us about your context.
  • 10:27 – As you look back on the last 4-5 months of learning, what is one specific win from your community that you can celebrate?
  • 24:05 – What is one pain point that you are still wrestling with? What is one question you are seeking answers to?
  • 39:52 – What is a goal or dream that you have for your learning community in 2021?
  • 45:55 – Whose voice is inspiring you right now? Share about one author or education leader that you are grateful for.
  • 53:46 – How can we connect with you and join you on your learning journey?

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Episode 45 – Jarrod Dumas



45 - Jarrod Dumas.png

JARROD DUMAS is an assistant principal at Oak Hill Middle School in Sabattus, Maine. He recently published Unlocking Excellence: A Guide to Becoming an Extraordinary Educator.

In our conversation, Jarrod recalls a great story about how his own sarcasm once cost him in the classroom. He shares about the heart and message of his book, and discusses the sources of his excitement in education today. We also get into Carl Jung’s archetypes, fitness, educators to follow on Twitter, Sherlock Holmes, and more! See below for more details and timestamps from our conversation.

Follow Jarrod online here:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:55 – Jarrod describes his current position and responsibilities as Assistant Principal at Oak Hill Middle School in Sabattus, ME.
  • 2:26 – “Well, if you would get off your ass and teach us something … I wouldn’t be playing these games now, would I?” Jarrod recalls a time that sarcasm cost him in the classroom and explains how being authentic with students can build relationships and buy credibility.
  • 8:13 – We talk about the heart and message for educators in Unlocking Excellence: A Guide to Becoming an Extraordinary Educator. In the book, Jarrod shares practical advice and relevant examples that help educators improve their mindset and become the best that they can be.
  • 12:01 – There’s a lot that excites Jarrod about education today: the opportunity to shift the paradigm in education, the promise of technology and the ability to bring the outside world into the classroom, and more. There’s nothing we can’t sort out if every part of the learning community contributes and pulls together, he says.
  • 13:39 – An area of personal learning that has been fascinating Jarrod outside of education lately is Carl Jung’s work on archetypes, which can give us a fresh lens through which to view and understand ourselves and our potential.
  • 17:07 – A personal habit that contributes to his success is fitness: exercising regularly, eating right, walking, and practicing self-care. As educators, we need to remember to put on the oxygen mask first.
  • 19:37 – On Twitter, Jarrod points us toward @TeacherofSci1, who offers great content on Instagram and has a large following on other platforms but is relatively new to Twitter.
  • 20:43 – Looking to classroom practice, Jarrod recommends any edtech tools that increase student engagement. In particular, he mentions Socrative and Kahoot. Get to know those two platforms on Twitter @Socrative and @GetKahoot.
  • 20:43 – Jarrod gives us two great book recommendations. The first is King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. The second is Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Vol. 1 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • 23:26 – If you’re looking for some hard-hitting motivation for your creative and entrepreneurial dreams, look no further than The Gary Vee Audio Experience by @GaryVee.
  • 24:36 – A YouTube channel that never fails to deliver motivation in the mornings for Jarrod is Motivation Guru. He recommends subscribing!
  • 25:30 – When he’s got no energy for anything productive, Jarrod is watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix.
  • 26:23 – We sign off on the conversation and Jarrod shares the best ways and places to follow him online! See above for details and links.

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Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

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