School leaders face many difficult choices in how to approach teacher evaluations with their staff in a way that is empowering and uplifting and gets to the goal of improving instruction.
If an administrator rarely visits a classroom, the process can seem inauthentic to the teacher. And the many hours that can go into writing an evaluation report can feel pointless when very little is tied to it, such as a bonus, raise, or promotion. Finally, there are often so many components of instruction that need to be considered in an evaluation report that the process can be overwhelming for even the most evaluation-enthusiastic site leaders.
Working With Focal Standards
Fortunately, there are ways for site leaders to collaborate with teacher leaders or members of an instructional leadership team to make the process one that is not only more manageable and empowering for all but also more impactful. My school has had success with selecting focal teaching standards each year.
Prior to the start of the school year, our administrative team at Presidio Middle School will invite teachers to engage in a process of reviewing the state teaching standards and then combing through them to select a few focal or priority standards that make the most sense for our school-wide efforts. In California, the teaching standards are broken into six categories, so we select one from each category.
As an instructional evaluator and site leader, I always have one or two standards that are nonnegotiable for me, but I make it very clear what these are and why I’ve selected them. Then the teachers discuss what they know about student needs at our site, what our school-wide data is telling us, and the various professional development efforts we have undertaken already that could inform what standards make the most sense to prioritize as a team.
Once the focal standards are selected, I make sure they appear in everything from our written list of the principal’s expectations to the evaluation notification materials I hand out at the start of the school year. I have the teachers who selected the standards share them with their colleagues at a staff meeting and explain the rationale behind them.
I also make sure everyone knows that having focal standards doesn’t mean we ignore the rest. Instead, they are a way of making our instructional improvement efforts much more manageable, focused, and beneficial to all.
Focal standards aren’t meant to be limiting, either—each teacher is different, and if there are other standards a teacher wishes to focus on for their evaluation cycle, we can always select those instead.
Having focal standards has put our school on a path to completely sync up all staff meetings, professional development (PD), pre-observation conferences, and evaluation debrief efforts.
Demonstrating Focal Standards With Videos
I’m able to work with my instructional leadership team to secure materials and plan training for staff based on the focal standards. One of my favorite resources to use for this is short video clips from Teaching Channel, which has hundreds of videos of teachers from around the country exemplifying outstanding practices that hit these standards. When I have a pre-observation meeting with a teacher, I’m able to reference these videos—or a training I know the teacher has been part of—and make key learnings from these efforts a transparent expectation for the observation.
The written feedback that I offer in an evaluation will often reference these same videos and trainings. I can even embed the video links in the report. And with clear and transparent focal standards, I’m better positioned to see patterns in the instructional feedback I’m giving and differentiate my PD offerings to staff. For staff exhibiting similar areas of growth, I can use a lot of the same feedback in my reports. And I’m no longer limited to having an instructional coach or even me model some of these expectations to staff myself—I have videos of outstanding teachers ready to go.
Benefits of Focal Standards for Administrators
With focal standards that are transparent to all staff, and that are explicitly honed during PD, the conversation around teaching standards is no longer limited to one-on-ones in my office or to the teachers who are up for an evaluation in a given year. Everyone benefits.
Having focal standards also means that patterns emerge in the feedback I offer different teachers, which reduces the time it takes me to write the feedback or secure the necessary support resources.
Finally, through the strategic selection of outstanding model videos and the ability to embed them into my staff meetings and evaluation reports, I’m able to offer more of the kind of supportive, affirmative assistance that helps teachers in their improvement efforts. And by cutting the time I spend at my laptop typing up reports, I’m now free to be much more present and available in classrooms, partnering with teachers, giving more of the frequent and impactful informal feedback that should be defining my instructional leadership.