Evaluating teachers is part of the regular rhythm of the school year, but it can also be a valuable moment for administrators to improve instruction and learning, writes Denisa R. Superville in “8 Ways to Make Teacher Evaluations Meaningful and Low-Stress” in EdWeek.
Don’t rely only on the observation. “Before you even set foot into the classroom for a planned observation, sit down with the teacher to discuss the upcoming lesson that you'll observe and what you should expect,” Superville says. Are there specific goals the teacher hopes to accomplish? Is there anything in particular that he or she wants your feedback about? Learn about an educator’s expectations and objectives before you conduct an observation.
Visit classrooms frequently—not only when you do a formal evaluation. “Principals can spot strengths and weaknesses in instructional methods and classroom management, and provide the teacher early opportunities to make adjustments,” she writes. Short and early visits with low-stakes feedback loops can also tamp down anxiety for teachers when it is time for formal evaluation.
South Carolina economics and international relations teacher Keith Brayman says frequent visits and informal chats with his administrators makes the formal assessment “low-stress.” An Education Week Research Center survey looked at the difference in perceptions about feedback between teachers and administrators: 38 percent of principals said informal feedback should be given weekly, while 56 percent of teachers suggested that a “few times a year” was preferable. Principals should be cognizant of that gap. Too much feedback can make teachers feel defensive, or simply make it hard for them to apply feedback in a productive and meaningful way.
Don’t get caught up in the “compliance mindset.” While formal evaluations may be a mandatory part of an annual review, try to stay creative and flexible. Consider approaches and observational strategies that fall outside of the mandated requirements, and use the data you collect in observations to create an actionable plan, advises Robyn Jackson, a former administrator who coaches principals.
Widen the lens so your focus isn’t exclusively on the teacher’s actions. Short, informal visits can yield lots of information about the total classroom environment. Principal Keishia Handy of Cole Elementary School in San Bernardino, CA, pays attention to how the students pose questions—are they asking questions that demonstrate a deep grasp of the content—and what resources students ask for to get a better understanding of her teachers’ strengths and shortcomings. “I'm also looking to see if [students are] using one another for resources, rather than having kids raise their hands and asking the teacher for help," Handy says.
Give an immediate assessment when possible. Provide your feedback to educators “as soon as possible so they can start acting on shortcomings that you picked up—or find out what they did right,” Superville writes. 2019 NASSP National Principal of the Year Lucas Clamp sends notes within 24 hours of a classroom visit and outlines what he calls “notices and wonders” to make the feedback feel more supportive: "A notice is a kind of praise—an indication that he saw something going well. A wonder indicates he has a few questions. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but that he may need additional information.”
Focus on one actionable item. According to Jackson, the former principal, "evaluators often give teachers, especially struggling ones, a laundry list of things to work on and expect them to figure it out on their own.” Instead, she says, evaluators should find the root cause of a challenge by asking, "If the teacher eliminated 'x' and nothing else, would the classroom and instruction significantly improve?" Identifying one actionable item instead of a list of areas that need improvement helps a teacher prioritize next steps.
Encourage teacher input. Before an evaluation is finalized, ask for a teacher’s feedback on how they thought the class unfolded. Incorporate their perspective into a formal assessment where possible. In Delaware, teachers can write a self-evaluation after receiving their principal’s assessment but before they meet to discuss. The self-reflection gives teachers an opportunity to process the feedback of the principal while providing their own assessment of the observation.
Create opportunities for growth. "In the classrooms, we expect teachers to differentiate based on student needs," Jackson says. "We don't do the same for teachers." Go beyond giving feedback to provide coaching on how a teacher might improve in the classroom, Superville writes. Conduct a debrief conversation that includes specific strategies the teacher can practice so that she leaves the room with an actionable plan.