My previous post explored making summative evaluations less stressful for teachers. Now we move to the other side of the table, starting with a cautionary (and unfortunately true) tale.
The Administrator's Nightmare
"Uh, well, you had a good first year, right?" I asked awkwardly.
"It was OK." I could tell that the teacher wasn't excited about this meeting.
"Let's get started. I'd like to talk about your summative evaluation. When I visited your classroom for the last observation, you had a plan, but the students didn't seem to be responding. What do you think the problem was?"
The teacher was immediately defensive. "Well, I followed my plan. What am I supposed to do if the students don’t follow?"
I replied, "I noticed that you made some effort to control the extra talking, such as proximity and redirection. What else could you have done?"
The teacher responded with sarcasm. "I suppose I could have started shouting and writing referrals."
No, this wasn't going well, but I plunged ahead anyway. "Yes. Well, anything else come to mind?"
"No, why don't you tell me what you would have done?" the teacher challenged.
As delicately as possible, I asked, "Have you tried anticipating their behavior and building learning activities targeted to reduce the behavior into the lesson?"
The teacher folded his arms. "Duh! I tried everything!" he stated. "You saw them. They are incorrigible and rude. The counselors put all of the bad kids in my class."
Not willing to concur, I pressed on. "If you recall, I visited several of your classes, and I saw the same behaviors. Have you considered altering your approach to discipline?"
The teacher bristled. "Are you saying that I’m not a good teacher in any class?" he demanded.
Taken aback, I responded, "Well. . . I believe there is room for improvement."
"That’s just great!" Now he was shouting. "I slave all year trying to get these students to learn French and you, who don't even speak French, are telling me that I'm a lousy teacher."
I remained calm but replied firmly, "That's not what I said, and every teacher can improve. You're a first-year teacher and it is normal to struggle with discipline in the beginning." From his scowl and defensive body language, I could tell the soft approach wasn't working, so I just dropped the bomb. "Because you haven't made significant gains, I will be placing you on an improvement plan."
"A remediation plan? Are you kidding me?" the teacher fumed. Then he deflated and muttered, "Fine. I don't care. Where do I sign so I can get out of here?"
The Benefit of Observation and Evaluation
This was one of my first teacher evaluations, and clearly it didn't go very well. I can easily look back now and see how my blunders caused the situation to get worse. I feel that teacher evaluations shouldn't be an agonizing experience for either the administrator or the teacher. Done correctly, these sessions can strengthen their working relationship, and perhaps most importantly, lower the natural barrier between evaluator and evaluatee so that both administrator and teacher can work in tandem for the same goal of improved student learning.
In order for this to happen, administrators should keep in mind the real purpose for teacher observations and evaluations. The number one way to improve student learning is to improve teaching quality. The number one way to improve teaching quality is to frequently visit the classrooms and provide productive feedback. My first mistake in that evaluation was that, because I'd known from the start of the year that the teacher struggled with discipline, I could have implemented a formal improvement plan much earlier. The summative evaluation is not the place to bring up teacher faults that haven't been discussed all year.
Visiting the classroom often and providing feedback also sends the teacher a message that you're interested in helping him or her improve. It puts you both on the same side of the fence. But even if you've done multiple visits and worked with the teacher on setting and meeting improvement goals, the summative evaluation conversation can still be dicey. You have to prepare for this meeting as much as you can. For the formal evaluation conversation, it's important that the teacher come to your office as a change of scenery. Make sure that you let him or her know how long it will take, and let your secretary know in advance that you don't want to be disturbed. Have two copies of the evaluation ready. Finally, think of some positive highlights that you want the teacher to know that you've noticed, and choose one thing that you think he or she needs to improve the most. With that, you're almost ready for the summative meeting.
The Power of Open-Ended Questions
At this summative meeting, some administrators try to be as emotionless as possible and avoid conversation. They simply read their prepared evaluation and ask the teacher to sign it. While it satisfies the requirements, I believe that it does little to help improve the teacher, and that it further enlarges the barrier between teacher and administrator. I've found that the best summative evaluation flows from open-ended questions:
- On a scale of 1-10, how do you think you did this year?
- What was the greatest success that you had?
- What made it so successful?
- How will you improve on this next year?
- What do you think your greatest challenge was?
- What caused it to be so difficult?
- What successes did you have in overcoming this challenge?
- How will you prepare to minimize this challenge next year?
- What other goals do you have for improving your teaching quality?
Interestingly enough, nearly every time that I ask these kinds of questions, the teacher points out the one thing that I was concerned about, and I can simply respond with excerpts from the evaluation notes that corroborate our mutual understanding. One of the mistakes that I made in my first evaluation conversation was that I asked yes or no questions which by default presume the negative: "Have you tried anticipating their behavior and building learning activities targeted to reduce the behavior into the lesson?" That sounds as if I believe that they haven't tried, or I wouldn't have asked the question. A great coaching technique is presuming positive intent and asking, "What successes did you experience when you anticipated this behavior in your lesson plans?" If they didn't anticipate anything, then they feel encouraged that you think they did. If they anticipated behaviors, then you've just reinforced this positive behavior.
Improving the Experience
Most teachers appreciate the coaching approach and leave the evaluation pleased with what was said and feeling that they've accomplished something good. Unfortunately, there were a few teachers who must have had one too many bad experiences with evaluation conversations and basically told me to read out their evaluation, let them sign it, and avoid engaging in any meaningful conversation. If they're good teachers, that's OK. Nothing you do will change their attitude. If not and if you haven't started documenting, then it's probably time.
Admit it, administrators. Teacher evaluation time is one of the hardest things in your administrative life. You hold someone else's career in your hands -- as well as your own. My first evaluation wasn't successful for me or for that teacher. Much later, I heard from him. While he was still bitter about that evaluation, I was relieved to know that he didn't give up on teaching and finally got a handle on discipline. Still, I can't help but think that if I'd been a better communicator, his career might have been that much better. With the coaching perspective and little preparation, summative evaluation time can be a low-stress and rewarding conversation for both teacher and administrator.
I would love to hear your successes regarding low-stress summative evaluations.