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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Study Shows Principals Don’t Get Evaluated Enough

By Nathaniel Greene — April 15, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Nathaniel Greene, a New Hampshire based writer, educator, and researcher in the field of educational leadership and policy.

As a doctoral candidate at Southern New Hampshire University, I recently conducted a year-long study of public school principals in the northeastern region of the United States. While my research focused primarily on the connection between loneliness and perceived social support, the study generated a wealth of data.

This data has begun to provide some interesting insights into the current culture of school leadership, and, in particular, suggests that many principals may be suffering from a lack of performance feedback.

For example, in response to the statement my superintendent provides feedback on my performance, nearly one quarter (23%) of the 395 principals surveyed responded with rarely or never.

Similarly, when confronted by the statement the teachers under my supervision give me useful feedback on my performance, one third of the principals (33%) who were surveyed also responded rarely or never.

This data suggests that there is a distinct lack of performance feedback for many school principals. This finding is worth addressing, especially in light of concerns over low administrator retention rates.

School organizations need to have structures in place that provide high-quality performance feedback for principals. As educational professionals, we recognize the importance of critical feedback, reflection, and analysis as necessary factors in the improvement of professional practice. But time and resource constraints on the role of the principal can sometimes result in formal feedback measures taking a back seat to other organizational concerns.

While the responsibility for providing formal feedback generally lies with state and/or district mandated principal evaluation systems, there may be steps that school principals can take, on their own, in order to increase more informal forms of performance feedback. In an era of widespread reform, where organizational managers have given way to dynamic instructional leaders, it is important for principals to develop informal methods for gathering and analyzing feedback about their professional performance.

Seek Teacher Feedback
Over 30 years ago, Leon Hymovitz recognized the need for principals to actively seek out and analyze performance feedback from their teachers. In his article, Releasing Performance Appraisal Feedback for the School Principal, he suggested that principals approach a variety of situations specifically with an eye towards generating feedback about their performance. The suggestions Hymovitz gives are just as valid for today’s administrators, and provide a starting point for principals looking to gather feedback in an effort to improve their own practice. They are:

  • The formation of advisory committees. An advisory committee that includes staff members, faculty, students, parents, and community members can provide a useful function for reviewing policy decisions, debating mission and vision, and setting school goals. Under the direction of the principal, a committee such as this could provide feedback to the principal regarding the effectiveness of leadership decisions from the perspectives of the various stakeholders involved.
  • Individual conferences with teachers. Although it can be difficult at times to speak honestly and openly with teachers given the supervisory and evaluative role of the principal, individual conferences with teachers can be a positive means of self-evaluation and for gathering personal performance feedback. It is important that individual conferences with teachers be structured to encourage an open dialogue in an environment of high trust and mutual respect. And developing a thick skin is necessary, since asking for open communication will likely generate critical, and sometimes negative, feedback.
  • Informal conversations with teachers and staff. Whether in the hallway, or the cafeteria, or out on the playground, striking up informal conversations with faculty and staff members can provide meaningful and sometimes unexpected feedback. As Russ Quaglia, the author of The Teacher Voice Report, likes to say, an open door policy doesn’t mean you wait for someone to walk through your door.
  • Courtesy calls. Visiting students and teachers in their classrooms can result in meaningful conversations. The principal who makes themselves visible in the classroom is more likely to gather feedback from students and teachers on a more frequent basis.
  • Faculty meetings. Faculty meetings can be havens for open dialogue and discussion or they can be pulpits from which principals hand down decisions. If the intention is simply to transmit information, it can be done through email. Use faculty meetings for generating real discussion and exercise your leadership role as the facilitator of positive change. And don’t miss the opportunity to elicit open and honest feedback.
  • Open ended questionnaires and surveys. Gathering targeted feedback, for example feedback about a given policy decision, leadership trait, or administrative action, utilize data-collection tools such as open-ended questionnaires or surveys. These can be anonymous and provide teachers and staff with the ability to speak out about specific items.

Hymovitz noted the clear importance of feedback and concluded that “staff opinion and reaction stimulate motivation for improvement, increase communication, and contribute to a wholesome climate.” Gathering performance feedback from teachers is an important tool for principals to develop. Many of the strategies presented here reflect the strategies of a principal who makes himself open and visible to the school community. However, just being visible or available is not enough. As principals, we must approach all professional interactions as opportunities to learn about ourselves and the impact we have on the organizations that we lead.

Without constructive criticism and regular formal and informal performance feedback, it can be difficult for a principal to understand the full impact of their decisions. The successful principal is the one who develops open communication with all stakeholders and has the humility to listen and learn from the feedback they receive. As principals, we must continue to find new ways to engage teachers, students, and parents in an effort not just to raise their performance, but also with the goal of raising our own.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.