Special Report
Professional Development

8 Ways to Make Teacher Evaluations Meaningful and Low-Stress

By Denisa R. Superville — October 15, 2019 8 min read

Welcome to Teacher Evaluation 101.

Do not copy and paste the notes from one teacher’s evaluation into another’s. (Yes, this happens.)

Avoid the “kiss, kick, kiss” approach—you know, the one where you tell the teacher something good, proceed to list all the things that went wrong, and then end on a high note. You may also know this as a compliment sandwich.

Do send your observations to teachers as soon as possible so they can start acting on shortcomings that you picked up—or find out what they did right.

And please, please, do not compose a mini-novella of every single thing you observed and expect the teacher to wade through and fix them all.

Instead, give the teacher one—or just a few—high-leverage points they can focus on to make the biggest difference in their teaching.

Now that we’ve gotten those basic do’s and don’ts out of the way, let’s move to the more advanced material. Here are eight concrete ideas from principals and other experts that school leaders can use to make their evaluations and observations of teachers meaningful, actionable, and low-stress.

1. Understand Your Evaluation Tool

Get out of the compliance mindset. Yes, you have to follow your state’s requirements and do these (generally) annual evaluations. Yes, you may feel boxed in by state rules and local contractual obligations. But don’t stop with that, said Robyn Jackson, a former school administrator turned consultant, who now coaches principals on how to get the most out of evaluations.

Take all the data you’ve collected in the evaluation process and use it to devise an action plan that you, as principal, can take to help your teachers move to the next level.

2. Pre-Game With the Teacher

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.

Ask whether there is anything the teacher wants you to pay special attention to while there, said Brad Jacobsen, the principal of Ashland-Greenwood Middle and High School in Nebraska.

3. Visit Classrooms Early and Often

While states may require principals to visit classrooms once or twice a year, principals and their teams should aim higher. Both teachers and experts recommend that principals visit classrooms often—and that they start doing so early in the year.

These visits can be as short as 10 minutes.

Early and frequent visits allow principals to become familiar with the teachers, their teaching methods, and students, and teachers and students also get more comfortable with having the school’s leaders in class.

Principals can spot strengths and weaknesses in instructional methods and classroom management, and provide the teacher early opportunities to make adjustments.

Regular visits can reduce the anxiety of formal evaluations and make them feel less like “gotcha” moments because teachers get the opportunity to work on problem areas. They know what to expect when the team returns for a formal review.

Keith Brayman, an economics and international relations teacher at River Bluff High School in Lexington, S.C., describes the evaluation process as “low-stress.” That’s primarily because the principal and assistant principal visit his classroom every couple of weeks and are open to discussions outside of the classroom.

“Honestly, I don’t even notice when it’s really going on,” said Brayman. “We just go about as business as usual. We know they are going to come in; they’ll let us know a few days in advance, for a formal evaluation.”

Brayman, who also worked at two schools in Florida, said that not every school has the same culture of trust when it comes to evaluations.

“I’ve never had a bad principal in my career,” he said, but still the process in his prior schools was stressful.

“They’d come in with a clipboard, full of papers, and they’d be staring at you the whole time,” he said. “It was very different.”

4. Observe Everything—Not Just the Teacher

In the past, principals tended to have a laser focus trained solely on what the teacher was doing, every single minute of the visit—a by-product of what state evaluation systems asked them to do. But teachers, principals, and experts say that principals should pay attention to the classroom environment—what students are doing, what teachers are asking them to do, and the kinds of questions students are asking.

Keishia Handy, the principal of Cole Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., uses five-minute sessions to pick up many cues about teaching by watching students.

“Are they using the academic language that is aligned to the content within the standards?” said Handy. “Are they asking questions that indicate that they’re actually processing the information, or are they asking surface-level questions because they don’t understand what’s being presented? I’m also looking to see if they’re using one another for resources, rather than having kids raise their hands and asking the teacher for help.”

5. Provide Immediate Feedback

States have various requirements for when principals should return feedback to teachers when conducting formal evaluations. Some online tools make the principal’s notes available immediately. For informal evaluations, some school leaders make it a practice of giving the notes as soon as they leave the classroom–sometimes emailing them before they head out the classroom door.

Timeliness is a key way principals can ensure that teachers get the most from the process, said Lucas Clamp, the principal of River Bluff High School in Lexington, S.C., and the 2019 NASSP National Principal of the Year. After conducting a walk-through, Clamp tries to send his notes to teachers within 24 hours, and he writes them in a way to make the observations a conversation-starter and not an end point, he said.

Clamp sends what he calls “notices and wonders.” 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.

In a visit to a geometry class, Clamp sees students are already paired and working in groups. The students are engaged and working together—which aligns with the school’s goals for student collaboration and leadership. But he also wonders how the pairs were chosen. Is it because they sit together often? Is it based on proficiency—a higher-performing student working with a lower-performing student? Why are two students sitting off to the side and not working in pairs?

All that information is communicated to the teacher shortly after he leaves the classroom.

“We try our best not to make assumptions,” Clamp said.

6. Find a ‘Root Cause’

What’s the one thing a teacher could change immediately to make a positive impact?

Jackson argues that 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.

“Usually when we see struggling teachers, we give them feedback that says classroom management was a mess, planning was a mess, instructional delivery was a mess, assessing student performance was a mess,” she said. “Then we say, ‘I’ll be back in two weeks [and] that all needs to be fixed.’ That’s impossible, especially for someone who is struggling.”

What principals should do is look for that one thing—a root cause—that teachers should focus on, before moving to the other issues, she said.

Principals get to the root cause by a process of elimination, Jackson said. They can go through the list of the things they saw and constantly ask, “If the teacher eliminated ‘x’ and nothing else, would the classroom and instruction significantly improve?”

By focusing on one thing and working with the teacher to improve it, he or she would be able to see the changes and that would build momentum for other big things to tackle. That makes the needed improvements more manageable and helps hold the teacher accountable, Jackson said.

7. Give Teachers a Voice

Teachers need to feel that feedback is an ongoing, two-way conversation. Principals should be frank and honest, but they also shouldn’t come in with an accounting of everything the teacher got wrong. Teachers should have the opportunity to reflect on the lesson and be able to provide context and information that the principal might not have seen. That could include preparation in the previous class or what happened after the principal left the room.

While it’s not a requirement, the Delaware system encourages principals to allow teachers to write a self-assessment after they receive the principal’s evaluations, but before they sit down for the post-evaluation conference. Teachers can prepare their own take on the principal’s observation of their classroom, and cite evidence for why a skill or technique demonstrated during the observation warrants a certain performance rating.

Principals in Delaware are trained to hold off on deciding a final performance rating until after they’ve heard from teachers in the post-conference meetings, said Melissa Oates, who works on educator evaluations in the state’s department of education.

8. Provide Opportunities to Improve and Grow

Feedback should be motivated by the desire to help teachers acquire, assimilate, or adapt their skills so they continue to learn and grow. It’s one thing to tell a teacher that they need to work on “x” and leave it there. A principal is likely to get more out of a teacher by giving support to help the teacher improve—whether it’s providing a coach or having the teacher visit model classrooms.

And the support should be customized to each teacher’s needs and grade level. “In the classrooms, we expect teachers to differentiate based on student needs,” Jackson said. “We don’t do the same for teachers.”

At Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College in Denver, the improvement and growth processes are built into the feedback conversation with teachers. Principal Kimberly Grayson and the leadership team work with teachers on one action step he or she can take.

A coach models the action step and helps the teacher include it in the lesson. The teacher then will practice the step.

“We actually have the teacher stand up and do a full role play of what the action step looks like, and we do the role play over and over multiple times until the teacher gets it right,” Grayson said. “Because we want the teacher to, A, feel like the debrief time is valuable and, B, feel like they are able to walk out of that debrief conversation and feel successful going into their next classroom when it’s time to implement that strategy.”

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as Making Feedback Useful for Teachers


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