Boards and teacher evaluation: the do’s and don’t’s

In independent schools, the evaluation of all faculty and staff is not a board responsibility. Boards hire, evaluate and dismiss their Head of School, who is sometimes described as “their only employee.” This, of course, is not strictly true: all school employees are employees of the board. But the point is that when the board is a governing body and not an operational one, the head of School should be their only direct supervisee. All other employees are hired, supervised, evaluated and, if need be, dismissed by the administration.

Boards, however, do play a policy-level role in the evaluation of employees other than the head and should adopt a formal policy describing the goals and process used in evaluating employees. The draft policy will likely be developed and proposed to the board by the administration.

Having policy helps make the evaluation process clear and transparent. It allows the administration to demonstrate that it is not being arbitrary in its evaluation of employees. If an employee disputes the fairness or appropriateness of an evaluation, the school is on much firmer ground if it can show that it has conducted the evaluation in accordance with its established policy.

When I have been involved in the development of such policy, I have included the faculty and staff in the process. This involvement has led to better policy, and to greater “buy in.” Once adopted, the policy should be made available to potential employees as part of the information they should use in determining whether they wish to work at the school. The policy should also be available to parents, and prospective parents, who have a legitimate interest in knowing how teachers and other personnel are evaluated.
To fulfil its responsibilities, the board may want to know about the implementation of the evaluation policy. While the head should not share the details of individual evaluations, it is perfectly reasonable to report on the total number of evaluations conducted each year as well as a breakdown of the number of teachers evaluated at various career stages.

When the board understands and accepts the evaluation policy and its implementation, its ability to support the head is greatly enhanced. Every teacher, no matter how well regarded, will, if she has been teaching long enough, eventually have her competence questioned by a disgruntled parent. The administration, and even board members, will be asked: “How are our teachers evaluated?” It is so much better when that parent can be given a clear answer, backed by the policy that the board knows is being followed. (That alone will not likely satisfy a determinedly dissatisfied parent. As every administrator knows, one who does not like a decision will usually fault the policy or process, regardless of what it is. But still, the board is in a better position to support the head than if there were no clear policy or process.)

However, many independent school boards adopt a more operational approach. In some, there is a long tradition of the board, or a committee of the board, or the board chair, being directly involved in conducting evaluations. I think that is problematic on many levels. Teaching is a professional, complex, highly contextualized practice. While every parent will have an opinion on the effectiveness of his children’s teachers, and parent opinion may be a legitimate element in the evaluation of a teacher, teachers should have the security of knowing that their formal evaluation will be performed by professionals with expertise both in teaching and evaluation. I once was able to hire a superb teacher who had left her previous school because she was not prepared to suffer the indignity, as she saw it, of having a committee of parents evaluate her competence. One of the challenges of administering independent schools is that staff often feel that their tenure is determined at the whim of parents, and that any parent with sufficient influence with the board could have him dismissed. Having board members evaluate teachers compounds the perception that teachers are working in a political rather than a professional environment.

But an equally serious problem is that evaluation is an important operational function. The more a board becomes involved in operations, the less it can hold its head accountable for the success of the school. If the head is to be accountable, she must be allowed to carry out all management functions herself, or as she delegates to her appointees. The board cannot do the head’s job, and then blame the head if it is not well done!

The distinction between operational and governing boards is seldom black and white. The relationship between head and board and the adoption of governing and operating styles, is dynamic and shifts as people and circumstances change. While some heads welcome board involvement in aspects of operations, others bitterly resent it. Some board members love to get involved in some aspects of every-day functioning of the schools while others absolutely do not. Generally, when the school is being successful, and the board is confident in the head, there will be much less desire to become operationally involved. If the board is not satisfied that employees are being properly evaluated, they will be more inclined to become involved in the process.

No matter what, for the head to ensure that evaluation belongs where it should – firmly in his domain – its practice must be sound, and enough appropriate information must be provided to the board so that it can relax, knowing that this essential function is in good hands.

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