The teacher evaluation process is fraught with misconceptions. Dispelling the myths about teacher evaluation can lead to evaluations that are better understood and that contribute more to a positive school culture and improved school success. Let’s take on three of those myths.
Myth #1: Teacher evaluation results in improvement of instruction.
Many teacher evaluation policies give as a reason for evaluation the “improvement of instruction.” My own experience and much research suggest that that does not generally happen. There are many reasons for this. They include:
- Evaluation processes that are too superficial to be credible or useful, often as a result of evaluators who lack the time to work with teachers in a meaningful way.
- Evaluators who lack sufficient instructional expertise to be able to offer much of value.
However, evaluations can lead to instructional improvement under certain circumstances. The atmosphere of the evaluation must be respectful and collaborative. Discussions following classroom observations must be collegial. A mutual exploration of what has been observed, examination of successes, and possible reasons for them, and, similarly, consideration of what apparently did not go as well, and possible alternative approaches that might prove helpful. In a successful evaluation process, the teacher develops trust in the evaluator’s expertise, and believes that ideas that emerge from the process can in fact be helpful. The conversations associated with the evaluation often allow teachers, as opposed to evaluators, to formulate their own ideas for improvement.
Credible, confidence-inspiring evaluations recognize the highly contextual nature of teaching, as well as its idiosyncratic nature. What is effective with one student, may not be with another. What “works” for one teacher, may not for another. How often have I observed wonderful lessons that I could never teach! And conversely, suggestions that mirror my own practice may be useless, or even counterproductive, for the teacher and students concerned.
Of course there are universally accepted fundamental teaching principles. Few would dispute that lessons should be well prepared, teachers should be knowledgeable in what they teach, order is better than disorder, and teachers should relate respectfully to their students and their parents. However, these alone do not guarantee success nor does their absence necessarily or adequately explain failure. What makes working with teachers to improve instruction so difficult is that the evaluation must be contextual, taking into account the uniqueness of teachers’ abilities and the particular characteristics of their students.
Myth #2: Evaluation is based only on classroom observations
The contributions a teacher makes to the school beyond classroom teaching, including to co-curricular programs, special events, and staff atmosphere, do, and should, influence the evaluation. These include the teacher’s interactions with students, parents and other visitors, colleagues and administrators; whether many discipline issues arise from the teacher’s classes; and whether when walking past the teacher’s classroom, there is a sense of orderly, purposeful activity.
The fact that evaluations are comprehensive and do not rely exclusively on classroom observation should be made explicit in evaluation policies, communication setting up the evaluation, and evaluation reports. This takes nothing away from the central importance of effective classroom practice.
This would seem to indicate that evaluations are better conducted by an in-school administrator, or perhaps even a system administrator, as opposed to an external evaluator. In truth, when evaluations are done by an external evaluator, the information available is much more limited to what can be observed during the formal evaluation process. However, external evaluations are valuable in that they are not influenced by the inevitable biases, personal relationships and practical considerations that cloud internal assessments. When a teacher is particularly valuable for reasons other than the quality of her classroom teaching, for example, her other contributions to the school, or that she may be difficult to replace, administrators may tend to gloss over important deficiencies.
Much of my work is serving as an external evaluator. I always check perceptions with internal supervisors. I simply feel uncomfortable basing an evaluation purely on the limited information that can be gleaned through the relatively brief time an external evaluator can spend with a teacher.
Myth #3: Where evaluations do not lead to improvement of instruction, they are a waste of time.
Many times, evaluators have the great pleasure and satisfaction of observing wonderful lessons. It is with joy that I can quite often write: “There are no recommendations that arise from my observation of this excellent lesson.” Recognizing excellent practice, specially when the evaluator articulates what it is that is so admirable, does great good. We all need affirmation, particularly from supervisors and knowledgeable, respected fellow professionals. Evaluations can be such a powerful communication tool! I read once of a veteran teacher who received many accolades at his retirement function. Afterwards, he commented that if he had known how well he was regarded, he might not have retired. What a sad story!
Evaluations serve other important purposes. Almost every teacher, no matter how excellent, will at some time in a long career, be unfairly criticized or even attacked. An administrator who has conducted a recent, thorough, formal evaluation of the teacher, is in a much better position to defend the teacher. Sometimes, an external evaluation may be useful or even necessary to accomplish this.
Administrators may be required to defend retention, dismissal or deployment decisions to parents, boards or courts. The execution of a respected, formal, evaluation process lends greater credibility to these decisions.
I hope that addressing some of the myths surrounding teacher evaluation will help dispel some of the scepticism about evaluations, and allow them to assume their role as an essential part of the fabric of excellent, well-functioning and highly regarded schools.