Face your fears of faculty evaluations

Many administrators feel very uncomfortable, if not fearful, about conducting teacher evaluations. Recognizing the importance and sensitivity of evaluating teachers, they approach the task with trepidation. They correctly perceive that a poorly conducted evaluation may do more harm than good.

When I conduct evaluation workshops for administrators, I ask participants to share what bothers them about performing evaluations. Here are six of the most common fears that administrators express about conducting evaluations and what they can do about them.

  1. Not enough time to perform evaluations. The reality is that valid and respected teacher evaluations do require a significant amount of time. I include a minimum of three separate classroom observations and three meetings with each teacher being evaluated. Then one must factor in the time required to draft a report, and address any concerns or disagreements with it. It is important to begin the process early in the school year, as we all know how quickly time flies, and the school year seems to be over almost as soon as it has begun. Unless evaluations get under way soon, one runs out of time, and they tend not to be done.
  2. Being less experienced than the teacher being evaluated. This should not be a problem if the evaluator has a reasonable amount of experience and is a skilled and knowledgeable teacher. The evaluation of an experienced teacher will typically have a different focus than that of a beginner. Novice teachers are likely still learning such fundamentals as classroom management, lesson planning, and assessment. More experienced teachers have probably “mastered” those topics (though the process of refining them never ends.) The discussion and feedback with an experienced teacher will be much more focussed on the exploration of the choices the teacher has made, and the pros and cons of alternatives. If the tone of the interactions is collegial and acknowledges the expertise of the teacher, the experienced teacher will likely respect the process.
  3. Having no experience or training in teaching the subject or grade level of the teacher being evaluated. Conventional wisdom is that teaching is teaching no matter the grade or subject, and that a knowledgeable educator can accurately evaluate classroom practice regardless of her background. I think that is an exaggerated claim. It’s true that many general aspects of teaching can be evaluated independent of deep subject or grade expertise. However, an evaluator who has significant knowledge of what the teacher is teaching will have more to bring to the conversation. She will be able to make more suggestions and, at the most fundamental level, be better able to assess the accuracy of what is being taught. For example, although I know something about second language teaching, when observing a Mandarin lesson, I don’t know whether the teacher is using the language well and have no real way to assess the progress being made by the students. While it would be better if evaluators had related expertise, the realities of schools are that many administrators will be evaluating outside of their areas of teaching experience. This does not mean that they will have nothing to offer. Classroom management, planning, instructional choices, student engagement, classroom atmosphere, and variety and frequency of assessment can all be validly assessed by a generalist administrator.
  4. Believing that the teacher being evaluated is a better teacher than the evaluator. Often I have the great pleasure of observing superb lessons where the teacher is teaching much better than I could, even in my area of expertise. This gives me the satisfaction of being able to articulate to the teacher what is so good in the teaching, and to express appreciation for the excellent work being done. This accomplishes so much good. Teachers want to know that their work is truly valued, particularly by their supervisors. I don’t believe that an evaluation must include suggestions for improvement, and am very happy when I am able to write “there are no recommendations arising from my observation of this excellent lesson.” Indeed, little discredits evaluations more than petty criticisms, particularly when strengths are ignored or under-valued.
  5. Fearing that the teacher is so popular, or has so much status in the school, that he or she will feel able to “blow-off” the evaluation. Such situations do take courage. It is easy when the highly regarded teacher is in fact excellent, but less so when there are significant problems with the teaching. Such evaluations are easier when the process includes a standard check list. (I don’t believe good evaluations should ever rely on checklists alone). When reports are only narrative, it is too easy to simply avoid addressing problematic areas, and focus only on strengths. Evaluators have to remember that their integrity is at stake, and it is important to give a frank evaluation. However, it is also important to remember that evaluations do not have to address every perceived shortcoming. One needs to weigh whether an issue is important enough to raise, and to avoid overwhelming a report with “suggestions”, which will usually be understood to imply criticisms. Unless it’s necessary to document a very serious situation, which may ultimately result in dismissal, it is usually better to make only a few important and achievable suggestions, while giving full and generous recognition to strengths. Such a report will have the best chance of being accepted and its recommendations implemented.
  6. Having little or no formal training in evaluation and thus feeling unprepared to perform this task. Administration, like teaching, or any other truly professional endeavour, involves career-long learning. One is never fully prepared for any of the tasks one needs to do. If we waited until we were fully prepared, we would never do anything. So we do the best we can with what we know, we continue to read, take professional courses, and develop our skills. My PhD was in teacher evaluation, and I have been practicing in this area for decades, but still I know that there is so very much I have yet to learn.

Facing our fears about evaluations and avoiding procrastination will lead to more confidence, better faculty performance and ultimately greater school success.

What are your fears? Are there other factors that inhibit your evaluations? How do you deal with them?

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