The nexus of mentoring and evaluation

While school administrators are expected to evaluate the teachers in their schools, many are inadequately prepared for this task. Yet, teacher evaluations are a major contributor to the success of independent schools. They are vitally important to the quality of teaching and learning and in that way, are a key to building positive reputation and enrolment success. Poorly designed and executed evaluations damage staff morale as well as the professional standing of administrators. Ultimately, improving the capacity of heads of school and other administrators to effectively and credibly evaluate teaching, meets two important ends. It provides school heads with requested mentorship while accruing the benefits of a well planned and implemented evaluation program.  It is with that in mind that I was commissioned by the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta (AISCA) to develop and implement an evaluation support program we called Evaluate! 

Evaluations must be both customized and consistent

The program had to meet the needs of all AISCA member schools, which vary tremendously in size and administrative resources.  They range from one-room schools to large, multi-campus operations with many hundreds of students.  The principal of a two-room school may also carry a full-time or close to full-time teaching load.  The head of a large school may have several principals, assistant principals and other officials in his administration team. While many school heads have advanced degrees in administration, and much experience in school leadership, others may have been appointed to lead a school with no qualifications beyond basic teacher education.. The teacher evaluation processes in these diverse contexts will necessarily be very different.  Schools with large administration teams may have the resources to support sophisticated, comprehensive evaluations, to which several professionals contribute.  However, in a small school with a single, part-time teacher-principal, only much simpler evaluations are possible.

Despite the processes having to be different, there are fundamental principles that must underlie any evaluation.  First and foremost, is it fair?  Does it properly recognize good work, or those aspects of practice that are good?  Does it frankly, but reasonably and constructively address shortcomings?  Is it balanced, giving appropriate relative weight to strengths and weaknesses? Does the process and execution recognize that for most teachers, evaluation is very sensitive, and poorly conducted evaluations can be damaging to teachers’ confidence, loyalty, and performance? Does the process honour the complexity of teaching, and the multiple roles teachers play?  Whilst being comprehensive, is it efficient, respectful of teachers’ precious time? If recommendations have been made, how can one ensure that these are carefully considered?   Is the process credible to teachers, the board, and other stakeholders, who will want assurance that teaching is being effectively evaluated?   

In addition, while being tailored to the particular needs of schools, there are elements to an effective evaluation program that must be in place. Heads and administrators had to recognize that these are absolute must-have components regardless of the uniqueness of their school or abilities. The Evaluate! program provided administrators with training, assistance and support with each of the following:

  • Development of the school’s teacher evaluation policy
  • Design of the school’s evaluation process. 
  • Letters and meetings initiating the evaluation
  • Classroom observations
  • Post-observation meetings 
  • Writing evaluation reports
  • Related professional development workshops with faculty 

Lessons Learned

Despite the differences of those that participated in the program, my work with Evaluate! revealed three truths about administrators and teacher evaluation

1. Teacher evaluations pose significant challenges for heads and administrators

The fundamental premise of Evaluate!, that school leaders often need support in developing their capacity to evaluate teaching in a professional, credible way, was repeatedly confirmed.  Just because an individual, usually a teacher, has been appointed to an administration position does not mean that she necessarily has the skills and confidence to evaluate well.  Some of the most pressing concerns many administrators want addressed through participating in Evaluate! include:

  • How to evaluate experienced, accomplished teachers, perhaps much more experienced than the evaluator
  • How to evaluate teachers with subject expertise different than the evaluator’s
  • How to address concerns in ways that teachers will accept
  • How to ensure that evaluation recommendations are implemented
  • How to conduct evaluations and write reports that will support dismissals, when this, unfortunately, is necessary.

2. Policy and practice must exist within culture and tradition

I have been reminded again and again that school administrators have to work within the constraints of the history, traditions, policy, culture, and expectations of their school.  Sometimes the ways that things are done in a school are deeply entrenched, and, even though the Head may not agree with everything in the system he has inherited, he may not be able to immediately or even ever change it.  This applies to evaluation practice no less than any other aspect of the operation.  A specific example is the nature of board involvement in evaluation.  I may be as insistent as I like about evaluation being a professional function and that boards should be concerned with governance not operations, however this is not useful in a situation where the Head is not in a position to change the practice, or certainly not immediately.  

Administration is an opportunistic art.  One may have to wait for the stars to align before being able to get certain things done, though one is sometimes able to give the stars a gentle nudge.  Like with any coaching or mentoring work, for Evaluate! to be useful, it must accept these limitations, and work with school leadership to do the best possible under the circumstances.

3. Meaningful mentorship sticks

It has been very gratifying when I have encountered an administrator who had worked with Evaluate! many years previously, who has said that the work we did together continues to influence the practice in his school.  We have all experienced the “drive by PD” phenomenon, where a quick, albeit perhaps inspiring professional development session quickly fades from memory, and results in no action.  In contrast, Evaluate!, because it is only offered when requested, and is highly customised to meet the specific needs of the school, does have both immediate and lasting impact.

Personally, my involvement in the Evaluate! program remains one of the most gratifying and rewarding experiences of my career. In addition, it had significant positive impact on both schools and administrators. Most importantly, it clearly demonstrated that formidable and lasting school success is found at the nexus of mentorship and teacher evaluation.  

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