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The Professional Growth "Trap"

A common misconception among heads of school and teachers in US and international schools is that professional growth and teacher accountability are either incompatible objectives, or goals that must be accomplished separately. This is a “trap.”

Teacher evaluation approaches that attempt to separate professional growth from substantive teacher feedback almost always fail to deliver either result. While they appear less threatening to teachers on the surface, these approaches, in fact, tend to fail because they lack substance and structure. Furthermore, they feed and extend the perceived gap and lack of trust between administration and faculty.

When a credible and substantive teacher evaluation system is in place and accepted by both faculty and administration, several benefits accrue to both parties.

Teachers can view such a system as supportive and instructional while also a source of meaningful, substantive feedback. The two biggest criticisms by teachers of evaluation are that it is either threatening and unfair on the one hand, or lacks substance for real growth, on the other.

Heads feel the benefits of improved faculty morale and school stability because their ability to deliver feedback and professional growth opportunities becomes more structured and predictable. Parental gossip in the carpool line becomes a far less significant element of teacher evaluation.

    1. Head Goals and Teacher Evaluation in Schools

In evaluating a teacher’s performance, heads tend to share a common goal of avoiding conflict and political problems.

In many independent schools with teacher evaluation “models” that resemble those in public schools, the head can avoid value judgments about the quality of teaching in the classroom. The head seemingly maintains good public relations as all teachers are presumed to be “good” and tenure is preserved. In the long term, however, overall faculty morale is undermined.

Another common scenario is a teacher evaluation “system” that is sitting on a shelf because it is not a priority of the current administration. OR, evaluation systems may simply not exist in any form or as purely self-reflection and goal-setting.

When meaningful and consistent teacher evaluation is either dormant or completely absent, a healthy school climate may be negatively affected, as the power to make judgments about teacher performance shifts to the parent body and the students.

Evaluation systems that rest solely on peer appraisal or self reflection and self evaluation sink of their own weight over time as teachers regard them as superficial, repetitive and lacking substance.

    1. The Underlying Principles of an Effective Evaluation System

In independent schools, we tend to evaluate teachers when they are new and on probation but not thereafter, UNLESS they are “in trouble” because of parental or student feedback. Such “evaluation” is abhorred by teachers and is reactive, not proactive.

There are several important principles that form the basis of an effective evaluation system. When these principles, representing structure, predictability and objectivity, are NOT present, teachers often fear faculty evaluation and heads tend to avoid it. If they ARE present, the system can be embraced, not circumvented by faculty and heads; the “trap” of separating teacher accountability from professional development is avoided.

These fundamental principles are as follows:

      • From the very early stages, teachers must be involved in the development of the criteria by which they will be evaluated.

The criteria may include, but are not limited to, the teaching act, the teaching environment and criteria outside the classroom that relate to responsibility as an employee. Most of the criteria must be based on researched principles of effective instruction and management and can include “local” criteria as well.

      • Student feedback, in the form of a teacher-designed questionnaire, should be part of the process at the appropriate grade level(s). Research has shown student feedback to be highly reliable when administered correctly.
      • Peer observations and feedback from colleagues are encouraged as ONE component of the system, integral to, and not separate from, the overall formal evaluation process.
      • Classroom observations should include both announced AND unannounced components. Teacher submission of a lesson plan or a pre-conference precedes an announced visit.
      • Division head(s) are actively involved in the process. They have the authority and responsibility to organize and direct all activities related to the process.
      • Department heads and grade level coordinators may be responsible for some evaluations and written observations based on these observations. They consult with the division head in the writing of the summative evaluation. There should be an evaluation “team.”
      • The evaluators are highly competent and trained in a variety of ways. In service sessions are ongoing in order to insure the quality and consistency of the process.
      • At least two supervisors, who have observed or conferenced with the faculty member several times during the year, complete the summative report.
      • The system is linked to professional growth goals so that each teacher sees a direct relationship between evaluation and professional development. Staff development dollars follow the guidelines and outcomes of the teacher evaluation process.
    1. Summary

With a consistent, widely accepted set of criteria, the above system is not capricious. The process should include multiple adult evaluators, student feedback and self evaluation.

When appropriately designed and supported, the evaluation system rests in the hands of the division heads with the backing of the department heads and teachers. Teachers and administrators view it as supportive, non-threatening and a meaningful professional growth tool.

Furthermore, when the professional staff designs a meaningful and appropriate system, and communicates that system to parents, there is another important benefit to the school. Parents are less likely to engage in their own evaluation of teachers, and receive the positive message that the professional staff continues to grow.

John Littleford
Senior Partner