Reflecting on Traditional Evaluations – Time Well Spent or Mandated Time Sucker? You Decide

I just spent the better part of my vacation week writing teacher final evaluations. Each evaluation took on average three hours to write well. Take into account the time spent prior to that on organizing meetings, conducting the meetings, watching the lesson and cleaning up the scripting, beginning to end the process takes close to ten hours of time for each teacher! An evaluator can’t help but wonder – is it time well spent or is it a mandated time sucker?

Sounds like a nice way to spend a vacation, huh? I have only myslef to blame. Each year I set a new goal that I will space them out over the course of the year. This year I did one in January – progress right? As we said about our beloved Red Sox here in Boston as last season wrapped up, next year is the year!

As I was writing, I couldn’t get a recent Kim Marshall workshop out of my mind. The administrators in my district traveled to hear him speak about mini-observations. Marshall developed a framework by which teachers are evaluated based on frequent, short mini-observations as opposed to the one-shot-deal approach of many of the traditional models. Needless to say our district has the one-shot-deal approach in which I observe a teacher conduct an isolated lesson and write the evaluation based on that one 45-60 minute lesson. I admire the efforts my current district is taking to bring teachers and administrators together in a working group to analyze the research surrounding teacher evaluation and work together to do this process better.

Until then, however, we continue with the old model. So back to Marshall’s conference. He opens by asking the crowd (mostly administrators) to raise their hand if they were evaluated under the traditional one-shot-deal approach. Most participants raise their hand. He then asks the crowd to raise their hand if this traditional approach significantly changed their teacher practice. At the workshop I attended only five (of 250!!!) raised their hand! As an administrator relatively new to this role in my fourth year, I was shocked. Really? Only 2% of the attendees benefited from the current evaluation method I was asked to use each year?

Part of the reason I was shocked was because I was one of the five who raised their hand. When asked by Marshall what worked for me, I actually ended up making his point! As a young practitioner, new to the teaching field, I had a lot of questions and felt as though I was in a constant state of inquiry. In my principal (Twitter @bwittcoff) I found someone who was willing first to listen and then to process and to reflect. Most importantly, I found someone who was willing to challenge me and stretch my thinking to help me become a better teacher. These conversations however did not just take place during my formal observations. They took place throughout the year and were part of an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning. I grew as a teacher and changed my practice because of frequent feedback, frequent dialog and constant reflection.

Marshall’s book, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration and Close the Achievement Gap, opens in the introduction with two powerful quotes:

  • “Principal evaluation of teachers is a low-leverage strategy for improving schools, particularly in terms of the time it requires of principals.” Richard DuFour and Robert Marzano
  • “Write-ups have low to medium leverage on influencing teacher practice.” John Saphier

As I wrote my evaluations this year, I wondered, will these write-ups make a difference? Will they influence teacher practice? If the research holds true, the document probably will not. The conversations we had in the post-conference were probably more powerful but only if that conversation was one in a long stream of reflections on teaching and learning over the course of the year. I am frequently in teacher’s classroom – at the minimum once a week for at least three to five minutes. Where I need to stretch myself is in those follow-up conversations that provide feedback and foster reflection after most visits.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on my reflection question that is currently at the forefront of my reflection:

How can principals provide frequent, timely feedback to teachers most effectively?