Shaking hands - building trust in teacher evaluations and the confidence to do them right

I still remember my first teacher evaluation experience late in the fall of my inaugural year. Although I was a young teacher, I was confident in my instructional abilities and wanted to make a good impression on the principal who had hired me. Looking back now, I can say my confidence was unwarranted, but it probably helped me survive my first couple of years in the classroom. After my first post-evaluation conference, however, my confidence was temporarily shattered. Don’t get me wrong; the principal had some encouraging words, but my focus was on the long list of my inadequate instructional qualities. I left the meeting feeling defeated, confused, and uncertain about what to do. I actually considered other careers, because I was obviously unfit to be a teacher.

Why do we take evaluations so personally in education? A better wording of that question might be: “Why do we feel so threatened when our weaknesses are exposed?”

I believe it comes down to trust. Not just trust in the principal but trust in a system designed to help teachers grow instructionally. Instructional expert Carol Ann Tomlinson says: “For teachers, as for students, the most effective evaluation comes from someone who sits beside us and helps us grow” – in other words, a principal who uses evaluation as a process for “coaching” teachers instead of “catching” teachers.

Since becoming a teacher evaluation specialist, I have reflected upon my career as an educator and realized there was a parallel between my days as a teacher and my days as a college baseball player. When you are a college athlete, coaches consistently critique your skills – at least the good ones do. Criticisms come in many forms, from calm suggestions of minor physical adjustments to screams of frustration after making a big mistake. But I never perceived those criticisms as a questioning of my ability. Not once did I think coaches were saying I was a bad baseball player. Instead, I accepted their suggestions, recognized my weaknesses, and worked hard to improve. However, when my principal offered a list of areas I needed to improve upon as an instructor, I took it personally and doubted my abilities.

What was the difference? Why did I think my principal was saying I was a bad teacher?

Again, it came down to trust and the relationship I had developed with my coach. Not that I liked him – actually the opposite – but I trusted him. I trusted his judgment and expertise on the subject. I trusted he would recognize improvement, or at least the attempt to improve. I trusted his fairness as he provided evaluations on every player. But, most importantly, I trusted there would be feedback and continued support for my growth as a baseball player. It was ongoing, and ongoing, and ongoing. In addition, I saw the evidence that my hard work and adjustments were working. As a pitcher, I was supplied with statistics that showed improvements in runs scored, strikes thrown, etc. This data demonstrated both my efforts for improvement and the actual growth in abilities. In short, he identified an area of growth, gave me the resources to improve, provided ongoing feedback, and supplied data validating growth.

Up to this point, I had not experienced this kind of evaluation, support, and feedback as a teacher. I looked at the list of things I was doing wrong and didn’t know where to begin, where to go for help, and how to improve. There was no coaching, just a list. I didn’t know if I would be evaluated again. I didn’t know how I could demonstrate my growth to the principal. In hindsight, I didn’t trust the system.

How principals can establish trust and build confidence in teacher evaluations

Several years later, I became a middle school principal. I was confident in my ability to lead a building and implement new school improvement programs, but my instructional aptitude was a little rusty, and several of the middle school teachers were more instructionally knowledgeable and experienced than I. How could I possibly evaluate, much less grow, teachers who were already all-stars?

At that time in my career, I still perceived teacher evaluation as a process for discovering what was wrong with bad teachers and then using job targets to attempt to fix them. If they didn’t shape up, they were shipped out. In other words, teacher evaluation was a tool to be used as a hammer rather than a flashlight. No wonder I was apprehensive. This approach did not fit my personality or my leadership style. But it was all I knew.

The summer of 2011 changed not only my perception of teacher evaluation but my entire concept of how to grow all teachers instructionally. I received a call from Dr. Marc Doss asking if I would like to pilot a new teacher evaluation program developed at the University of Missouri’s College of Education. It was called the Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE). Our district was one of nine districts in the statewide pilot project, and all training was provided free of charge. I jumped at the opportunity to receive training and to be part of something new and innovative.

What I learned in training gave me the confidence to assess all teachers during unscheduled walkthrough observations. NEE’s evaluation rubrics allowed me to observe teachers with accuracy and objectivity. I discovered even the all-star teachers had areas where they could get better– small but powerful improvements I would have never recognized before NEE’s training. NEE also provided an avenue to help teachers grow with customized, online professional development based on evaluation scores.

Being an instructional leader is hard and time-consuming, yet it is our most important job as a principal. It’s so much more than walking into a room, observing the lesson, and telling the teacher what they are good at and what they do wrong. Quality evaluation involves identifying areas for growth, providing resources for improvement, providing ongoing support and feedback, and supplying data to validate growth.

As a first-year head principal, NEE provided a simple but powerful technique that allowed me to be a true instructional leader. I grew as a leader, teachers grew as instructors, and all of our students benefited.

In this video, Kurtis Jensen talks about his experience using the Network for Educator Effectiveness as a middle school principal.

This blog combines two articles written by Kurtis Jensen that originally appeared in the Missouri Elementary Principal magazine in September 2015 and December 2015.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.