The Role of Trust in Teacher Evaluation

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In a recent article, I wrote, “Teacher evaluation has historically addressed two objectives: improving performance and bringing about the dismissal of those judged as inadequate or nonproductive. These two purposes are in conflict. When the threat of criticism and/or dismissal is a possible outcome of the evaluation, improvement is thwarted and the worker’s sense of security is eroded.”

Many states and school districts have specific legal guidelines for their evaluation processes. If those policies are in place, they obviously must be followed.  For those who have flexibility and are intrigued by the possibility of a more effective evaluation process, the one I suggest in this article provides an optimal learning and growth experience for those teachers who have never been considered for dismissal.  Unless there is a preponderance of evidence that a teacher is unwilling to learn, be coached, or to grow professionally – making dismissal is a real possibility –  the sole purpose of any observation – informal observation, class walk-through, or formal evaluation – should be to help a teacher enhance instructional effectiveness.

Because this approach to evaluation, like all communication between the principal and the teacher, relies heavily on trust, it is important to consider what becomes of evaluation materials. The principal only needs information for an “extension of memory” file – an informal, separate, non-official file that functions as the principal’s memory aid. This file is not part of the school record. Most importantly, the principal turns over all evaluation results, reports, and data to the teacher with the understanding that those materials are the teacher’s sole property. The teacher decides with whom, if anyone, to share the information and what information, if any, to place in the personnel record maintained by the school or the district. This gesture is the principal’s ultimate statement of trust and closes the book on the teacher’s fear of dismissal relative to the evaluation process.

In my experience, teachers (like students) are not afraid of evaluation, feedback, and data as long as they are used to help them learn and improve. When factors other than personal and professional growth enter the picture, fear increase.  Once that occurs, the teacher’s focus becomes “What do I have to do to impress the evaluator?”  At that point, the intent and purpose of the evaluation – teacher growth and effectiveness –  are sorely compromised.

In the past few months, I visited several classrooms in Lee County, Florida.

The first-year teachers I was working with valued any feedback I could give for three specific reasons:

1. They trusted that any information or suggestions that were given to them were for their benefit –  not mine. They trusted that I had their best interest at heart.

2. The feedback each teacher was given was specific. 

a. In one case, the teacher referred to their class data wall, asked the students to record their data in their data folder, and then moved to the next activity.  My feedback included providing 4 or 5 specific questions that would take less than 15 or 20 seconds to help the students reflect on what the data meant, increasing the value of the experience for the students and deepening their learning.

b. In another classroom, the teacher specifically asked me about noise levels at centers when she worked with a small group. Based on the age and personalities of the children I observed, I suggested identifying a noise monitor for each center. It should be noted that the students were on task. They were simply excited about what they were doing and unaware that the noise they created could be heard across the room.

3. The teachers were given an opportunity to apply, practice, and improve on any suggestions that I offered.

a. In the data wall situation, we created 4 questions to put on the data wall itself, reminding the teacher to ask the students to reflect.

b. In the noise monitor situation, we experimented with assigning and allowing students to choose their noise monitors.

These two examples demonstrate the importance of a trusting relationship and the absence of fear about how the evaluation will be used. There would be no useful purpose for any of my explanations or suggestions to be placed in an official personnel file. The sole purpose of the evaluation was to help each teacher see their strengths, identify some opportunities for improvement, and discuss how to accomplish that goal.

To help teachers establish goals in a way that eliminates the fear that corrodes growth, I give the following to teachers:

The goals that you set, the data you collect and analyze, your conversation with your principal, and your reflection (self-evaluation) belong only to you and will NOT be placed in your personnel file unless you want to put it there.

Please answer the following questions: 

1. What primary goal would you like to set for yourself this school year?

a. What is the significance of the goal?

b. How will you determine if you have reached that goal?

2. What is one skill or strategy (that is not a weakness) that you would like to improve?

a. What is your improvement goal?

b. How will you work on

i. Taking a workshop

ii. Taking a class

iii. Observing another teacher

iv. Getting a mentor

v. Researching the skill or strategy

vi. Other (please specify)

c.     How will you determine your level of success?

3.     What do you consider your area, strategy, etc. MOST in need of improvement?

a. What is your improvement goal?

b. How will you improve? (See 2b above)

c. How will you measure your growth this year?

I have found that teachers appreciate this structure and are eager to set goals once they know the information will never be used to hurt them. Now, consider those same questions knowing that anything you write would be placed in your personnel folder and would be used to measure you against other teachers.  Additionally, your success would help determine your pay.

Under those conditions:

1.     What types of goals would you write?

2.     What would the difference be in the size or scope of the goal?

3.     Would you admit your biggest weaknesses?

4.     What other concerns (or fears) come to mind?

In which scenario would you rather work?

Which scenario promotes the most personal/professional growth?

The calls to increase student achievement and close the achievement gap are appropriate. However, to think that simply identifying them as goals somehow changes the educational system is ludicrous.  It is clear that fear is not the best motivator to improve teacher effectiveness. Increasing achievement and closing the achievement gap requires continual improvement of the instructional and assessment processes. Teachers need the opportunity to work on substantive areas of development, learn additional strategies and skills, and share best practices. A positive, supportive, trusting environment and an evaluation process that eliminates fear increases the likelihood of us achieving what we want for all students.