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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Teacher Evaluation: No More “Super” vision

A principal and her teachers “bend” the system to create an evaluation program that encourages learning from one another.

Instructional Strategies
Our teacher evaluation system wasn't working. It was the traditional model of preconference, observation, and postconference, to which nontenured teachers were obligated every year; tenured teachers every other year. I would arrive at the prearranged time toting my legal-size yellow tablet for script taping. The teacher would be well prepared; and the children, understanding better than anyone what was going on, would behave in an exemplary manner. I took copious notes.
Evaluation conferences usually went well. The teacher and I reviewed the highlights of the lesson, and I pointed out effective strategies and why they worked. Where applicable, we discussed “areas for improvement.” My written comments were constructed meticulously—always positive and constructive. When the conference ended, we would both smile. I often wondered if this was an expression of relief or the mutual acknowledgment that we had just completed a process with little meaning to either of us.
As principal, it was critical that I motivate my teachers to try innovative teaching strategies. I tried to follow the letter and spirit of “The Hunter Model” as we trudged through each part of our teacher evaluation system, but it just wasn't working.

A Need for Change

  1. The power to change teacher behavior is inherent in my role as principal.
  2. Teachers are all, in some way, “broken” and need “fixing.” My job is to repair and improve (somewhat like bringing in a car for a brake job).
  3. Clinical supervision is the model for our evaluation system. This, done well, requires multiple observations and a coaching relationship—not an evaluative one.
  4. Because a small minority of teachers could be considered “incompetent,” the system of remediation is used for all.
  5. The ranking of teachers as Excellent, Satisfactory, and Unsatisfactory in some way relates to improved instruction.
Personally, I subscribed to none of these beliefs.
A change was needed; yet, because the evaluation system had been negotiated between the teachers' union and district officials, it was imperative that any modifications of the given procedure stay within the negotiated parameters. Our challenge was to bend, without breaking, the existing teacher evaluation system.
Were teachers ready to try something different? I decided to ask them.
Early in the school year, I met with teachers who were to be evaluated that year. We addressed some basic questions: Did the “yellow tablet” system improve their teaching? Could the many hours expended in our current evaluation system be used more creatively? Was it possible to devise a new and worthwhile system within given parameters?
The teachers were amazingly candid. Their response was unanimous. They, too, felt we could “massage” the process, use our time more advantageously, and learn more about instruction.

A Giant Step Forward

  • This initial planning meeting would be called the “pre” conference. Previous policy did not specify that this initial conference had to be done on an individual basis. This decision itself saved time.
  • All of my visits were designated as “formal.” As there was no definition of “formal” in the Teacher Evaluation Handbook, we defined it to mean any and all visits. I promised to be in classrooms more often, not less.
  • In lieu of my formal observation, teachers agreed to visit one another. In some cases, teachers paired up; others decided to work with two others. The speech pathologist and music teacher decided to visit their counterparts in other schools—something they had never had the opportunity to do.
  • I volunteered to substitute for the teachers when they were observing. (All thought this was an excellent use of my time!) Being back in the classroom would also give me a fresh insight into their teaching.
  • The “visiting” teachers would meet. I would be present, thus fulfilling the requirement for a “post” conference. I would facilitate the conversation between the two teachers, asking thoughtful questions and staying away from any evaluative remarks.
  • We would repeat the procedure during the second semester, when teachers could observe the same person or choose another.
  • The final conference would be maintained. We felt strongly that principal and teacher needed to talk—one on one—at some point.
  • Any teacher who preferred the “old” system was free to stay with it. None did.
  • We would evaluate this plan at the end of the year, asking if any changes needed to be made or if we wanted to go back to the old system.
The year went well. Teachers gained many insights into one another's teaching and became thoroughly immersed in discussing instruction. And we took a giant step toward working together.

A Learning Experience

  • Barriers between teachers and classrooms are breaking down. In some instances, teachers had taught next to each other for years, yet this was their first chance to actually see one another in action. Many want to return and see more.
  • Peer coaching, long accepted as an effective way for teachers to improve instruction, is becoming the norm.
  • Individual differences in teachers are respected. Some, a bit uncertain about teaching in front of someone else, chose their friends as partners. Others reviewed the lesson as though they now had the yellow tablet, making suggestions for improvement. Teachers are more tolerant of one another, and of me, as we sometimes stumble through this learning process.
  • The spirited exchange of the post-conference often continues long after the formal time is over. Each visit and conference is very different, but all agree that we are learning. Many plan to visit again—to observe, learn, and discuss.
  • When we subsequently planned an inclusion program for Special Education students, teachers devised a co-teaching model. Not only have classroom doors been unbolted, but teachers' minds have opened more widely, too.
That our system of teacher evaluation is currently in place does not limit contact with teachers. Concerns can be expressed—and are—if they are productive for kids and do not demean those who struggle each day to do their very best for kids. However, I have found that support and encouragement have much more effect than criticism—however thinly veiled under the guise of supervision.
What happens to the teacher who needs help? Who is incompetent? Who truly has much to improve in teaching? The matter should be pursued diligently, but we principals work with few teachers who are so incompetent that they could be terminated. Nevertheless, our evaluation systems are technically based on the process through which incompetent teachers can be dismissed.
What has changed in our system—more than anything else—is the concept of the principal. I am no longer the one responsible for a teacher's behavior. Teachers are now responsible for their own professional growth—both individually and as a group.
Principals are overwhelmed with the job of leading schools. To think that we also have some kind of “super” vision is simply ludicrous. Teachers are, and should be, the instructional leaders in our schools. We must rely on the collective expertise of the staff to bring our schools into the 21st century.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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