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Professional Growth? Teacher Evaluation? Caveman Simple!

 How the Folio Collaborative Is Redefining Professional Cultures

Fall 2013

​It was 2007, and a candidate for head of school had a question for the faculty: "What do you want as a school?"

A veteran teacher raised his hand. "We want a faculty and staff evaluation program."

Hearing this response, the candidate decided, "This is a place I want to work."

Within a year, newly installed McDonogh School (Maryland) Head Charlie Britton had a committee hard at work on a new system, charging them with one primary aim: "Evaluation programs fall apart because they're too complicated," Britton said. "I want our program to be 'caveman simple'!" Committee members recall a table pounded for emphasis.

As teachers in schools, we apply all kinds of practices, policies, structures, curricula, support services, and emergency alarms to help kids along the path to success; it is our work. But we have not always been very good or very intentional about supporting adults in moving along life's path. Content in our routines, we create charmingly idiosyncratic if slightly haphazard societies in which, as psychologist Robert Evans pointed out in these pages not long ago (see "Getting to No," Winter 2012), determined congeniality often stifles awkward but necessary acknowledgment and forthright discussion.

Regarding support for teachers, even our language can be double-edged. Outside the schoolhouse, professional development, professional growth, teacher support, and teacher evaluation all have a positive, improving-the-breed sound about which we can all nod in agreement. Within schools, however, such terms are often loaded — and, thus, resisted. In independent schools, years of general noninterference in teachers' lives and work have built up a skittishness around even the most affirming efforts to offer teachers the same thing we provide for students: cultures of growth.

But change is clearly in the air. The evaluation committee at McDonogh managed one of the more promising breakthroughs in teacher evaluation. Not only are teachers at McDonogh enthusiastic about the program, but word has also gotten out about McDonogh's efforts. At the opening of school this year, nearly 50 schools were sharing the fruits of Britton's mandate through membership in a new nonprofit, the Folio Collaborative — a consortium of schools dedicated to professional growth and to redefining teacher evaluation.

These schools have willingly gone where angels once feared to tread.

Origins

For the McDonogh committee charged with devising a new evaluation system, the parameters were clear. Along with "caveman simple," Britton says, "we wanted to help people with their craft and allow them to get honest feedback but not feel endangered. We wanted the faculty to feel supported and know we would do anything to provide the resources to help them."

Still, for some months the process lagged. And then one day, associate head Tim Fish invited the director of technology, Jack Hardcastle, to the committee's meeting. Suddenly, the whole dynamic changed. "We realized we could use technology to make this just what we wanted," says Fish.

And so Folio was born, a system for supporting professional growth by incorporating feedback and evaluation built around elegant browser-based software originally created by Hardcastle. McDonogh was on its way.

Folio shares the fundamental components of most well-thought-out evaluation systems: reflection, goal-setting, classroom observation, and conversations between teachers and administrators and their supervisors.

Folio shares the fundamental components of most well-thought-out evaluation systems: reflection, goal-setting, classroom observation, and conversations between teachers and administrators and their supervisors. The "beauty part," however, is ease of use. Instead of requiring bureaucratic wrangling and paper-flow management, all information — from a teacher's profile and goals to observation and conference notes — lives in a secure server file, accessible only to the teacher and designated supervisors.

It didn't take long for word of Folio's virtues to spread. At Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania), upper school head Geoff Wagg, a friend of Fish's, took a look. "I hadn't seen anything remotely close to what Folio brought to faculty evaluation," says Wagg, now head of Waynflete School (Maine). "I knew this was something more schools should have access to." Soon Fish and Britton were presenting at Episcopal and determining whether the Folio software could be adapted for its use. As it turns out, it could, and Episcopal became the second "Folio school." By 2010, a handful of other schools had signed on as well.

Originally, the then-Folio Network was a small company created and capitalized by McDonogh. By the spring of 2012, however, the Folio group was recast as the nonprofit Folio Collaborative. A $5,000 to $8,000 investment (depending on school size) buys access to the Folio software, yes, but it also brings membership in an active consortium with a collective mission: to bring schools together to use their experience with the software as both a springboard to internal improvement and the basis of real collaboration around universal issues in program and professional culture development. With values and aims resonant with independent schools' needs, the Collaborative quickly caught on.

The Folio Process

The Folio software, or more properly the Folio app, consists of customizable modules. As use spreads among schools of different types and sizes, it is critical, says Fish, that it be flexible. "What we build into the software all comes from the members; it's shaped by what we hear as a collaborative. That's been really empowering for schools — they actually have a voice in how Folio is going to be developed." Echoes Nasif Iskander, San Francisco University High School (California) academic dean, "Flexibility makes Folio hugely valuable. We can use it in ways that make deep sense to us culturally." The key elements of Folio, for the person being supervised, are the "Profile" and "Notes." Other elements allow supervisors to keep track of their supervisees.

The Profile section offers space for teachers to complete a short biography or curriculum vitae. Many schools also ask teachers to write a "Narrative," which is often a user's first dive into Folio. Profile also allows teachers to list accomplishments and shows who has access to the teacher's information. A surprisingly resonant element of Profile is "Five Words," where users choose words about themselves, usually in the context of their work. San Francisco University High School's Iskander worried that this exercise might, to teachers, seem "too simplistic and 'beneath us'," but he collected all teachers' "five words" into a word cloud. Shown at an opening faculty meeting, the cloud generated two hours of "the most honest, interesting, and challenging conversation we've ever had about teaching in our school."

Teachers also enumerate goals. In many Folio schools this, too, has generated not just good discussion but a change in the ways goals — often written and forgotten — are created and used. Fessenden School (Massachusetts) assistant head Scott Smith had long been frustrated by the banal nature of evaluation goal-setting, but Folio, he says, "has been a godsend. Finally, someone cares about your goals. Someone's really talking to you about them. Someone's supporting you." Harpeth Hall School (Tennessee) Head Anne Teaff notes that "we've always set goals, but I'm not certain we've always been as intentional about the conversations as Folio encourages us to be."

Folio's creators believed at the outset that great professional cultures flow from great interactions among adults; the new system had to inspire these.

In the Notes section of Folio, supervisors can store information about their interactions with supervisees — conversation notes, observations and feedback, progress toward goals, and meeting summaries. Teachers can respond, creating virtual dialogues to complement face-to-face interaction. Folio also sends notifications of new content uploads (for example, a note from a supervisor) and process reminders.

A further element called "Spotlight" provides space where any employee can post a shout-out to another. Some schools don't use Spotlight, but at others it has become a significant part of school culture. At Fessenden, reports Scott Smith, "people are using it really well." Teacher Mariana McCormick at Holton-Arms School (Maryland) says, "Spotlight messages remind us that we're part of a larger community and that a little recognition can generate a lot of motivation. When people feel valued, it's reflected in a positive school culture."

Conversations

Folio's creators believed at the outset that great professional cultures flow from great interactions among adults; the new system had to inspire these. "Crazily," says Britton, "Facebook and other social media probably played into this. How could we get faculty invested in something very usable, very simple, that sparks great conversation?"

Greenhill School (Texas) teacher Genie Burke sees the parallels: "Folio really does look like a social networking site. But it's a personal thing, a relationship between you and your administrators."

At most Folio Collaborative schools, conversations begin with goal-setting. That supervisees' goals and other Profile information are shared online charges these dialogues with importance. Says Meredith Monk, Folio Collaborative executive director and a former McDonogh teacher, "The first time I sat down and had a goals conversation with my supervisor about my career path and where my supervisor saw my path and my strengths, I knew he was really paying attention. He became my biggest advocate."

Steve Cincotta, longtime Fessenden history chair, puts it succinctly, "It's nice to know that people know what you're doing."

Schools report more profound cultural effects as conversations overtake the idea of mere evaluation. At San Francisco University High School, says Iskander, Folio "helped us recalibrate our expectations. Folio has given us permission to talk to each other about what we care most about." Fish notes that "once people start doing this, it brings front and center some conversations that maybe you've needed to have for a long time." Fessenden's Smith saw Folio as something that "could have even more people talking to each other — department heads talking to teachers and to each other, administrators talking to other administrators." And, he adds, "there's follow-through."

At Greenhill, Director of Academics Natalia Hernández believes that "the informal conversation's importance far surpasses the formal conversation or the formal email." Folio gives people "a way of saying, 'We had such an important conversation, and this is what I heard you say.'"

Folio's Monk notes that "the success of Folio lies in the hands of the supervisor; it's all about the conversation, and the supervisor is responsible for making sure that this is good." As Geoff Wagg observes, "Folio makes sure that the conversations happen, but there's an ongoing challenge of helping people understand the need and the technique for high-quality, growth-oriented conversations." Collaborative schools have taken various approaches to building capacity; several schools train supervisors in the "Fierce Conversations" methodology (www.fierceinc.com/conversations- training), while others — notably Harpeth Hall — have explored the "Crucial Conversations" (www.vitalsmarts.com/crucialconversations/) model.

Folio Collaborative Member Schools
Aidan Montessori School (Washington, DC)

The Allen-Stevenson School (New York)

Brookstone School (Georgia)

The Buckley School (New York)

Calvert School (Maryland)

Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart (Florida)

Chadwick School (California)

Stuart Hall and Convent of the Sacred Heart (California)

Crescent School (Ontario, Canada)

Culver Academies (Indiana)

The Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania)

The Fessenden School (Massachusetts)

Flint Hill School (Virginia)

Fort Worth Country Day School (Texas)

Greenhill School (Texas)

Harpeth Hall (Tennessee)

Harvard-Westlake School (California)

The Hewitt School (New York)

The Hill School (Pennsylvania)

The Hockaday School (Texas)

Holton-Arms School (Maryland)

Marymount High School (California)
The Masters School (New York)

McDonogh School (Maryland)

Montgomery Academy (Alabama)

Montessori School of Raleigh (North Carolina)

The Newman School (Massachusetts)

Randolph School (Alabama)

Riverdale Country School (New York)

Royal St. George's College (Toronto, Canada)

San Francisco University High School (California)

Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (Washington)

Sidwell Friends School (Washington, DC)

St. Andrew's Episcopal School (Maryland)

St. Anne School (California)

St. John's School (Texas)

Sugar Bowl Academy (California)

TMI–The Episcopal School of Texas (Texas)

The Westminster Schools (Georgia)

Woodward Academy (Georgia)

York School (California)

York Country Day School (Pennsylvania)


Another institutional conversation encouraged by Folio is the articulation of a school's standards for effective teaching. Greenhill, for example, has made an inclusive process of generating its "Pillars" of excellence in teaching part of its Folio implementation.

One Folio tool, currently used by only a few Collaborative schools, inspires especially intense conversations: "Student Feedback." The first challenge, of course, is whether and when to implement this feature. As Fish observes, "It's not for every school." For those that do, a second challenge is to build student capacity in delivering effective feedback about their teachers. Says Monk, "Folio is about being more reflective and intentional, skills we need to teach students. I was very gun-shy about student feedback, so I spent a year teaching my seventh-grade kids how to do it, which made a huge difference. But you have to work at it."

Wagg believes schools should "be forthright and honest with students about the privilege and importance of giving constructive, helpful feedback to teachers — and that responsibility goes along with it. You do have to admit that some kids will never be ready to do this well. You can't deal with the outliers; you have to deal with the aggregate. The vast majority of teachers find it helpful — the kids tend to be nicer than you might give them credit for." Wagg further observes that "the fear among teachers has to do with whether the feedback might have career implications. This passes when the supervisor sits down with the teacher and puts it in context, which is that it's one part of a much bigger process."

Folio conversations can reveal and resolve issues, but they can't fix everything. There are teachers whose poor institutional fit or weak capacity jeopardizes their positions, and Folio conversations are not designed to generate miraculous turnarounds or counsel out struggling teachers. Collaborative schools address such cases through institutional processes that supersede Folio.

Folio also creates its own expectations, and Anne Teaff notes that, at Harpeth Hall, "the biggest problems, and there haven't been that many, have been if a department chair didn't follow the protocol. For example, if the chair posts an observation write-up before a post-observation conversation, that's not so good."

Overall, though, the idea that Folio is "conversations supported by software," as Fish envisions it, has taken root.

As Britton puts it, "If you can show support to teachers through thoughtful observations and feedback and conversations, that's a really awesome, powerful thing."

The Collaborative

The Folio Collaborative (a full roster can be found on page 77 or online at www .foliocollaborative.org/member-schools) consists of schools across North America: boarding and day, primary and elementary, middle and secondary, coeducational and single-sex, large and small, old and new. "What they have in common," says Fish, is that "the conversational approach resonates with their cultures, but they're each using it differently. As many schools as there are in the Collaborative, there are as many versions of how it's being used."

For example, David Farace, head of Montgomery Academy (Alabama), likes that Folio allows faculty "to develop portfolios. It also takes the grunt work out, leverages technology, and builds in accountability. When we rolled it out for faculty, they didn't even blink." Greenhill's Natalia Hernández appreciates that Folio acknowledges "the whole of a faculty member's commitment to the school — the classroom, but also things outside of the classroom. Folio recognizes the total teacher."

A critical Collaborative goal is to build an active learning community around the issue of professional growth. The Collaborative sponsors a summer institute as well as other events and a network of professional development resources. School-to-school conversation is also growing as members share questions about implementation.

It should be noted that some Collaborative schools are implementing Folio across all functions: faculty, administration, and staff. At Harpeth Hall, for example, only food service and building and grounds workers are not in Folio — although their directors are.

Folio's software heart continues to develop, but its life's blood is collaboration. "You could just buy the software," says Geoff Wagg, "but you'd lose having educators from a variety of environments working on helping teachers, administrators, and staffs be better at what they do. This cross-collaboration has a richness and potential that we haven't even begun to tap."

The Collaborative remains open to new membership, although Meredith Monk is clear that the number one goal is supporting schools, not growth. She sees her executive director role as "crystallizing the needs of the schools, reaching out and trying to learn: What do you need? What would make this better? What would make this easier? How are you using this in a way that really works for your school and that other schools could learn from? It's all about helping to connect people to each other."

Peter Gow is director of special programs at Beaver Country Day School (Massachusetts) and an author, blogger, and consultant on independent school professional, strategic, and cultural issues.

 

 
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