Building a Culture of Growth and Evaluation in Schools

Fall 2013

By Catherine J. Hall

Despite dozens of trends in education over the last hundred years, teaching and learning have not changed meaningfully in principle or in practice. We have certainly debated which student outcomes we value most, or whether we should reallocate particular school resources from one program to another, but the basic model of schooling has been more or less stable over time. Where our conversation about education takes a left turn is when we try to identify a fair and consistent way to assess how well students can demonstrate these outcomes and, taking it a step further, when we try to evaluate how well teachers impact these outcomes.

Evaluation. There may be no word that makes teachers more nervous or anxious. In schools, it often conjures up painful images of teachers being called into an administrator's office for stern judgment — one step short of probation or being pushed out the door. Even when the evaluation process is less punitive, or even positive, it can be unnerving. Opening oneself up to the scrutiny of others leaves one feeling incredibly vulnerable and — because it is so personal — often distrustful of the process.

To make matters worse, public schools have found themselves in the unenviable trap of tying faculty evaluation to student performance, primarily through standardized tests. The process leaves teachers living and working in fear of punitive consequences for matters over which they have little or no control. The situation in New York City recently — in which the city and the teachers' union agreed to an evaluation process that gives principals greater freedom to boot "bad" teachers — highlights the dangerous nature of this type of system, and how easily it can undermine teacher morale. In the Huffington Post, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of the agreement, "It will put students first, further empower our principals, and solidify our accountability measures…. Good teachers will become better ones and ineffective teachers can be removed from the classroom."1 Despite the mayor's enthusiasm, this get-tough, top-down mindset is more likely to put teachers' growth at odds with the stated objectives for schools and kids. It's also more likely to discourage bright young people from entering the profession altogether.

Independent schools have long found themselves on the other end of the evaluation spectrum. Until recently, under the banner of teacher autonomy, teachers have often been left more or less to their own devices, without anyone observing them in action or offering regular professional feedback. It was only when enough complaints came in about a teacher that the "evaluation system" was pulled out of the drawer and put into action. Not surprisingly, the primary effect of this process was to give teachers the idea that "evaluation" was strictly punitive. With few exceptions, it was never used as a tool for growth or as a way of supporting faculty.

Most independent school leaders would now tell you that they hope to create a culture of evaluation in their schools that does focus on professional growth. They want teachers to engage in dialog with supervisors. They want ongoing professional development tied to goals. And they want ways of bringing transparency to the teaching in their schools. To achieve these ends, we need to start from the ground up, beginning with a reframing of what evaluation means in our schools.

Building a Growth Mindset


We have lofty and idealized goals for our teachers, hoping they will stay in our schools for years, thriving in the classroom and connecting with kids in the classroom, on athletic fields, in clubs, and through advisories. We want teachers to feel nurtured and supported, surrounded by supervisors and colleagues who challenge them, guide them, and inspire them. When evaluation is truly tied to a growth mindset, all of these things become a reality.

So how do we get there? There are four key ingredients to a growth mindset in schools: observation, dialog, feedback, and investment.

Getting Teachers Talking to Teachers


The old model of teaching in an independent school left the teacher isolated. By giving the degree of independence granted to many teachers over the years, we were robbing them of vital opportunities to connect with colleagues professionally. There were few formal channels to get teachers talking, let alone watching each other teach. Getting your teachers talking to one another is one of the most important parts of a healthy growth mindset.

Teacher-to-teacher dialog breaks down the walls between divisions, departments, and grade levels, drawing out the core tenets of what we value in how and what we teach. This conversation can be incredibly empowering and affirming for teachers. We often instinctively assume that competition among peers or a fear of receiving negative peer feedback will emerge. Quite the opposite is typically true. Teachers love to give one another praise when asked and are often very willing to share insights or comments that are constructive and supportive.

To generate the best kind of dialog among teachers, it is crucial to get them into one another's classrooms. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling scheduled out of this kind of activity, but it is essential in building the kind of school culture that promotes growth. The benefits of peer observation go both ways. Teachers learn a tremendous amount about their own teaching by watching peers, and the person being observed gains a great deal of insight and support through this process. While you can use a framework for peer observation to bring continuity and regimentation to the process, you can start small by asking each teacher to step into at least two colleagues' rooms in a year and, afterward, simply talk with those colleagues about the experience. This one simple practice will transform conversations in your schools.

Another way to generate healthy teacher dialog is through systematized review of areas of your curriculum. I have seen very few conversations more meaningful to curriculum growth than those in which teachers from pre-K through 12th grade get together to talk about a single curricular strand. The amount they learn from one another is tremendous, and it is a great opportunity to build strong collegial connections and enrich your curriculum. At my school, we bring in outside reviewers to look at each program area as part of this dialog, but you can start small by setting up discipline-specific conversations twice a year. The meetings alone will be worth their weight in gold.

Making Supervisor Conversations Matter


Teachers often feel that goals meetings or end-of-year meetings with their supervisors are either a formality they could do without or a threatening encounter in which they are under some form of attack. Underlying both sentiments is the idea that their supervisor — be it the department chair or the division head — does not know them and their teaching well. At the core of a growth mindset is a trust-building process between teacher and supervisor. Trust will only exist if the supervisor gets into the teacher's classroom often, if he or she seeks to understand the teacher's goals and challenges in the context of the work, and if he or she makes time for more than one meaningful conversation during the year with the teacher.

In an ideal world, each teacher would have someone in his or her classroom on a regular basis. University of Wyoming professor Bret Range argues that division heads should be in each teacher's classroom weekly.2 This is likely not realistic at most schools, but the important point here is that the supervisor needs to have clear insight into the teacher's pedagogy and practice beyond the one-time snapshot gained from an annual formal observation. There needs to be something in between that allows the teacher to truly feel known in the school. We can't expect a teacher to trust the feedback from a supervisor if the teacher feels that the supervisor does not know who he or she is as a teacher. Building trust starts with regular observation.

Supervisors also need to set up several opportunities for dialog with each teacher. While there certainly should be a front-end goals meeting and an end-of-year summary meeting with each teacher, we want to create fewer formal opportunities in the middle to chat about a class that went wrong or simply fell flat, to check in on professional growth plans, or to talk about a challenging student.

These conversations and observations undoubtedly take time, but they are the bread and butter of what make teachers feel supported and challenged in all the right ways. Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and a longtime advocate of teacher preparation and support, writes, "Teachers' feelings about administrative support, resources for teaching, and teacher input into decision-making are strongly related to their plans to stay in teaching and to their reasons for leaving."3

When teachers feel understood, valued, and supported, they are willing to be pushed into a stretch zone that enables them to thrive.

The Feedback Loop


Teacher evaluation is often tethered too tightly to one flavor of feedback. In the public school model, that feedback is heavily weighted toward standardized test scores. In independent schools, the feedback often is skewed by anecdotes — those random comments made by a parent, colleague, or student that the supervisor brings up as an "example" in a closing meeting with the teacher.

The idea of giving our teachers systematic feedback can be scary for all involved. On the surface of it, peer feedback would appear to invite backstabbing and mean-spiritedness, and student feedback would invite nasty comments from students who earned low grades. When done well and in a consistent, clear way, however, these feedback loops provide the range of perspectives needed for teachers to truly reflect on their teaching and the students' experiences.

Peers will gladly give shout-outs to colleagues through a formal evaluation process. They are flattered to be engaged in the discussion and, if anything, will need to be coached on how to deliver some feedback that is less than positive. This process ends up affirming the teachers being reviewed and confirms that what they think they are doing well they are actually doing well. Peer affirmation is priceless.

Student feedback is a trickier mountain to climb. To solicit constructive student feedback, there needs to be a controlled mechanism to gather the data and a structure to the prompts that will draw out the meaningful feedback and, wherever possible, discourage the immature hurtful comment. Training students ahead of time about the responsibility that comes with this type of feedback is essential. It is also a great opportunity for your students to learn about the value of critique and as an act of reflection on their work in school. Should you choose to go this route, select a standardized way of collecting the feedback and establish clear policies regarding who views the data and how it is disseminated to the teacher and the supervisor.

Key to any form of peer or student feedback is how this data is processed. This is where the trusting relationship with the supervisor comes into play. The supervisor is the essential guide in working with the teacher to tease out of this observation and feedback process some goals and growth steps. If a teacher goes into a meeting with his or her supervisor having received a mean student comment and walks out feeling supported with solid, productive goals, trust will grow — and a growth mindset will begin to take hold.

Investment with Returns


Teachers and supervisors need to be jointly invested in the growth mindset of the school. If your school is considering a new faculty evaluation system, it is crucial that faculty be involved in the process of identifying the core elements of the system and in selecting the tool to use. If, in any way, this smacks of a top-down effort to purge the school of bad teachers, there will be no buy-in and little if any growth. While you should expect plenty of angst from some faculty as you develop this system, clarity about the purpose and the plan — aiming for full transparency — is essential to the faculty's long-term investment in your efforts.

It is also important to regularly assess your evaluation system as you implement the new tool. You are bound to make mistakes with timing, setup, or other logistics, and a reflective approach will only improve the system and increase teacher buy-in.

As we seek to establish our own quality measures and evaluatory mechanisms regarding teaching, we must place them squarely inside a growth-mindset framework. At the end of the day, we want to attract and retain excellent teachers who feel empowered by a model that both pushes and supports them in their work each day.

Notes

1. Janon Fisher. "Teacher Evaluation Decision by State Education Commissioner Cuts Though NYC, Union Impasse." The Huffington Post, June 3, 2013. www.huffingtonpost.com.

2. Bret Range. "Supervision, the Most Important Part of Teacher Evaluations." Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, June 2, 2013, www.trib.com.

3. Linda Darling-Hammond. "Keeping Good Teachers: Why It Matters, What Leaders Can Do." Educational Leadership. May 2003, v. 60, no. 8, pp. 7–13

Author
Catherine J. Hall

Catherine J. Hall is the assistant head of school at The Episcopal Academy (Pennsylvania). Follow her on Twitter (@cjohnsonhall) and on her blog (teachlearninspire.com).