In Practice: Creating a Reflective Teacher Evaluation System
and Sara Deveaux
The teacher evaluation process is often construed as a daunting, time-consuming exercise that produces little more than a portfolio of work filed away in an undisclosed location. The process may occur so infrequently that professional growth, which should be the goal of any effective evaluation, is difficult to attain, assess, and sustain. Encouraging and supporting faculty to grow in their profession is one of the key goals of any successful educational institution; too often, however, the evaluation process is unrelated to systematic professional growth.
At The Loomis Chaffee School (CT), our evaluation system was thorough, including a self-evaluation, a portfolio, observations from three different colleagues, and letters of evaluation from the department head, dormitory head, and dean of faculty. Incoming teachers were evaluated in their first, second, third, and fifth years. They told us they appreciated a process that honored all aspects of boarding school life; however, in spring 2017, faculty survey results forced us to recognize that perhaps the old model was not serving us as well as we thought. We couldn’t ignore the criticism, including comments such as:
“Evaluation fatigue: Death by feedback.”
“Year five should be different from year three … and from years one and two for that matter.”
“The process should be more self-directed and reflective. As teachers we always talk about the fact that the one who does the work does the learning. Shouldn’t we be applying that lesson to our own system?”
“Do we do anything at all to support our senior teachers?”
Perhaps we had outgrown our system. It had been 10 years since we had made any changes to it, and in that time, the school’s Henry R. Kravis ’63 Center for Excellence in Teaching had opened with a goal of bringing research-informed practice to our faculty. The center, which encouraged responsible experimentation and reflection was a welcome addition; many colleagues sought out optional professional development and just dropped in to work through the everyday problems we encounter in the classroom. But the Kravis Center operated completely independently from our evaluation system, which seemed to suggest that teachers were fixed and finished after year five.
In September 2017, we convened an Evaluation Working Group to imagine a system that would better serve the professional development needs of our faculty.
With the goal of identifying an evaluation model that would foster and promote a culture of reflection and professional development, leverage student feedback to help teachers grow, and alleviate the considerable burden the evaluation system placed on department heads and the dean of faculty, the working group began. Faculty members applied to be a part of the group, and we recruited members who had specific skills we needed. The resulting group of eight colleagues included two department heads, two young faculty who had recently finished the evaluation process, and two senior faculty who had not been formally evaluated or observed in more than 20 years. The group included representation from every academic department, including the arts.
Throughout the course of seven months and 22 meetings, we endeavored to fully understand the problem and finalize our resulting proposal with approval from the head of school. It started with a research phase in which we interviewed more than 20 faculty members, including those recently evaluated, veteran faculty members, and department heads. Then, we examined research measuring teacher effectiveness and effective professional development. We studied the most successful approaches to teacher evaluation at peer institutions and colleges.
Then we began creating a new system based on three pillars. First, the evaluation system should be faculty-owned: formative more than summative, based on the premise that “the one who does the work does the learning” and, therefore, that faculty member will improve and get better at their craft if they are in charge of that process. Next, meaningful professional growth should be sustained and ongoing. We do not believe in the finished teacher, and we wanted to create a culture that honors experience and expertise but also pushes our teachers in meaningful ways at every step in their careers. And third, the evaluation system should feel simple, not overly bureaucratic. Evaluation at its worst extremes feels either like a box-checking exercise or like a slog, dependent on massive amounts of time and resources. We wanted our new system to be ambitious in its outcomes but not in its footprint.
The New Model
We replaced the first-year evaluation with an intentional, year-long program of mentorship, cohort building, and reflective practice for all faculty new to the school. We cut traditional, early career, summative evaluation events from first, second, third, and fifth years to just second and fourth, and we made sure the two remaining years felt different from one another. We created a new cohort-driven inquiry project process for experienced teachers every four years; it begins with a question that leads to an intentional pedagogical change and ends with a critical examination of the results of that change.
Finally, and perhaps most controversial, we mandated yearly professional development for all teachers not taking part in a formal evaluation. We were hesitant to encroach on the freedom that faculty had to decide when and what professional growth experiences they would pursue, and how often they would do so. When we reached out to more than 25 schools during our research phase, asking whether they mandated teachers to take part in professional learning opportunities every year, only one responded in the affirmative. From the other schools, the typical response was, “No, but let us know how it goes.” Through our research and discussion, we concluded that setting an expectation for professional learning outside of evaluation years was critical for growth, and we hoped that our faculty would embrace this expectation. This “PD year” begins with a goal-setting exercise and ends with an authentic reflection activity such as sharing takeaways with a presentation to departmental colleagues or writing a short article for an internal audience.
To support this initiative, we increased our PD budget with the financial backing from our board of trustees, but it was imperative that we also create and design in-house opportunities that reflect the needs of our faculty and mitigate this cost. In 2019–2020, the second year of the program, more than half of the 60 faculty members participating in a PD year pursued internal, low-cost opportunities.
The schedule Loomis Chaffee adopted five years ago includes a time specifically set aside for PD and collaboration. This weekly, 60-minute time slot is sacrosanct and can only be used for PD. Much formal programming like instructional coaching seminars, yearlong book clubs, professional learning communities, and other collaborative ventures for faculty occur during this slot, but we do not otherwise dictate its use, given that flexibility and choice is one of our central design features.
Although we chose to put all teacher evaluation on hold during the pandemic, one key philosophy of the system remained clear: Sustained conversations and collaboration between teachers offer opportunities for the most significant and meaningful growth. Here’s what
The Kravis Center mission states, “We aim to instill in our faculty the same passion for life-long learning that we seek to instill in our students.” We believe that the system of evaluation and professional growth that we created moves us closer to this ideal.
- Design a system centered on professional growth rather than for onboarding new faculty or for disciplining underperforming teachers. Taking part in a professional growth system that encourages observation, feedback (from both teachers and students), and conversation normalizes a growth mindset, which is an integral part of any evaluation process.
- Celebrate faculty professional growth. We encourage faculty to engage in informal conversations on teaching and learning through weekly opportunities to observe and share with colleagues what one is currently doing in the classroom; Monday Musings, the Kravis Center weekly blog on pedagogy; and Thursday morning discussions focused on teaching and learning. Department presentations about professional growth allow faculty to share and make visible their learning with colleagues.
- Assure faculty that they have a voice and choice. Faculty feel a greater sense of ownership and therefore are more invested in their growth when they are able to choose their path based on their goals.
- Normalize nonevaluative observation and feedback. To build a mindset that allows the evaluation year to be more growth-focused and less anxiety-provoking, faculty-led professional learning communities are centered on observation, pre- and post-observation discussions, and decreasing the vulnerability that faculty often feel when entering an evaluative year.
- Respect the process. An administration that demonstrates respect for the growth process and the product of that growth is a key factor in the development and implementation of an effective system. Administrators must work to ensure that there is adequate time and space for every teacher to pursue a professional learning path.
Connecting the evaluation process with professional development is a key part of supporting independent school faculty and staff. Read more about these topics as well as talent and the workforce more broadly in the Fall 2017 issue of Independent School magazine, which includes articles such as: