Using Teacher Evaluations—and Trust—to Improve School Culture

Using Teacher Evaluations—and Trust—to Improve School Culture

Building trust‘Tis the season . . . and I’m not thinking of Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow. It’s the season of fall teacher observations. These are likely the observations of new hires or novice teachers who are in their 90-day introductory period window.

How can these and other teacher evaluations be leveraged to improve school culture?

Let’s begin with defining an ideal school culture. In my opinion, all the adults in the building view themselves as professional learners and are, in fact, not only open to growth, but seek it through collegial conversations.  Through these reflective conversations with peers—coaches and supervisors—as well as engaging in professional development, teachers hold themselves responsible for their learning, and they work to build the capacity of their colleagues through high-yield dialogue and best-practices sharing. Teachers build bridges among colleagues and exude trust and care for one another. They focus on learning, engage in developing and maintaining a collaborative culture, and have a dogged results orientation; these are three big ideas that Fullan and Dufour speak to as defining the core of professional learning communities (PLCs).

Fundamental to such an ideal school culture is trust. I love the post by Dave Bowman, The Five Best Ways to Build – and Lose – Trust in the Workplace. Oftentimes we read articles about how to build trust, but seldom do we read much about how to lose trust. According to Bowman, some of the ways in which we lose trust are when we act and speak inconsistently, withhold information, and are close-minded. As educators, we need to ensure we check ourselves; if we want an ideal, high-performing culture, we can’t engage in any trust-losing behaviors. Rather, when building trust through words and actions, we have to set a vision and course for growth—raise the bar, close the gap, relentlessly and unapologetically pursue the vision and course for excellence, and ensure processes and opportunities to achieve it are embedded in the school.

Teacher evaluations are generally thought of as something that is done to a teacher, rather than for and with a teacher. If teacher evaluations are to be the latter, there has to be a high level of trust in order for a teacher to engage in reflective conversations on their practice with peers, coaches, or administrators. Additionally, there has to be supports in place for a teacher to engage in professional development. There are a myriad of resources to be tapped inside the building to support teacher growth, such as establishing PLCs, to forming study groups to review and discuss articles, books, online resources, and best practice videos. There are opportunities outside the school building as well, including conferences, workshops, and continuing education courses.

All educators involved in teacher evaluations should be involved in collective capacity building. Fullan and Quinn define collective capacity building as “the increased ability of educators—principals, assistant principals, deans, teachers, master teachers, coaches, instructional specialists, etc.—to make instructional improvements required for achieving academic excellence.” There is no “increased ability,” no growth, without change. So any instructional changes to be made involve growth, and while individual teachers grow in order to meet the needs of their students, the educators in a school and throughout the system are charged with the responsibility to own the vision and course for excellence, to work both independently and collectively to raise the bar and close the gap for all students.

Teacher evaluation systems should use a common instrument for teacher evaluation so as to foster reflective conversation practices and professional development for growth. An effective teacher evaluation system measures and provides supports for teachers on performance that immediately and over time yields growth in student achievement.

Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching captures, to the extent that a single evaluation instrument can, the multiple facets of teaching. The framework communicates these facets via four domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. Each domain is comprised of 5−6 components. This framework provides the professional language to be adopted by a school or system and is a lens for a school’s or system’s educators to review, assess, and develop reflective conversation practices and consider professional development needs relative to assessing teaching performance in the context of an overall evaluation system.

An activity that could be employed as a starting point for reflective conversation and professional development is to use the Framework for Teaching and provide teachers with an opportunity to self-assess according to the 4 domains and 22 components. Further, if trust is established, teachers could move beyond self-assessment and into grade-level discussions, departmental discussions, reflective dialogue between administrators and teachers, and coaching conversations among master and novice teachers. These types of collegial conversations help to develop collective capacity and leverage teacher evaluations for developing a school culture focused on growth.

Reflective practice and professional development are the responsibility of all educators in the school building and system. In a positive culture, everyone views themselves as learners and all are open to growth. In a school and system where trust is established and supports are provided, administrators and teachers who engage in reflective practice and professional development thrive.

1 Comment

  1. Carolyn Deyo November 17, 2015 Reply

    Susan, thank you for these great comments which I agree with. I have a few words to add about trust in education.

    I have been in education long enough to remember when continual teacher professional growth was a given; that is, if a teacher managed to make it through another year, there would be learning and improvement of skill that resulted as a direct result of that experience, which included school-sponsored professional development. Although obviously the level of that growth is a function of each individual’s commitment and willingness to self-examine, the generalized assumption that in teaching, experience results in skills growth, was a reasonable rationale for a modest but at least symbolically significant automatic wage increase. In other words, the system trusted the teacher to improve at least a little each year, and each teacher was rewarded with an annual salary increase to represent that improvement and added value to the school and students.

    These days, teacher raises are often withheld, or only given when earned through evaluation systems that are of course imperfect and at times threatening and/or disrespectful. These days, the brightest women who historically chose education as a profession are drawn to business and law and medicine. These days, labor unions often have a bad name despite the good humanitarian work they have done. These days, teacher turnover is often alarmingly high, leaving school communities fragmented and transitional more often than in the past. In terms of trust, I believe it would do wonders if teachers could trust school systems to grant them a salary increase for each year of adequate service and professional development participation; and if they could trust their principals to treat them with the dignity and respect due their profession.

    Of course in many schools and systems this happens, but when it is not happening, teachers become discouraged or leave the field, and students suffer. It is time that systems and schools adopt an attitude of trusting and empowering teachers as a starting point for improvement, including making automatic annual salary increases, at least up to pre-set maximums, mandatory.

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