Previously published in the AASPA Perspective Newsletter, August 2011.
The importance of teacher evaluations has never been greater, as the process presents an opportunity for educators to develop their curriculum to best meet student needs, while providing valuable feedback to school leaders. Effective teacher evaluations help build a stronger educational system while identifying professional development needs and teacher expectations. Though the quality and type of evaluation methods (such as classroom walk-ins, sit-in observations or external evaluators) may vary from one state to the next, the delivery of performance feedback remains at the heart of the process.
Providing effective feedback is one of the most critical components to fostering improved performance for any educator. Every educator deserves the opportunity to improve and grow professionally from more effective feedback. The question is, what is effective feedback, and how easily can it be incorporated into an existing performance evaluation process? Effective feedback is about reinforcing desired behavior, which by nature, encourages more of the same behavior, a positive benefit to be sure. However, effective feedback is also about identifying the areas in which a staff member’s performance is lacking, and for many, this can create uncomfortable situations for both the evaluator and teacher. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When providing feedback to a teacher—as with an employee in any other setting—it is paramount that one begins a performance evaluation conversation by providing the good news before the bad. As mentioned earlier, when high performance is reinforced using specific examples of what they have done well, you encourage more of the same. Similarly, when skill and performance gaps are identified, specific examples give the teacher an opportunity to learn from their experience, and make the required adjustments in the future.
When the feedback is specific and actionable and delivered in a constructive, non-confrontational manner, the individual comes away from the performance evaluation feeling valued and appreciated, which in turn results in a higher level of engagement in the classroom, and satisfaction in their work—all of which contribute to higher quality academic performance. Knowing how to deliver feedback is one thing, but delivering that feedback consistently, throughout the year will give you the stress relief you’re looking for come the end of the final semester. Consistent feedback can be delivered formally, or informally, as there are benefits to be realized from both. Formal, regular feedback sessions should occur as frequently as possible. A report from The New Teacher Project asserts that all teachers should be evaluated at least once a year to provide "ongoing feedback on their performance that all professionals deserve." This gives school leaders and staff an opportunity to revisit academic and personal goals, and identify professional development needs.
Fortunately, delivering additional feedback throughout the year doesn’t always have to be within a formal, structured environment. Informal feedback can be as simple as a "thank you" or a "great job" delivered the hallway or in a public forum in front of peers, perhaps during a faculty meeting. When delivered in a staff group environment, a spin off benefit can result, as others within the group may be inspired by the praise and therefore attempt to emulate the behavior of their peer. Of course, any feedback that one might possibly interpret as negative should be delivered confidentially.
If delivered regularly, even informally, during the entire school year, rather than just at the end, there will be no surprises. It will help teachers identify the link between their teaching goals and their teaching methods. Furthermore, everyone will know where they stand, helping remove a significant amount of stress from year end processes.
When this is compared in contrast with performance evaluation feedback delivered only at the end of the school year, you soon realize that neither of the parties invested in the process has an opportunity to truly benefit. Feedback on performance given in a single dose, in any work environment is suboptimal, but when delivered at a time when students and teachers alike are heading out the door for summer vacation gives your staff no immediate outlet through which they can implement change based on your feedback—be it positive or negative.
With performance appraisals delivered and the school shuttered for three months, teachers return in the fall without their most recent performance evaluation feedback fresh in their minds. Old habits invariably return, rendering the recommended changes moot. Any enthusiasm generated by positive feedback delivered before summer simply melts away, while strategically identified areas where performance was lacking is lost in the shuffle.
Effective feedback delivered throughout the year will help you as the evaluator discover what makes your staff tick, uncovering the root causes that lie in the shadows of poor performance, so you can identify any pain points for your staff that may be holding them back. Similarly, consistent feedback will reveal the environment in which your school excels, affording you the opportunity to recreate those conditions—be they structural or otherwise—whenever possible.
Adam Cobb is regional manager with Halogen Software. He focuses on helping K-12 school and district leaders and administrators optimize their teacher and staff evaluation approach and overall talent management practices.