“Every teacher deserves written feedback each year,” says Bill Smith, principal at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. He sees the evaluation process as a way for each staff member at Southwest to assess teaching and learning and ask, “How can we do it better?” rather than being “just about teachers keeping their jobs.”
Here’s an example of how it works. Last year, a successful teacher asked Smith for help in improving student transitions from one activity to another. Smith visited the classroom to observe for 30 minutes, and then “dropped in” twice during different class periods. Then he offered suggestions about class traffic patterns and class flow, and connected the teacher to others in the building who had similar teaching styles. Finally, he followed up with a return observation to see what had changed.
The way Smith sees it, such evaluations have been part of the culture at Southwest for as long as he’s been there, and are a natural part of the learning process for teachers, administrators, and students.
Last year, the district added on significant new layers of staff assessment and required paperwork. All teachers now receive four evaluations, including two focused evaluations and two short observations per year, as well as an extensive “full” evaluation every other year (or every year, by request).
The new evaluation process comes on top of the existing “Professional Development Plan” (PDP) program. The PDP program, which was adopted by the district in 1997, relied on teachers meeting in small groups and working on professional development together, with an administrator — Smith or one of three assistant principals.
One positive aspect of the new evaluation requirements is more feedback for every teacher in every year. In the old PDP program, only non-tenured or struggling teachers got full, individualized evaluations.
The new emphasis on administrators meeting in a structured way with individual teachers, however, takes a lot of time, as the new process also requires up to five or six hours of paperwork.
As an administrator, Smith feels he should be a hands-on presence in the building. This means being out in the halls with the kids, knowing the overall tone of the building, and stopping in to classrooms to confer with teachers in a more casual, less scripted manner.
With the time required for the new evaluations, Smith fears “losing sight of why we are doing this.” He has less time to gauge the school’s success as a whole, and feels the loss of a “building view” at Southwest.
Smith acknowledges that a principal can be a “career counselor” and identify teachers who aren’t succeeding and may need a career change. A more important role for him, however, is helping teachers and students succeed.
“If teachers aren’t making mistakes,” Smith said, “they aren’t trying hard enough.” He believes that evaluations should not be used to punish teachers, but to encourage them to grow professionally.
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Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.