Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Independent Schools

Working in schools is a vulnerable act. Every day can feel like a high-stakes performance review in front of an audience of young evaluators: performing effective planning, organization, pedagogy, relationship management, flexibility, patience, community building, knowledge of human psychology and all the additional skills of being an educator. It’s no wonder then that when teachers hear they’re about to be evaluated, anxiety sets in and amygdala hijack takes hold.

I also know that evaluation doesn’t have to be or feel this way. And if anything, in independent schools we have an excellent opportunity to develop evaluation instruments that are communal, learner-centered, growth-oriented, and ultimately, a celebration of all the possibilities this profession offers. This was the process we strived to remake at The Bay School of San Francisco these past two years and are in the process of implementing this year.

Why Even Bother with Evaluation?

After reading Sheila Heen and Doug Stone’s Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, I began to subscribe to a different way of thinking. In their book, Heen and Stone acknowledge that in workplace cultures we need a balance of appreciation, coaching, and evaluation:

  • Appreciation allows organizations to take an assets-based approach to professional practice; we get acknowledged for where we excel.
  • Coaching allows organizations to individualize feedback and growth and meet adult learners where they are (I have a lot more to say about the benefits of coaching, so I’ll leave it there for now).
  • Evaluation allows professionals in an organization to know where they stand among a set of standards that are markers of professional practice.

And when I thought about these three elements in tandem, I knew we had to reimagine our evaluation instrument for the better.

A Brief History of Evaluation at Our Site

When our school opened its doors in 2004, we were filled with vision and promise for our students, but we hadn’t fully considered how our vision would translate into teacher growth and evaluation. A small committee of dedicated teachers and leaders looked at our then-lean salary schedule (which had significant increases in pay among four generally-defined teaching bands) and determined that if we were going to offer such big jumps in pay after a certain number of years, then we needed an instrument that mirrored those increases. What started as a prototype for a 360º professional review process then turned into a gauntlet-like gatekeeper between one band and the next. Evaluation was elective rather than expected, and some teachers could spend their entire tenure at our site without ever entering into the process.

While those who passed evaluation felt good about the pay increase, the experiences of evaluation were mixed—for everyone. Supervisors felt the pressure to pass people through evaluation because of pay, and even the most growth-oriented teachers had trouble admitting that evaluation was solely for the growth. In an increasingly high cost-of-living region, who could blame anyone for the roles they played in the process?

Connecting with Our Core Values

As a teacher at my site, I engaged in our evaluation process twice, and while both times taught me a lot about where I stood at that moment in time, I admittedly felt better about my compensation than my growth. For a school that offers its students a “mindful approach to learning and life,” this type of instrument felt counter-cultural. When I stepped into an instructional coaching role, I found I was working with teachers to help them pass evaluation, but more as a stop on the journey than collaborating with someone who could be coached in a transformative way.

When I became the Dean of Faculty, I wanted to shift perceptions about evaluation, and I wanted the model to be more reflective of the school I had come to know and love for more than a decade. After all, if we could bear witness to our students waking up to their own potential as learners, why couldn’t we offer the same for our teachers? And thus, we entered into a two-year process that yielded an outcome far more aligned with who we are and who we hope our teachers could be.

Building from a Firm Foundation

While re-envisioning our evaluation instrument is the focal point of this piece, our school was able to undergo this process because of our already strong foundation for effective teaching and professional support. We already had spent several years honing our Teacher Effectiveness criteria through examining teacher performance standards nationally and within our state, crowdsourcing faculty input, and developing a final document that outlines excellence in the profession alongside what great teaching looks like at Bay. We used these criteria in our hiring, support, coaching, and then-evaluation processes; we even designed in-house professional development workshops (Teaching Seminars) around focal points of Bay’s effective teaching  criteria (like cultural responsiveness or formative assessment). Alongside our in-house professional development, our school had developed an instructional coaching model to support teachers in more targeted and dedicated ways. Finally, we had spent time developing more rigorous goals protocols for all teachers, and with the use of Folio, we hoped to create more transparency and support for the goal-setting process.

Evaluation Overhaul: A Recipe for Revision and Reinvestment

While every school will have a different way of assessing their evaluation instrument, and while this post won’t go into great detail about every phase of our process, the following components will hopefully be enough to address what we deemed important when redesigning such a high-stakes instrument:

Assess culture and get clear about our why: Our previous evaluation instrument countered many of our school values, and as we determined our rationale for evaluation, we needed to get clear on the aspects of our school culture we most embodied in our work. Our rationale also had to be clear and transparent to all school stakeholders. If we were about to make the important decision of unlinking evaluation and compensation and we were going to acknowledge that the process of change was going to be long and challenging, then we needed to be firm in our why and let it be known.

Generate essential questions: As any seasoned educator knows, designing with the end in mind is an important part of any process-oriented endeavor. And as we envisioned our evaluation, a group we call Academic Committee (comprised of senior-level administrators and department chairs who represent their respective disciplines), began with two essential questions we hoped to answer in the process:

  • How can our school offer a more frequent and sustainable evaluation system that is mission-aligned, unlinked from compensation, and geared towards teacher growth?
  • How can our school draw upon best evaluation practices from the field and within the school (what’s working in the current system) to offer an evaluation experience that is meaningful for all stakeholders?

With these questions in mind, we had a central focus for our work.

Attend to hopes and emotions at the outset: An important part of any design process is considering what one wants to say and how one wants to feel when a change effort is completed. In one of our initial meetings, each committee member shared what they wanted evaluees to say by the end of an evaluation cycle, and comments like the following guided our purpose and vision for this work:

  • Teachers reflect on their practice and embrace feedback as part of professional work
  • It’s a clear, real, authentic, supportive, collaborative process from start to finish and beyond
  • They were prepared going into the process
  • The evaluator has a comprehensive picture of the teacher (planning, preparation, lesson, collaboration)
  • Highlights strengths as well as identifies areas for growth
  • People are inspired, saying, “I want to do it again.”

Carefully plan the process, and give ourselves more time than we need: With our hopes and essential questions in mind, I developed a two-year timeline that involved conducting field research, assessing what works in our current instrument, dreaming big about what’s possible, prototyping potential models, leveraging our firm foundation of teacher support and growth documentation, and test-driving mini components of our evaluation where we could. For year one, I spent an hour or two each week researching evaluation models, visiting school sites, talking with my counterparts across schools, and collecting information about how organizations across the nation approach evaluation. In year two of our process, we spent one to two sessions a month analyzing data, getting visionary, and distilling ideas into what was practical and doable for our site.

Stay open to total reinvention: We kept our hopes in mind in the design process, and we set agreements to stay open to a range of creative possibilities. During our prototyping phase (which we called our Design Challenge), teams of committee members opened ourselves up to develop something that would be completely original to our site and culture. Each design team spent two meetings designing potential models and sharing them with our committee. We then determined what felt doable for us while ensuring our essential questions were at the forefront of our thinking. From there, I pulled the best of both presentations and began drafting models.

Make small bets, and test them: Because our prototyping phase occurred in the winter time, I was able to pilot portions of the instrument with some of our newer teachers, framing the work as supporting teacher goals and growth. A willing team comprised of our Teaching Fellows Coordinator, Humanities Department Chair, me (Dean of Faculty), and our Teaching Fellow, engaged in what we dubbed a “mini-evaluation” a three-month process that involved an initial team meeting, Fellow-selected goals, class observations with follow-up feedback, “artifact” gathering of teacher practice and feedback (shared in a Google folder), and an end-of-year meeting to share each of our perspectives on teacher growth. Because of our shared investment, the process was meaningful and taught us much about what might be possible. We also learned about some potential pitfalls that would help shape our next iteration.

Share the design with school stakeholders and be open to feedback: After test-driving portions of our instrument, we reflected with our committee about what worked and what needs more attention. We did some further revision and developed a draft model for new-to-Bay teachers and experienced-at-Bay teachers; by the end of the year, we shared a draft of our instrument with faculty. Because our department chairs on the Academic Committee represent the interests of the faculty, and because those of us who had been at Bay a long time had lived with a model that didn’t serve us, the presentation went better than expected. At the very least, we knew we were ready to begin piloting/implementing this instrument with our new hires.

Where We Are Now

This school year we piloted the process with new-to-Bay teachers, and in our final team meetings, I asked evaluees how the process went for them. The overarching sentiment among our five evaluees mirrored our initial hopes:

  • The process was challenging and meaningful
  • The collaborative model was helpful and supportive
  • The process highlights teachers strengths and areas for growth
  • Evaluees have a lot of agency in the process—much like the hopes we outlined in the process.

Sadly, I’m leaving my school at the end of this year, so I won’t be able to oversee the second year of the instrument’s implementation with our experienced teachers. However, I feel confident that we’ve developed something that will serve our community and students for years to come, ensuring teachers get what they need so students can thrive. And departing with that hope in mind has me inspired.

Lori Cohen has worked in education (both public and independent) for two decades and currently serves as the Dean of Faculty at the Bay School of San Francisco. Prior to her current role at Bay, Lori taught Humanities, Literature, and Religion/Philosophy courses; served as an Instructional Coach; and was the founder/coordinator of Bay’s Teaching Fellows program. This will be Lori’s sixth year as a co-facilitator/teacher leader in Teaching Foundations, a program that brings her joy and professional rejuvenation. In addition to facilitating professional development, teaching, and leading, Lori actively works towards equity and social justice in education, striving to offer access and pathways for all school stakeholders to thrive.

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