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Thursday / December 14

3 (Easy) Ways Principals Can Fix Teacher Evaluation—Right Now

This is the third of a four part series on increasing the effectiveness of the teacher evaluation process. The original post outlining this work can be found here and provides the groundwork for why teacher evaluation must be ‘fixed.’ This post speaks to three quick steps principals can take to improve the process immediately.

Less Observations, More Pressure

My son is 11 years old and loves basketball. He had two tryouts for two different traveling teams. The coach of Team A had watched him play over 100 times in the past three years. The coach of Team B had never seen him play. Team A was typically more competitive and a program with more prestige. Team B was located closer to home. He would have been happy making either team.

Tryouts approached and he was dramatically more nervous for the tryout for Team B. Why – unfamiliarity. He knew that the coach of Team A did not think he was perfect. In fact, he had seen some of his worst moments. But – he knew exactly where he stood with that coach and that made the process far less stressful.

It is pretty easy to understand the stress that unfamiliarity brings when we talk about kids and basketball – but we fail to recognize it within our own jobs.

Principals often lament that the evaluation process lacks meaning. When pressed, they often talk about how teachers just want to survive the event or that it produces such stress that it is nearly impossible to have a true learning experience. Principals are 100% correct in these assertions.

The issue is that there is one way to reduce the pressure – changed principal behavior. It is a simple combination – more visits with increased feedback leads to improved trust. The only thing that matters is the choice to invest the time.

If you do not have the time to invest, the results will stay the same. Remember – schedules reflect priorities. You can do this – get into more classrooms, have more conversations, make a bigger difference!

Stop the pre-conference madness

In most schools, our systems require two conversations throughout the entire year to really get in depth with our teachers about their practice. These opportunities present themselves as the pre- and post-conferences (or whatever specific vernacular your district chooses to employ to describe the face-to-face meeting before and after a formal observation). Unfortunately, these two ‘required’ conversations are the only times where principals and teachers deeply discuss pedagogy, curriculum, and instruction.

And, sadly for us, we still continually waste these opportunities to influence the hearts and minds of our teachers.

We focus so much on compliance and the upcoming (or just finished) lesson that we miss the opportunity to talk philosophy, preparation, and practice. We miss the opportunity to truly learn about the teacher. How can we help someone grow when we do not understand what they believe or the reasons for their behavior?

Here are five quick tips to break free from this cycle:

  • Never (NEVER!!) ask the same question in a pre-conference you already asked a teacher to respond to in writing.
  • Make sure at least half of your questions are about typical practice and process and not simply the lesson to be observed.
  • Replace ‘what’ questions with ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.
  • Talk less than 50 percent of the time.
  • If you are unsure of what to ask, consult your typical teacher interview questions for ideas on how to ask questions to learn more about philosophy and typical practice.

You cannot ‘win’ an evaluation

I have been a part of literally hundreds (if not thousands) of post-conference conversations. The overwhelming majority fall into one of three major categories:

  • Praise heaping
  • Rating justification
  • Point proving

Each of these conference styles has their faults. Praise heaping is easy and in most cases lazy. The teachers you heap praise on (often thinking you are making them happy) are the most eager to learn from constructive feedback. This opportunity for them to grow is wasted with flowery language and high marks. This practice is made even worse if word gets out in the teacher’s lounge that every conversation goes like this. This is when your real superhero teachers will know the praise is empty, further invalidating the process.

The second and third style both, at their simplest form, are about winning. Both conversations devolve into someone, typically the evaluator, trying to force their opinion or thought process unto someone else. We like to think these conversations are collaborative, but attempting to convince Mr. Smith that he is not proficient in Questioning and Discussion for 25 minutes does not meet that threshold.

When we get into the ‘win first’ mindset – we lose the entire point of the post-conference. The post-conference is designed to provide feedback so that a teacher can continue to grow and develop. Spending time and energy debating semantics about one of 22 sub-ratings does not serve this purpose.

The quick and easy fix is to ensure that after an introductory and reflective conversation that your MAIN priority as the evaluator is to agree to two to three key goals for every teacher. In addition to determining the goals, the teacher should be made confident that your role is not to help in creating the goals, but also to help in providing support so that they can achieve them.

Great principals know that they too have responsibility in the growth and development of every teacher. This is the same thing we demand from our teachers with their students. Great principals make the evaluation process meaningful by being committed, not just interested, to ensuring their teachers have the support necessary to grow.


The remaining post in this series will be on the superintendent’s role in helping to make evaluation meaningful.

Additionally, all of these topics are explored in detail in my new book, Making Evaluation Meaningful. I cannot wait to hear your feedback and to continue working together to improve our education system for all involved.

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning principal and Superintendent who is an expert in teacher evaluation, school culture, personalized learning, and student voice. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @MCUSDSupe.

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Written by

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning principal and Superintendent who is an expert in teacher evaluation, school culture, personalized learning, and student voice. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @MCUSDSupe.

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