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Always Strive to Be a Better You

Turning Teacher Evaluations On Their Ears

Warning: Read this column only if you are interested in improving your school by maximizing the skill, effectiveness, and self-reflective abilities of your teaching staff. Do not read any further if you are looking for shortcuts, ways to avoid work, paperwork reduction, passing the buck, or generational wealth; the strategies and philosophy herein will probably not help with those things.

Where I live in Idaho, turkey season opens April 15 -- darn near the time we're scrambling to finish our taxes, reveling in the beginning of the baseball season, and, of course, writing our teacher evaluations.

I'm no hunter, but I pay taxes, love baseball, and set up camp in the principal's office this month. So it's an important, exciting time of year.

And, if you're like most principals, you probably also could use adjectives such as "stressful," "overwhelming," and "hectic" to describe teacher-evaluation time.

[content block] For decades, teacher evaluations have thrown us all for a loop. The scheduling, the classroom observations, the discussions, the reports, the checklists, the double-check-to-make-sure-we-haven't-written-anything-that-the-union-folks-will-use-to-flay-us-later routines-- it's an exhausting, demanding, tenuous adventure. Just ask our ulcers.

It's also a critical part of the most important work we do -- teacher improvement.


I'm sure you've all seen those widely circulated lists of characteristics shared by successful schools. One element finds itself onto every list I've seen. And if we were to prioritize, its impact on school improvement would be at the top, too. Of course, we're talking about teacher quality.

When it comes to the issue of teacher quality, there is probably no more eloquent spokesperson than Kati Haycock of The Education Trust. The fact is, Haycock says, that running a string of five consecutive high-quality teachers in the elementary grades eliminates -- not just reduces, but eradicates -- the achievement gap.

Yes, teacher quality matters immensely.

Which is why teacher evaluations matter immensely, too.

Teacher evaluation time is our opportunity to boost school improvement through teacher maximization (or, for those of you that like acronyms, SITTM).

SITTM is the only way to go.


Every school district has unique requirements for the teacher evaluation process. Some districts require a set number of formal observation periods. Some districts have a very specific protocol for principals to follow throughout this process. That doesn't mean that all principals follow those guidelines lock-step, however. I have worked with many different school districts, and I have seen many different interpretations of the evaluation process in action.

"For decades, teacher evaluations have thrown us all for a loop. Just ask our ulcers."

You might not believe this (and you, as enlightened readers of this column, certainly haven't done this), but some principals write teachers' evaluations without ever stepping foot into their classrooms. Other principals cut-and-paste narratives and just change teachers' names or submit nearly identical evaluations year after year. Some hand over the duties to the teachers to write the evals themselves--without ever adding any input. And some others ignore the realities of a teacher's performance, favoring instead to scribe innocuous pleasantries in order to pacify the teacher and prolong the "culture of nice," which leads nowhere but to bland instruction, mediocre education, and a stultified status quo.

Ugh. There is no SITTM there.

But SITTM is not out of anyone's reach. Regardless of the time requirements we must spend in teachers' classrooms, regardless of the number and frequency of formal observations we must make, and regardless of the stipulations of the teachers' contracts and district protocol, one viewpoint remains startlingly clear: if we are going to improve our schools, we need to focus on the teachers.


If you're at all familiar with my work, you know how much I believe in the effectiveness of frequent, informal, classroom observations with specific feedback. We call those walk-throughs.

"The final teacher evaluation document should neither be difficult to write nor contain surprises in content. It should be a step in the journey together -- a summative assessment in a formative new world."

Many districts and teachers unions have addressed the walk-through issue in one form or another. In some places, information gathered from walk-throughs is not allowed to enter evaluation documents; only data collected during formal, pre-announced, scheduled, documented, signed-in-triplicate classroom observations can be used to provide summary feedback to teachers on their annual performance review. What kind of sick joke is that? I'm pretty sure there are children in the room 180 days a year, 6 hours a day--and I believe every teacher's final evaluation should match their actual, yearly performance.

As principals, we have an opportunity (and obligation) to truly affect the quality of teaching that goes on in our buildings. Let's not waste it. If the final evaluation document is truly meant to be an accurate assessment of each teacher's performance over the course of the year, great. Let's collect as much information and data as we can to determine what the teacher did, how effective s/he was at it, and what the implications are for future teaching. Here are some ideas:

  • Let's look at student data. Have you ever heard of a mechanic who isn't graded (and paid) on whether or not the car runs properly after s/he's worked on it? Do we say the gardener is doing a great job planting trees if none of them grow and bear fruit? Teacher evaluations should include student output. That's the whole point of education, correct?
  • Let's look at how the teacher works as part of a collaborative team. Let's ask colleagues for input, let's talk with the students and their parents, and let's bring in the paraprofessionals that work with the teacher. Is there any reason to suspect that teaching is an isolated event? Should we assume that teaching takes place in a vacuum -- during that single lesson of the pre-planned formal observation period? The rest of the year didn't really happen?
  • Let's look at performance throughout the year. Most important of all, since it is our job to ensure teacher growth, let's provide ongoing feedback, targeted support, and offer plenty of opportunities for each teacher to self-reflect. Let's work together. The final teacher evaluation document should neither be difficult to write nor contain surprises in content. It should be a step in the journey together -- a summative assessment in a formative new world.

    Thats SITTM.


    As school leaders, we are partners with our teachers in the educational process. We are coaches, mentors, supervisors, sages, battering rams, cheerleaders, facilitators, sounding boards, punching bags, hitching posts--you name it, we play the roles. If our teachers are strong and effective in what they do, our students benefit. If our teachers are weak and ineffective, the students suffer.

    It makes sense to work with our teachers to ensure that they improve throughout the year. It makes sense to provide ongoing support and feedback to our teachers. It makes sense to observe them frequently and openly. It makes sense to view their work in the full context of the educational spectrum. And it makes sense to use the teacher evaluation document as a component in the SITTM process.

    We can't just do teacher evaluations because they're a requirement of our jobs--we need to use the evaluation process as a vehicle for change and improvement. We need to make it real, make it authentic, make it mean something.

    If our energy isn't spent here, where are we spending it?

    Always strive to be a better you,

    Article by Pete Hall
    Education World®
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