In schools, sometimes on a daily basis, there is discourse. Educators work day in and day out with each other, and there is always a chance that things will not go well. Most people believe that the principal is there to mediate between adults when things go wrong, and this is true, but what happens when the principal is the one in the wrong? Who provides principals with the feedback they need?
The typical evaluation model requires a leader to evaluate the staff they lead. Principals evaluate their staff and the superintendent evaluates the principal. It’s the way evaluation has always worked … or sometimes why it may not work at all.
What if we looked at evaluation differently?
What if it didn’t have to be top-down and didn’t always have to be so administrative?
Feedback is vitally important to everyone. Adults are far from perfect, even though some would like their students to think they are. The reality is that we can all use effective feedback to improve our instructional or administrative practices.
As an elementary principal, I evaluate my staff, and my superintendent evaluates me. As much as the feedback I receive from my superintendent is important, the feedback I receive from my staff is equally as, or even more, important because I have the opportunity to receive it on a daily basis.
I trust my staff. We have a very good relationship with each other. As much as they expect me to give them feedback when they need it, I have the same expectation. I am not perfect and believe that even the most gifted of educators can improve. We make mistakes every day, whether it’s that we communicate badly or don’t communicate at all. It’s why I look to my staff to provide feedback to me, just like I provide feedback to them.
As educators, we always learn that differentiated instruction is the best way to instruct our students. We meet them at their level, raise the bar, and try to help them reach that bar. Students have different emotional needs, and we should not treat everyone as though they are the same. The same can be said for our staff.
There have been times in the past when I sent an e-mail to an individual staff member that should have been a personal conversation instead. Other times, I have started a personnel conversation where a staff member needed to improve and not where they did well. Let’s face it, most times it’s always better to lead with a positive conversation, and at that moment the staff member only heard the negative and tuned out the positive.
What happened next in both situations was what meant the most to me. The staff members involved came to tell me where I went wrong. Sometimes when this has happened in other situations they were upset or angry, but in these two situations they really just wanted me to know how they felt. To be perfectly honest, I was in the wrong and needed to learn from the situation.
Don’t get me wrong, as principals, we have to have tough conversations and people may leave those conversations feeling hurt, but we should try to minimize that as much as we can. As I walked away from those situations, and the others where I made mistakes, I tried my best to learn from them, move on and never do the same thing again.
Effective feedback should work both ways
School leaders need to have some formal supports in place that allow for constructive and effective feedback. For example, we have our Principals Advisory Council (PAC), which is co-chaired by two teachers. PAC involves a stakeholder from each grade level and special area. We discuss what is going right and what needs to be corrected.
Over the past seven years we have had open dialogue about issues that need to be addressed. If we don’t talk about it, it will never change. However, after we talk about it, we need to have an action plan to make sure it gets done. The best ideas come from our collective thinking, not just mine. I appreciate that staff will be honest with me if something isn’t working.
In “Evaluating America’s Teachers,” W. James Popham says,
“Another potential source of evidence intended to illuminate our judgments about a teacher’s instructional ability might be based on the opinions of a teacher’s colleagues. After all, many teachers in a school often form opinions about the instructional capabilities of other teachers in that school. Should we not be trying to take into consideration the opinions of these judgment-rendering teachers? (p.147)”
I would venture to stretch Popham’s thinking by saying principals should take that same thinking into consideration. Too often than not, there are countless staff members who want to see their principal lead with success. After all, it’s their school too.
Peter DeWitt, Ed.D is principal of Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and wrote “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students” (Corwin Press). Peter is the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS) 2013 NY State Outstanding Educator. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.
Popham, W. James (2013). Evaluating America’s Teachers. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.