When Paperwork Comes Between People

Two people

How do you treat people well when your relationship is mediated by a clunky, externally mandated system?

In case no examples come to mind, let me be more specific…

How do you treat your teachers as human beings when you have a formal evaluation system with 692 steps to complete and forms to fill out?

Whenever a good idea gets turned into a policy, it inevitably gets clunky and impersonal. “I need to help my staff grow professionally” turns into “I have 240 one-on-one meetings with teachers this year, each accompanied by a form.”

“What are you proud of, and what are you struggling with?” turns into a form.

Classroom visits turn into formal observations.

I’m not opposed to any of this formalization, because without it, we’d have nothing at all in place in too many schools. Clunky and formal is better than nothing. We need ways to ensure that our students are receiving high-quality teaching and that our staff are continuing to grow, even if that means lots of paperwork.

But one thing I know about leadership is that people follow humans who are leaders, not systems that are run by people with leadership titles.

If your leadership consists of implementing the policies and procedures dictated by others, and nothing else, your staff have no one to follow. They need leadership, and leadership is inherently human and relational.

The Alternative

The best leaders treat the systems and procedures as a baseline for what they need to get done, then quickly move on to the real work.

“We need to get this form filled out, but I’ll take care of that—let’s talk about what’s really going on.”

Have your leaders said things like this to you? Mine have. I’ve been shown, by example, how to take the issues seriously but put the person first. I’ve seen how to meet the deadline and keep the state happy, without forgetting that the purpose of evaluating someone is to make sure they’re doing a good job.

Once that’s been done, we can devote 100% of our energy to helping them do a good job.

And if you don’t know until the form’s filled out whether someone is doing a good job? Then you don’t know them well enough to lead them.

How do you make sure the real human work happens, in between forms, deadlines, and signatures? How do you bring out the best in your staff?

“For all those idiot principals, this is just another way to play ‘gotcha.'”

Chainsaw man 1

A while back, while blogging for Education Week, I ripped into the over-hyped marketing for Robert Marzano’s teacher evaluation system.

That system is now in use in districts around the country, and just a few days ago, I heard from an educator familiar with how the system is being implemented. She writes:

With a well-trained principal who sees this as a tool to help struggling teachers identify their weaknesses, and then make suggestions for improvements, this is a useful system because it provides a common vocabulary. For all those idiot principals, this is just another way to play “gotcha.”

Ouch. May you and I never be accused of playing “gotcha” with the teachers we’ve been entrusted to lead.

Here’s the real problem: Any tool that gives us greater potential to be more effective in our work…also places upon us a greater obligation to use that tool responsibly. And we’re not automatically cut out to wield greater power responsibly. We need to work up to it.

Changing the tools does not magically impart the user with the power to use them effectively. I’m OK with a hammer and decent with a staple gun, but heaven help me if someone hands me a full-size nail gun.

As principals around the country gain greater power through new evaluation systems, it’s our job to make sure that we develop the skill and perspective we need to handle this power responsibly and with the best interests of students in mind.

Two Lies About Teacher Evaluation and Growth

What’s the evaluation process all about? It depends on who’s asking.

With teachers, we focus on growth, and that’s generally as it should be.

With the public, we mention the growth goal, but we also make it clear that the evaluation process lets us deal with underperformance.

But in speaking to each of these audiences, we can confuse ourselves and start to believe two pervasive lies about teacher evaluation and growth.

Two lies

The first lie: “If we focus enough on improvement, we’ll never need to fire anyone.

The second lie: “Rigorously evaluating our teachers will help them grow.

Both are false. Neither is a reason to abandon the two goals of the evaluation process:

  1. Growth: To help teachers improve their practice
  2. Quality Control: To ensure high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom

If these are both good goals, what’s the problem? Simple: the two goals are totally unrelated, except in their ultimate purpose. In fact, they’re even a bit incompatible.

All professionals need to grow, and having a framework like Charlotte Danielson’s to aid your reflection and help you map out your growth process is enormously helpful. But what’s not helpful is to have someone else give you a rating and tell you where you need to grow.

Let me be really clear on this point: Giving someone a rating can identify where they need to grow—and this is a crucial starting point for growth—but it does nothing to actually help them grow.

If I’m sick, I want my doctor to tell me what’s wrong, but the diagnosis itself isn’t going to make me well.

I think we’re muddled on this issue because we fail to realize that performance has two components: Skill and behavior. If you’re talented but not really putting in much effort, you’re not going to achieve great things. On the other hand, working your tail off at something you’re bad at isn’t going to yield fabulous results either.

As administrators, our most direct influence over teaching quality in the evaluation process is on behavior: If someone is not doing what they need to be doing, we can tell them to make a change, and hold them accountable for doing so. If you’re not planning and preparing for your lessons adequately, your administrator can demand that you start turning in lesson plans. Because the focus is behavior, the change can happen immediately.

Assuming we’re picking the right behaviors, this absolutely can lead to improvement. Supervision can change behavior. But to improve skill, you need coaching. And coaching is not the same as supervision.

One of the best movements to improve coaching in the principalship is the #educoach work being done by Shira Leibowitz, Jessica Johnson, and Kathy Perret, who tell me Jim Knight’s work is worth its weight in gold. Their premise is straightforward: instructional leaders need to get good at coaching in order to help staff improve their skills.

But now it gets sticky: If we want to evaluate people rigorously so they know what they’re good at and what they aren’t, and we want to coach them to help them get better, we have to decide which hat we’re wearing at any given time.

I have to realize that when I’m wearing my evaluator hat, I’m giving up the right to serve as a coach in that moment. And when I coach, I have to set aside my evaluator mindset and work to help my “client” meet his or her own goals through the coaching process.

Hopefully there’s some alignment between what people are working to grow in, and what we see as their needs and opportunities based on the evaluation process, but beyond that, we shouldn’t muddle evaluation and coaching. They are different, and need to be handled in distinct ways.

We mustn’t believe the lies that tell us that any vague efforts at “improvement” will help people grow and ensure high-quality teaching in every classroom.

We can’t coach our way out of our responsibility to conduct rigorous evaluations, and we can’t evaluate our way to better teaching. As instructional leaders, we have to wear both hats, whether we like it or not. Just not at the same time.

Oh, and one more thing: most of us believe these lies, or act like we do. Principals who both use the evaluation process to deal with serious underperformance, and effectively coach teachers to help them grow, are few and far between indeed. More on this soon.

Can You Supervise Your Way to Better Teaching?

When I lead workshops on teacher evaluation, people always say “I want the process to help my teachers grow.”

It’s understandable: As growth-oriented educators, we want to help our teachers improve their skills.

But as I learn more and more about what leads to growth, I keep coming back to one thing that surely doesn’t: supervision.

supervision-photo

Now, supervision is essential—make no mistake. The principalship exists in part to make sure that all of our teachers are up to a certain standard of quality (hopefully a high one, though the national statistics make me wonder how high our standards are when 97% or more of our ratings are “good enough” or higher).

But does supervision help teachers improve?

Let’s step back from the question of principals supervising teachers for a minute. Does supervising, inspecting, evaluating, or otherwise observing and judging lead to improvement anywhere?

You might say yes, but if we narrow down where the improvement happens, it’s usually after the supervision has taken place, perhaps due to follow-up action like coaching or accessing a helpful resource.

I’d argue that supervision itself never causes growth. Why? Because supervision alone cannot improve people’s skills. To improve skill, you need deliberate practice with feedback. You need coaching.

What supervision can do is influence behavior. And it’s very good at this. When your staff knows what you want to see, they will do more of it, and they’ll do less of what you don’t want—if they believe you’ll notice and care.

When someone knows he’ll get fired if he doesn’t start showing up on time, he’ll start showing up on time.

When someone has decided not to follow the district pacing guide, supervision can change that behavior fast.

When someone is making snide remarks in staff meetings and bringing down the professional tone, you can set the expectation, monitor, and ultimately change the behavior.

So even though I don’t think supervision can lead to growth, I do think it can lead to improvement, because performance is a result not just of your skill, but of what you actually do.

In other words, even if you can’t use the supervision process to help every teacher grow, you can use it to lead to improved teaching and learning by promoting the right behaviors. Behaviors like being prepared every day, treating students respectfully, following through, sharing assessment results, and other actions that lead to better learning.

A lot of the behaviors we can supervise into improvement are negative behaviors—stop showing up late, stop yelling at kids, stop under-preparing, and so on—but a lot are positive, too. Before we can help people improve their skill, we need to make sure they’re doing the thing that we want them to get better at.

After all, improving an aspect of your practice can’t happen unless that aspect of practice is in your practice.

When my school began implementing a new writing curriculum, my focus was on coaching. But I quickly realized that people couldn’t be coached on something they weren’t doing. You can’t improve the clarity of your lesson’s teaching point if your lessons never have teaching points.

Before I could coach, I needed to supervise. I needed to set the expectation and follow through. Then—and only then—could I coach.

What behaviors do you want to see more (or less) of to improve student learning in your school?

Improvement: Growth vs. Problem-Solving

2 types of improvement diagram

Growth is more or less continuous – as we refine our technique, we get better gradually over time. But growth isn’t the only type of improvement.

If there is a problem, a specific barrier to higher performance, solving it will not be a gradual process. When the problem is solved – either through an insight and a change in practice, or through outside assistance – performance takes a dramatic leap.

When you are considering your own practice, or the practice of someone you supervise, think about whether the greatest growth will come from a focus on problem-solving, or from refining existing techniques.

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