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.
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?