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In my years of teaching and as a school administrator, I have come to learn that the most effective school improvement efforts are those that focus on improving classroom instruction. What happens between a teacher and their students during instructional time will have a greater impact on learning and student achievement than the length of the school day, the schedule, school culture, a textbook, or any program. That is not to say that these are unimportant aspects of school, but only to remind us that teacher behaviors and actions have the greatest impact.

In order to drive significant student achievement gains, school principals must be about the business of providing leadership for classroom change – teacher by teacher. School leaders are able to create change in classroom practice by helping move teachers forward through a process that involves on-going communication, quality feedback, time for reflection, and individualized professional development.

We found it important that our school district’s teacher evaluation system provided these components. While there has been much criticism regarding the effectiveness of teacher evaluation systems in general, the real test comes from the implementation of the system. A school district’s system will succeed or fail depending upon the collaborative effort put forth by administrators and teachers working together. Improving instructional practice requires teamwork, and implementing an evaluation system that meets the needs of your teachers can be essential to student achievement.

In our district, we determined that the focus of our system would be largely formative rather than summative. In other words, although we recognized that each teacher would ultimately receive an annual summative designation as highly effective, effective, improvement necessary, or ineffective; we wanted our primary goal to be the improving of instructional practices in the classroom—a formative venture.

What might such a successful implementation look like? Before observations can take place, principals and teachers must have a shared understanding of what good teaching is. On-going conversations around the domains and indicators within the teacher effectiveness rubric are important, as they provide clear descriptions of teacher behaviors, leaving no doubt about what is expected in the classroom. It is important to reference the specific indicators and to talk in terms of the behaviors and actions that lead to the effective and highly effective practices that are to take place in the classroom. Utilizing an online evaluation tool allows us to engage in these conversations at any time and place.

The real work of schools takes place in the classroom; principals and teachers must meet there to begin the process. Administrators who practice regular, intentional classroom observations reap many benefits, including strengthening relationships among teachers. In order for teacher evaluation to be successful, teachers should feel that the process is taking place WITH them and not done TO them. The minimum number of required observations cannot be the only time a principal sees a teacher in action. Observing teachers at work may take the form of a brief walkthrough (2-3 minutes), a short observation (10 – 20 minutes), or an extended observation (40 minutes – 1 hour). Regardless of the time, quality feedback about what is effective and what needs to be improved is a critical component. Communicating feedback takes the form of scripting what has been observed, identifying the observed levels of performance, and stating strengths/areas for improvement. In order for this process to be meaningful, teachers must have time to read and reflect on their performance feedback. In most instances, administrators will utilize a tablet or laptop to provide this feedback with our web-based evaluation tool, submitting notes to the teacher while still in the classroom or shortly after.

What may be the most important component of the evaluation process is the personalized professional development plan, generated from the evaluation process. A needs assessment should be a natural aspect of a series of observations and on-going conversations regarding a teacher’s instructional practices. In our schools, job-embedded professional development in the form of instructional coaching is utilized to support teachers in their practice.

Since implementing a modified RISE model of teacher evaluation in our district, our principals have responded that their practices have changed significantly. Indicating that their observations are more frequent with quicker response time to teachers, allowing them to focus on specific instructional issues in a timely manner. They also noted that they are experiencing more open communication and reflective practices where teachers are focusing on strategies to meet students’ needs at the highly effective level. Additionally, they stated that they are able to institute “just in time” professional development from our instructional coaches for teachers who are communicating more frequently throughout the evaluation process. Principals say they feel better organized, prepared, and in control of the process than ever before.

Helping teachers improve student learning requires professional conversations around effective instructional practices on a regular basis. These conversations must take place among teachers and administrators in a cooperative climate of mutual respect and trust. Teacher by teacher, classroom by classroom, schools can raise the achievement bar for all students when a performance evaluation system that meets the needs of teachers is implemented.

This article is by Joel McKinney, who is in his 30th year as an educator and his second year as assistant superintendent for the Community Schools of Frankfort. Joel has served as a classroom teacher, middle school assistant principal, and principal at both the middle and high school levels.

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