How Administrators Can Go “Gradeless” and Assess Teachers Through Feedback

I’m a big believer in modeling what we want to see teachers do in their classroom. For instance, we can’t expect teachers to give mini-lessons followed by hands-on learning if all we do is lecture during professional development. To help teachers understand what we’re expecting from them, we need to model the strategies we want to see them use in their classes. So…. if we want teachers to focus less on grades and more on feedback and growth, don’t we as administrators need to do the same?

Let’s take an example. Let’s say that in a one-on-one feedback session with a teacher, I — as an administrator — give them a 2 out of 4 in classroom management. What does that mean? And does that grade inspire the teacher to improve in that area? Even if I write a comment next to the grade explaining, “Students talk while teacher is giving instructions. S/he ignores them and finally, when the noise level rises, tells a couple of students to be quiet,” the teacher still may not feel motivated to change.

In the past, I used to grade teachers on a number of criteria like this, commenting on the positives and the areas to be improved, but just as handing students a grade with comments does little to help them improve their work, I found that this method was not very helpful to teachers. 

I decided that this was not the model I wanted to follow. If I wanted my teachers to focus on feedback and growth, then that’s what I needed to model for them. Over time, we developed a system for teacher assessment that is not about rating teachers, but more about harnessing their strengths and supporting them as they learn and grow. Since I want my students to become strong at self-assessment, I need to let my teachers self-assess as well. These are the steps I take to assess and improve teacher performance through feedback:

Whole class observation:

  • I go into a class and observe everything that’s going on, taking notes on what I see. I write down times, transitions, teacher quotes, student quotes, learning targets, agendas, and anything I see on the walls. 
  • I try to be as objective as possible, not including any of my thoughts about the class (we are never truly objective, but I try to keep my judgement out of this).
  • I send my observation to the teacher and ask them to read through it and identify their strengths and weaknesses. 
  • I take my own notes on the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses as well, but I don’t share these yet.

Teacher meeting:

  • I ask the teacher to tell me what they like about their class. What went well? Teachers tend to want to skip this step and get to the areas they want to change. I tell them that we need to look at strengths first because we want to build on those. Plus identifying strengths will help them feel positive about their teaching. 
  • I share my vision of their strengths. I usually see many more than they do and this is a great time to boost their self-esteem as I point out their gentle tone of voice, their great use of humour, or the way they nudge thinking through questioning.
  • I ask teachers to let me know where they can improve. This is often where the floodgates open. I take notes on everything they say and then we prioritize. I let them know that they can’t work on everything, so let’s look at the top one or two areas to improve. Often those improvements will positively affect other areas of the class.
  • I share strategies with the teacher and we brainstorm a plan for improvement. The teacher’s voice is incredibly important here. When the plan comes from them, teachers feel much more committed. 
  • I let the teacher know that on my future walk-throughs, I’ll be looking for these changes. 

If we take the example of classroom management, what we might see is this: The teacher comments that many of her students often don’t bring the right materials to class and this slows down the start of class; several students walk in over five minutes late and there’s a lot of talking as they try to figure out what’s happening; transitions are slow and take up far too much time; and students tend to talk when instructions are being given.

As we discuss these issues, the teacher begins to realize that there is a lack of structure and procedures in the classroom. By putting these in place, students will know what to do and what the expectations are. Once s/he has made these changes, the teacher can begin to see which students are actually having behavioral issues. 

After these conversations, teachers generally feel empowered. They see that they have a number of positives to build on and they have strategies and tools to use as they try to improve. Because they lead the conversation and choose the area that they want to work on, they tend to feel motivated and committed. 

By using the language of specific, actionable feedback tied to the teacher’s goals, we model what we’d like to see teachers doing in the classroom. They begin to experience growth through feedback and clearly see that feedback trumps grades when trying to help students improve.

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