There's an old Harry Wong saying about classroom management and pedagogy that goes something like this:

Whoever is doing the most work
Is doing the most learning.

If we want our students to work hard and learn a lot, THEY need to “own” their learning.

Do we understand this when it comes to teacher evaluations?

Throughout the process, who's doing the most work—the administrator, or the teacher?

I'm not saying we need to have teachers write their own evaluations. But I am saying that the precise path of reflection and professional growth is best determined by the person doing the growing, not the person writing it up.

It's obvious that we need to keep teachers in the driver's seat, but it's not easy to make it happen—and here's why.

The “Big Stick” Problem

First, we have to understand why the growth and evaluation fit together so…awkwardly.

Helping teachers improve in the evaluation process is tough because real growth requires safety.

We want teachers to be in the driver's seat, but not like teenagers at the DMV.

We can't sit there, silently marking boxes on a clipboard, and honestly believe we're creating an environment conductive to growth.

We wear two hats as school leaders: We want to help our teachers grow, and we want to be their cheerleaders, but we also have a moral obligation to be their evaluators, and to hold them accountable for doing an acceptable job.

In the evaluation process, there's no pretending that the “evaluator hat” doesn't exist. But we can lay it aside and don the “coaching” hat.


What action can we take to minimize the threat we pose in our evaluator role, and maximize our impact in the coaching and support role we play as instructional leaders?

Making The Growth Path Safe

If you have teachers who are clearly on the growth path, it's OK to reassure them that they're safe taking risks.

We can't go so far as to say “Look, there's no scenario in which you won't get a glowing evaluation from me this year, so do whatever you want.”

But we can send the message, subtly but clearly, that teachers are in charge of their own professional growth.

(We can send a different message to teachers who are, in our minds, on the dismissal path.)

We can say something like this: “I know this is the formal evaluation process, but I want it to be mainly about your growth. I want you to really push yourself, even if it means you're trying new things that don't work out.”

We need to explicitly give people permission to take big risks—which is really permission to fail, because without permission to fail, teachers will never escape the competency trap. Out of fear, they'll resort to improvement theatre.

The Competency Trap & Improvement Theatre

We fear failure because we know our work matters. It's not just the personal sense of failure; it's the impact on our students that leads us to stick to the familiar.

Improvement is risky, because it involves giving up things we're good at, and taking on new work that we may not be good at yet. Change increases the chance of failure.

This phenomenon is called the competency trap—we're good enough at we're already doing that we resist going through the learning curve that will take our practice to the next level.

And as administrators, we play a big role in determining just how deep the competency trap is.

Ask yourself this question: As a rational person, would it be smart for you to try something new, and virtually ensure that you were at the bottom of your learning curve at the moment you were being evaluated?

Of course not, yet that's precisely what we ask teachers to do in the evaluation process:

  • Set a goal to try something new
  • Set a date on which to be evaluated
  • Rely for your future employment on how well it turns out

What's a sensible person to do?

In this environment of risk, most people resort to what I call improvement theatre.

Instead of taking a real risk to actually get dramatically better through bold changes, we pretend. We take something we're already good at, make it seem like it's ambitious and new, and go through the prescribed process.

If we play our cards right, we end up looking like high-achieving geniuses. If not, at least we didn't do anything worse than last year.

Either way, we don't get any better.

Teachers are so good at playing this game, and administrators are so complicit (because, hey, we realize the process is a joke for most teachers who are doing fine), that society is fighting back.

Teachers are being judged based on student test scores—using shaky or even absurd statistical formulas—because we've lost the public trust that we're truly evaluating our teachers and holding them accountable for improvement.

Principals are now having to defend their teachers against formulas that were supposed to make it easier to do a good job of evaluating teaching performance.

It's a mess.

On the one hand, the more we play the heavy and take the process very seriously, the more teachers will pull back from investing in real improvement.

On the other hand, if we reduce evaluations to a mere formality, we lose the public's trust, and we have to deal with the consequences.

How can we get out of this situation?

It's all about the framework.

The Power of A Shared Framework

If I want to help teachers grow, and wear the coaching hat without being a pushover, my best tool is our shared instructional framework.

(My experience is mainly with Charlotte Danielson's excellent Framework for Professional Practice, though there are others that are good, too.)

The framework serves as a map, so you can help navigate—and ensure forward progress—while letting the teacher stay in the driver's seat.

And what if you have to defend a great teacher against an unfair formula based on questionable test score data?

You need evidence, just as surely as you need evidence for teachers who are on the dismissal path.

That evidence should be in the language of your evaluation framework, but simply listing items (1a, 2c, 3b) and marking them as “satisfactory” or “exemplary”…that's not evidence.

Evidence that holds up under scrutiny is, ultimately, an argument.

Putting It All Together: High-Performance Teacher Evaluations

Generating solid evidence for teacher evaluations is a major focus of our online course, High-Performance Teacher Evaluations.

You can register for this self-paced online course, which is available on-demand.

Learn more about High-Performance Teacher Evaluations »

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