Evaluating New Staff: Seasonal Reminders

By Mark Paige
September 2017, Volume 41, Issue 1

The other weekend, I thought about what I needed to do to ensure that my lawn is healthy and green by next spring. In New England, where I live, if you want healthy grass after winter, you have to plant in the fall and provide plenty of water and nutrients. While I generally get that, I also consulted instructions on the grass seed package as a helpful reminder on some of the specifics (quantity of seed to apply, etc.). Hopefully, in May I will see if the seeds took and, over the next few years, whether that growth continues.

At the same time, I was thinking how to write a column on evaluating new teachers, especially those in the first three to five years of their career. These are such important moments for the teacher and you, as their principal. In this process, I realized this: nurturing a healthy lawn is a lot like helping new teachers develop from novices to skilled professionals. It takes a lot of work, resources, and sometimes reminders. Just like growing grass, sometime in the spring you assess those teachers. Hopefully, you see them take root and grow.

In education, that process has a formal name: teacher evaluation. The attorney in me (whose nature is to minimize risk) wants to remind you that you need to follow statutes, bargaining agreements, regulations, and policies that prescribe how evaluations should occur. Your eyes might be rolling because my guess is you already know that. But, as we begin this new school year, it’s always good to refresh important points.


Three Tips to Minimize Risk

I also want to underscore a few things that both minimize your risk and, more importantly, help you leverage evaluations to improve student outcomes. First, view evaluation as an important piece of an effort to develop the new talent that you have hired. Too often, in my experience, administrators view the evaluation as an administrative task to be completed (e.g., visit the classroom two times, have pre- and post- conferences, etc.). I get that; you have a lot to do and your time is at a premium.

But evaluations are your chance to memorialize your professional opinion about where a teacher is, where he/she needs to go, and how to get there. This is sound from an ethical and professional view–you want your teachers to improve because that helps kids. Of course, from a legal perspective that memorialization can help defend a non-renewal or termination decision, if things ever came to that.

That leads me to my second, and related point. Evaluations are not tools to justify a termination, in the first instance. Some administrators (not many, but enough) can, take the view that if they want to “get rid of a teacher” they should create poor evaluations “for documentation.” This is poor form, to say the least. Professionally, it misses the purpose of evaluations; they are tools for growth, not reverse engineering an employment decision. And, legally it backfires. Any school law attorney will tell you this: evaluations that look one-sidedly negative, or stand out in terms of tone when compared to others become less defensible. Indeed, they may tell the truth: that an administrator used the evaluation to “get rid of a teacher.”

Third, and also related to the above, use evaluations to be fair and supportive. Evaluations should be well-rounded, recognizing strengths and areas of growth. And, throughout the year (pre- and post- evaluations), provide the support and resources a teacher might need to succeed with areas of identified growth. That’s solid leadership practice. It strengthens your legal position, too, if needed. The law is not perfect, but at its core it values fairness.

I know I am probably “preaching to the choir.” The vast majority of school leaders I work with recognize the points I make above. Yet, when I referred to the grass seed package’s instructions before planting, I appreciated some reminders that were there. I hope you feel the same way. So here’s the take-away: appropriate use of evaluations and sound legal practice can be mutually reinforcing. Now, it’s up to you to apply the water and nutrients and see what the spring brings!

Mark Paige is an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

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