How Can We Avoid Coaching That Feels Evaluative?

A recent article by Charlotte Danielson in Education Week has taken the Twittersphere by storm. In it she writes,

“I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off on a checklist. In fact, I (and many others in the academic and policy communities) believe it’s time for a major rethinking of how we structure teacher evaluation to ensure that teachers, as professionals, can benefit from numerous opportunities to continually refine their craft” (It’s Time to Rethink Teacher Evaluation, April 20, 2016).

This new (and exciting) conversation led me to wonder how we can ensure that our coaching doesn’t feel as if it is a part of the evaluation machine. What are some strategies that coaches can use to steer clear of ticking boxes off on checklists?

Avoid ‘Replacement’
Hidden agendas, mixed messages, and judgmental thinking are off limits if we want to ensure that coaching is non-evaluative. This may take some discipline, because we are often tempted to focus on what should be ‘replaced’ rather than on how to build on what’s already there. Using this approach prevents the coach from getting traction because when teachers feel evaluated or judged, they are far less likely to take on a learning stance.

Three alternatives to ‘replacement’ are: 1) keep coaching focused on what the teacher would like to accomplish, 2) build on what’s working, and 3) give the teacher time to learn and grow. You may be thinking, “What if nothing is working?” This is a great question and probably the one that leads us straight to a ‘replacement’ mindset. So often, we want to fix things in spite of the fact that we aren’t in charge of the classroom. It’s a natural tendency because we want things to be better. As Danielson points out, ‘teaching is a complex profession required nuanced judgement’. To honor this, we must take a deep breath and give learning the time that it requires. Teachers deserve coaching that navigates, rather than circumvents, the complexity within their classrooms.

Steer Clear of Walk Throughs and Checklists
To put it bluntly, coaches shouldn’t be involved in learning walks unless they are in the classroom working alongside a teacher when the walk through occurs. There have been more than a few times when I have received pushback on this one. Especially from dedicated district leaders and principals who are working hard to improve teaching and learning in their schools. Their argument is, “The way we do walk throughs isn’t evaluative.” I would beg to differ. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that walk throughs are stressful situations. They worry about how they are being perceived, if they are doing things the correct way, and if the observers understand what is taking place in their classroom when the observation occurs.

When a coach is part of the observation team, they take on an evaluative role. Here’s a metaphor…when we watch a gymnastics meet there are judges on the sidelines. They look for the fundamentals of how a gymnast performs. They know what good gymnastics looks like and confirm or disconfirm if it is happening. This is a lot like a walk through. Then there’s the coach down on the mat with the gymnast. The coach is there to make sure that the athlete successfully reaches her goals. This is coaching. Separation of these roles is essential.

Stay Focused on the Teacher’s (Not Your) Goal
It’s never a good idea to set goals for teachers, even if we think we know what’s best for them. Goals are personal and the ownership rests with whoever will be doing the work to get there. While this seems obvious, we are often tempted to nudge teachers towards a goal that we think is important, especially when we see teaching and learning close up. After spending time in a teacher’s classroom, we may be thinking, “I know the teacher wants to work on (fill in the blank). But we can’t do that until we get (fill in the blank) under control.” The temptation to redirect a teacher towards a goal that they haven’t named may come from a sincere concern for students. But going there may jeopardize the coaching cycle that we are trying to get started and the partnership that will help it succeed.

In Closing
Let’s be honest, the evaluation firestorm has left little to be proud of…and many dedicated educators are relieved to hear Danielson say so. After all, she created the evaluation tool that is the centerpiece of much of this work. Whether or not you agree with her, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that investing in teachers is the path towards improvement.

The original article can be found here.

© Diane Sweeney