Prior to entering the education field as a high school teacher in 1990, I worked at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. I hated working for a company that produced a product that lead to as many as 400,000 deaths per year so I changed career paths. I chose education because I wanted to make a difference in peoples’ lives. In the years since my transition from corporate America to public education I have often reflected on my experiences at RJ Reynolds and how business and education are similar, yet so vastly different. One area where there is a major difference is in how evaluations are conducted.
At RJ Reynolds I looked forward to being evaluated because if I received a positive evaluation I would earn more money! At RJ Reynolds I was evaluated by one individual, a lower level manager, and there were no peers involved in the process. During my first evaluation at RJ Reynolds I was provided a list of criteria that would be used in my evaluation and I was given a date when my manager would accompany me on my sales calls. I received an exemplary evaluation! I was going to get a nice raise and I was very excited. Unfortunately, I learned that new sales reps were not allowed to receive exemplary reviews because that gave them very little incentive to improve and stay motivated– so I was told by the regional manager. Subsequently, my review was adjusted after the regional manager accompanied me on my sales calls one day. As a result, my big fat raise was reduced substantially. I was stunned and hurt by the turn of events. It really pushed me to accelerate my pursuit of a teaching career. However, I was left with the impression that evaluations were designed to seek areas of strengths and identify areas for improvement. Where improvement was needed, an experienced sales managers would accompany me on my sales calls and actually conduct some of the sales calls demonstrating accepted best practices and at other times they would observe me in action and then provide me with feedback based upon their observations. I am not saying this was an ideal evaluative system, but it was much more in line with what I perceived to be a system whereby practitioners could improve their practice. These evaluations occurred each six months after my probationary period was completed.
Flash forward a few years and I was preparing for my first classroom “observation” as a high school teacher. My evaluator was a close-to-retirement assistant principal. On the day of my scheduled observation she was unable to visit my classroom. Shortly thereafter, she summoned me to her office and asked that I draft a report of what went on the day she was supposed to visit my classroom. As a new teacher I was shocked and ecstatic at the same time. Shocked that the process was so lassez-faire and ecstatic that I would be a step closer to long term job security. I have since realized this experience was most likely atypical, but I had adhered to the mantra I was taught by a veteran teacher. He told me, “Del, if you handle all of your own classroom discipline and you don’t need an administrator handling your classroom problems and you are able to have students demonstrate they are producing work in your class, you will stay employed as long as you wish.” Wow! How easy would that be.
Twenty-five years later I find myself questioning the role of instructor evaluation. I remember as a non-tenured faculty member some fifteen years ago I was unsure of the tenure process. In fact, I considered requesting that I not be given tenure because I was fearful it would decrease my motivation to continually improve. I chose to accept the offer of a tenured position at MSJC in 2002. I’m dumb, but not stupid! During my first four years as a non-tenured instructor I was evaluated every third semester. In the years following tenure I was scheduled to be evaluated every fifth semester although with the high rate of turnover in the Dean positions at Menifee this was not always the case.
I tell my story because I think we need to rethink instructor evaluations. I believe at times I ‘feared’ or ‘dreaded’ the evaluation process because it would be a ‘nitpicking session’ looking to find some flaw (see my RJ Reynolds story above), a method to possibly derail a career as a professional educator via unfavorable evaluations (job security woes), a complete waste of time because the process was so flawed (sitting through an evaluation where your name is not in the evaluation because the evaluator used boiler plate language and forgot to change the name from a previous evaluation or the evaluator attended fifteen minutes of a class session because they had other evaluations to conduct that day), or your peers were afraid to be ‘harsh’ in their evaluation because they felt one day they may want you to return the favor and be present on their evaluation team and they would not wish for you to evaluate them harshly. I’m sure there are many administrators and many of our colleagues who do an exemplary job in the evaluation process, but I’m ‘nitpicking’ and pointing out some of the flaws in our current system.
Because of our current system and because there is no monetary incentive to improve and because once a teacher becomes tenured the process of evaluation becomes mostly a formality, there is little extrinsic motivation for a teacher to improve their craft. This is sad but true for some. I would have to say at times I could lump myself into this category. What makes someone want to get better at what they do? Is it a professional expectation and/or requirement? Is it just what a professional educator should do because it is the right thing to do? I know many colleagues who love teaching, appreciate the opportunity to have a career in a field where their passions lie and they enjoy getting paid well to perform their duties– well at least many do! And as a result, they are continually improving their practice and refining what they do so as to optimize the potential for student learning in the classes they teach.
I know public education is not a meritocracy and paid bonuses for better teaching (like that’s even measurable) is not in our foreseeable future. However, our intrinsic desire to improve our craft so we can better serve students should provide ample motivation sans any extrinsic factors. I am finding that even intrinsic motivation wanes as the years progress and the students who want the greatest results while putting forth the least amount of effort fatigues me, yet I still think within these old, increasingly creaky bones and forgetful memory, lies an idealist who wants to make a difference in other peoples’ lives.
I am finding that I am struggling with getting better because I am my only evaluator .002% of the time (.002% is based upon 176 schools days times 2.5 years– this equates to the days between evaluations conducted every fifth semester for a tenured faculty member). Sure, my students evaluate me on ‘Rate My Professor’, but a true evaluation where what I am doing is thoroughly analyzed by outside experts and peers is rare… well I think .002% is a rare occurence.
I’m not calling for more frequent evaluations, but I do think we need to rethink evaluations as a tool to get better instead of a needless process or something that should be dreaded. I have often wondered why are f2f evaluations only conducted during a single class session when the instructor is ‘teaching’? Why aren’t other facets of the teaching and learning processed being evaluated, e.g. assessments, quality of feedback on assessments, rubrics and how they’re deployed, or how an instructor is using ancillary materials to help students to go beyond the lesson in the classroom? Conversely, there seems to be some ability or willingness to evaluate more of an online instructor’s overall teaching than what occurs in a f2f classroom because the online experience is asynchronous; whereas, the f2f classroom observation is totally synchronous. The f2f evaluation calls for one classroom observation lasting one class session. As an aside, I have never been evaluated as a classroom teacher based upon the assessments I give my students, the feedback I provide my students on their assessments, how I record and determine a final grade for students or how I interact with my students outside of the classroom environment. In contrast, an online evaluation can include, and has included, all of these facets in the evaluation process. An evaluator has ~10 days in which they can visit an online class and no areas of the class are left closed to the evaluator. This allows the evaluator a comprehensive look into a course. Conversely, a f2f evaluation provides a single snapshot of one class session.
Which method of evaluation is better? How is better defined? Is evaluation a tool for improvement or a method of condemnation? Should there be separate evaluation processes for f2f courses vs. online courses? if not, which method should be utilized– a snapshot of one class meeting or a comprehensive look into an entire course?
I ask these questions because as I stated at the outset, our current method of f2f evaluations is seriously flawed in my humble opinion. Our current method of online course evaluation creates an uneven playing field, if evaluation is perceived negatively rather than a method to help all of us do our craft better.
I look forward to suggestions, comments, criticism regarding the current evaluation processes or the opinions I expressed. I’m hopeful what will come from this discussion is a strategy whereby we can all perform at an increasingly higher level, have a desire to do so and as a result better serve the students at MSJC who wish to work hard in their pursuit of their educational goals.