There has been a push over the past decade to toughen teacher evaluations. Billions of dollars have been spent on implementing high-stakes teacher evaluation systems in nearly every state. The reason? The misguided belief was that it would greatly improve student achievement.

However, research shows that those efforts have failed: Teacher evaluation reforms over the past decade have had no impact on student test scores or educational attainment. You read that correctly. They have had no impact—except for the negative impact on teacher morale.

If there is a lesson to be learned here it is that teachers are professionals and that treating them less than professionally is of no benefit to schools and especially to student achievement.

Hopefully this data will change how some districts evaluate teachers. And maybe, just maybe, it will give us the push we need to follow high-performing countries such as Finland where they don’t even have formal teacher evaluations. Since we are so data-driven when it comes to education here in the United States, maybe this is finally the data we need to change how we evaluate teachers. Instead of always looking for what needs to be improved, maybe we can focus on strengthening what teachers do well instead.

A Strengths-Based Approach

I have often said that we hire teachers for their strengths, yet we manage them based on their weaknesses. The irony of most hiring is that we seek out candidates who will bring value to the position. We look for people with a strong résumé and talents that stand out. However, once we have this perfect candidate in place, the focus becomes more about improving performance or fixing weaknesses than about improving the strengths for which they were hired.

I remember my first year of teaching in a very large school system. I was looking forward to bringing my talents and strengths to my new job. However, within the first few weeks of school, I was given something called a PAC, a Personal Appraisal Cycle that was meant for me to focus on areas of improvement for the school year. So, I was basically required to spend my first year of teaching focusing on two or three areas that I felt needed improvement. This is not a unique situation when you consider that most employees are evaluated with a performance review, which usually focuses on areas of improvement or areas of growth—which is just a nice way of saying weaknesses.

The normal evaluation is usually called “the sandwich,” where you say one nice thing, then you add on layers of improvements and areas of growth, then end with another nice thing. I have also heard it called “the kiss, kick, kiss.” And guess how teachers usually leave the evaluation? Feeling like they have been kicked a lot.

After nearly 30 years in education, I can tell you that most teachers are their own worst critics. They are constantly reflecting on what they don’t do well. It is how they have been conditioned. So, using the old traditional methods of evaluation really do little for teacher improvement.  

What strengths does your staff bring to your school? If we think of staff members like a team, then we need people with different talents and skills. For instance, if we were creating a sports team, everyone can’t be the quarterback, or the running back, and not everyone can be a receiver. The key to success is to put people in positions where they can be most effective. Then look for other opportunities for them to grow even more, especially if they are seeking out new opportunities.

Finally, we need to hire for strengths, and we need to manage for strengths. This means that we don’t just evaluate teachers, but we treat them as professionals who are looking to maximize their strengths and potential. I suggest instead of the traditional evaluation or an end-of-the-year evaluation that you, as a school leader, include aspirational conversations in your efforts to support staff members. These are conversations that help you understand the goals and needs of each staff member to really help them be the best teammate possible.

Giving Staff a Voice

 There are several key questions to ask staff on a regular basis or during a formal evaluation, which enables them to have a voice in the process and shows them that you, in fact, view them as professionals. Consider these five questions that can help kickstart aspirational conversations—but you can be creative and add more questions or change them to best fit your school culture.

Aspirational Conversation Starters

  1. Have we helped you to be successful?
  2. What do you think we do well? (e.g., promoting literacy, offering extracurricular programs, etc.)
  3. What practices have you seen in other schools that would help us do better?
  4. What would make you want to leave our school?
  5. What are your professional goals? How can we help you achieve them?

Teachers often leave a school because they don’t feel valued and because there is no room to grow. Does one of your staff members aspire to work toward an administrative role? Or maybe take on a different role in the school? Tell them that you will help them get there. Value them by letting them know that if they will be the best teacher they can be every day for students, then you will help them achieve their professional goals. It is important to remember that the classroom teacher creates the climate in which students learn and when they feel valued and supported, they create a dynamic learning environment.

Brad Johnson is an international speaker on education and leadership and a former teacher, middle school principal, and college professor. He is the author of several books including Principal Bootcamp: Accelerated Strategies to Influence and Lead from Day One, from which this article is drawn.