One key difference between evaluation and coaching

One thing I’ve learned during my 16 years in school leadership is that traditional evaluation and educator supervision are less impactful on their own. We need better supportive structures in place that can facilitate coaching conversations with educators. These days, I am interested in finding a more authentic approach to my feedback conversations with staff and trying to reduce the evaluative nature of my classroom visits. 

My goal is to lift the baseline level of trust in my relationships with my team, develop clarity around instructional goals and strategies, and validate what educators were already doing well. I found that by working to meet those conditions of trust, clarity and validation, I’ve become better at communicating feedback and supporting my team in meeting the needs of our students. Incorporating coaching opportunities and principles in my approach has made a world of difference to that end. One of the biggest shifts I’ve made is finding ways to keep the conversation open.

Open conversations and circling back

A major difference I’ve found between evaluative approaches and coaching is that evaluations are generally geared toward a kind of closure. Evaluations culminate in labeling educators as proficient, advanced or needing improvement in a given area, but that’s where it ends. To actually progress toward improvement, we need to go beyond that desire for closure and into an ongoing conversation. That will look different depending on each member of your team and the relationship you build over time. That’s why daily classroom visits are so important to me in my practice: They allow me to develop that unique relationship with each educator.

My mentor and friend Regie Routman has stated, “Personal trust comes before professional trust.” We have to know people as people first and then as practitioners. Trust is what allows us to begin and – importantly – sustain fruitful coaching conversations, moving beyond evaluation and toward improvement.

When you cultivate trust with your staff, educators are more likely to regularly and enthusiastically share the new strategies they’re trying in the classroom. For instance, I had a teacher share a new activity she tried as test prep for the state exam. She had given her fourth-grade class different examples of text-dependent writing responses and had them evaluate the quality of the writing according to a specific rubric. Because of the relationship we’ve built, she felt comfortable directly sharing that new activity with me. That active sharing gave me an opportunity to write a short note thanking her, offering a few points of validation, and posing a question: “Where else might you apply this strategy in your curriculum?”

My question isn’t a demand for an immediate result but an invitation to engage the process and move toward innovation and improvement. Because we’d built a foundation of trust, the opportunity for a coaching moment readily presented itself – and I could trust that the note would be an effective conversation opener. It’s a small touchpoint in our ongoing work together – and prompts both of us to circle back and develop this opportunity to grow her practice.

Building shared commitment

Although each coaching opportunity is different – hearing directly from an educator, conferring with a student or visiting a classroom – I come back to this principle of opening and sustaining the conversation. I often remind myself that our progress toward improvement doesn’t have to be linear or arrive at a destination right away.

That’s especially helpful to remember when we’re approaching larger or long-term goals in the building overall, like introducing a new schoolwide practice. When we take that kind of thing on, we’re more likely to bump into long-standing beliefs among the team about how to get things done and what our students need. Those beliefs can vary widely across a team, which makes it all the more important to invest in getting to know each educator and being present in the classroom daily.

As you are building those relationships and educators are trusting you more with their perspectives, you can begin to build in opportunities to examine those beliefs together. That might mean:

  • Shaping professional learning opportunities to provide missing information,
  • Supporting data for a given practice, or 
  • Sharing success stories from other educators on your team.

That might also mean calling on the trust you’ve built to invite more mutual accountability. It can be as simple as asking a check-in question, such as, “Are we all on the same page?” If we are, then I can affirm that it’s up to all of us to move that practice forward. The result may not be immediate, but the shared commitment to improvement is key.

By asking open-ended questions and providing these touchstones for continued conversation, we leaders can create more expansive opportunities for instructional improvement – and allow the necessary room for each educator’s strengths, creativity and capacity for innovation to be a part of that process.