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Cultivating a Feedback & Results-Rich Culture Through Technology

Education sector on notice

By Todd Whitlock

If you’ve recently googled the latest findings and expert insights in employee engagement and performance, you’ve likely noticed a pattern: The traditional methods of performance management aren’t working in the modern educational system. Astute organizations are taking note and doing something about it.

In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham of “Strengths Finder” fame and Ashley Goodall, director of leader development at Deloitte, argued that today’s organizations are in need of a performance management approach that’s “nimbler, real-time, and more individualized”—something that’s high-touch and adaptable to individual needs without bogging down staff with needless paperwork, inconsequential data, and wasteful tasks.

That need has spurred many schools to seek out technology as a way to tackle a handful of obstacles with one approach: cultivate a feedback-rich culture while freeing up time for more meaningful interactions and the application of data-driven, actionable insights by automating all that can be automated in the performance management process.

Technology-supported models in teacher performance management have ranged from using video for classroom evaluations (which got high marks in a study by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard) to streamlining evaluations with software. We’ll focus on the latter—the most common scenario—although the applications described in this article remain important considerations for any performance management solution you choose.

Using tech to automate, reduce workload

First up, we’ll discuss key features your performance management technology should provide. Then, we’ll dive into the non-tech (read: human) practices that ensure your chosen tech tool truly benefits your organization, rather than just pile up more tasks on teachers’ plates.

That’s an important point, so allow us to stress it: Any performance management technology worth its salt should solve real problems on a regular basis—helping teachers be more productive, provide clear and easy-to-read data, and increase morale across the ranks.

At a minimum, your chosen performance management platform needs to tell you which teachers are performing at standard or optimum levels, and which are falling behind.

That requires a way to collect data and easily access reports on:

  • Teacher self-assessments
  • Formal and informal performance observations
  • Evidence documentation

Your software should also enable you to do the following:

  • Conduct evaluator and staff comparisons
  • Reveal strengths and weaknesses
  • Identify trends across the organization, departments, and other filters
  • Use data for learning, coaching, mentoring, and professional development
  • Easy, anytime access for teachers and evaluators to check metrics and statuses

The acid test: The tool you’re using should alleviate workload and routinely solve problems in the classroom. While there might be some upfront training and setup involved, after the initial onboarding process, the solution should be decreasing the amount of time you’re spending on evaluations, not increasing it.

Train evaluators & teachers

The goal of performance evaluations should be to improve an individual’s performance—administrators aren’t doing them simply to follow compliance exercises and they don’t want to dismiss teachers. For performance evaluations to truly benefit teachers, students, and their communities, schools must train both evaluators and teachers on performance processes, tools and metrics.

Part of that essential training is mentoring evaluators to conduct difficult conversations—especially topics with a high potential to dampen someone’s spirit, affect relationships, or diminish the teacher’s loyalty to the organization.

To that end, researchers for the NeuroLeadership Institute advise managers to anticipate and provide topics for discussion in a structured conversation, and equip evaluators with recommendations for how to approach each topic. From there, guided conversations should focus on goals that employees set for themselves and how they see their progress.

Just as important, your process should include multiple observations by various administrative staff to increase reliability and consistency among evaluators. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the leadership team to track and analyze the data to ensure observations are equitable.

Up your feedback frequency, quality

Poor performance will always derail results and relationships if left unaddressed until too late. Similarly, when we wait months to tell someone his or her performance is subpar, it’s hard for that person to grasp what he or she must do to improve. As time passes, feedback becomes more ambiguous and reliant on memory, which can be faulty.

By contrast, in-the-moment or frequent feedback is far more fruitful. According to PwC, the global business advisory firm, nearly 60% of survey respondents said they’d like feedback on a daily or weekly basis, and that number climbed to 72% for employees under age 30.

Supporting this notion, Gallup reported employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them—whether face-to-face, by phone, or electronic communication—are almost three times as likely to be engaged compared to employees whose managers do not meet with them regularly. “And when employees attempt to contact their manager,” the report continues, “engaged employees report their manager returns their calls or messages within 24 hours. These ongoing transactions explain why engaged workers are more likely to say their managers knows what projects or tasks they are working on.”

...administrators aren’t doing them [evaluations] simply to follow compliance exercises and they don’t want to dismiss teachers.

Circling back to technology applications, a tool that enables easy check-ins, status updates, and the ability for teachers and evaluators to interact on-the-go can enable close and frequent follow-ups without disrupting anyone’s schedule.

Conversations, not monologues. Progress, not process.

Gallup reports manager behavior accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores, and less than one-third of Americans are engaged in their jobs in any given year. Even worse, one in two adults in the U.S. has left a job “to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.” This means most managers aren’t creating environments where employees feel motivated or comfortable.

It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Be human. Empathize. Involve teachers in setting their own goals, self-assessing, and shaping evaluation processes. Make it an ongoing conversation, prioritizing dialogue and progress over one-way pronouncements and processes. Just as important, enable teachers to respond to the evaluator’s feedback and give input on how they perceive their own performance.

Make teachers the real winners

As you digest what we’ve covered so far, you may be thinking (1) much of this is common sense, and (2) each school or district is different, and requires a different mix of tools and tactics. You’re right on both counts.

Common sense isn’t always common practice, however, and human needs remain the same, whatever the makeup of your organization and the challenges it faces.

In the end, the right performance management strategy or tool for your organization will invariably be one that makes teachers the real winners, elevating them above red tape, without sacrificing compliance. By automating that red tape and dialing up the human connection, you’ll find you can make a lot of mistakes and still get teacher engagement and growth right.

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Further Reading
  1. The Wall Street Journal - Proposed NYC Teacher Evaluation Plan Emphasizes Classroom Work, Projects
  2. The Miami Herald - Teachers say it’s getting harder to get a good evaluation. The school district disagrees.
  3. Las Vegas Review-Journal - Teacher evaluations don’t usually cut it
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