Clear is Kind!

By Rhonda Roos, IPLI Mentor, Cohort 5 and Educational Consultant

It’s that time of year again. As a principal, I remember that feeling in my gut each semester when it came time for teacher evaluation conversations. I knew from my own experience that these conversations could be invaluable, or they could be tremendously disappointing. And for some teachers, a conversation with the principal might not even occur – like the year my principal stopped by my English classroom to say, “Hey, I put your evaluation document in your teacher mailbox.  Everything’s good.  Just sign it and get it back to me by the end of the day.  They’re all due tomorrow morning.” That was it.  That was all the dialogue I received during one semester of teaching my heart out. It felt horrible.

Teachers need and deserve a real and meaningful dialogue with their principal at least twice a year.  This dialogue should be 40-45 minutes of reviewing the current semester and looking ahead to the next.  Specific areas of instructional strength are discussed and specific areas of growth are determined. I firmly believe that every single teacher (all staff members, honestly) deserve this from their leader.  But I struggled to develop a plan for these conversations to make them meaningful and to nudge teachers forward in their instructional practices. One thing was certain:  the developed plan had to be simple, timely and monitored.  When a teacher sets one or two things to work on for the semester, that work can be extremely complex and difficult.  One goal might be plenty! Principals must make certain that the goal(s) is appropriate and exactly on target for student needs. If the teacher selects a mediocre goal, then the principal must have real dialogue with the teacher to explain why the goal is not appropriate and guide the teacher to a more specific and essential goal.  The easy thing to do here is to allow any goal the teacher selects. That’s not brave leadership. 

For example, one year a teacher shared with me her goal of having students bring their school planner to class each day and complete the homework section at the end of each period.  She wanted to increase the percentage of students doing this. This goal had nothing to do with her instruction, and many of her students weren’t doing the homework because it was pure drudgery!  (You know, the homework assignment of doing the “odd” numbered math problems on page 118.) I knew I had to be clear and tell her that was not the goal we would use for the upcoming semester.  She could certainly discuss her concern of kids not bringing their school planner and completing the homework section, but I was concerned about her students completing complex problem-solving problems in her math classroom. We set the following goal:  Students in Ms. Smith’s math classes will complete a problem-solving problem every other week. Our math coach will provide the math problems to Ms. Smith that align with our Math Pacing Guide.  Ms. Smith will track her data for periods 2, 3 and 5 and will be ready to share two things:  the percentage of students achieving the correct answer and the interventions in place for students who continue to struggle with the math concepts for that problem-solving cycle. 

The goal was clear.  It was simple to understand, but not so simple to put into place.  Ms. Smith had to teach the math concepts, practice the problem-solving poster procedure, implement the strategy every other week, keep track of the data, and develop a plan for struggling students. We both knew exactly where we were headed.  She knew exactly what I was expecting.  She followed through and achieved each step of the goal.  In fact, she went way above anything I had expected for developing interventions.  She met with other math teachers and exceeded my ideas for what could be done for our students.

Brene’ Brown in her most recent book Dare to Lead says it best – Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. She discusses the fact that brave leaders operationalize goals into behaviors where people can be held accountable for demonstrating them.  Brave leaders work with each team member to make certain each of them is focused on the right work.  She states, “clarity absolutely reduces stress and story making,” so that team members aren’t wondering what their leader expects.

“Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because if feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind. Talking about people rather than to them is unkind,” Brene’ writes.

So let’s be clear with the people in our schools doing the most important work, our teachers.  Let’s set meaningful and worthy goals with each of them.  Let’s facilitate valuable and real conversations during our evaluation meetings.  Let’s be clear. Let’s be kind.

My very best to you on this journey! If you’re so inclined, I’d love to hear from any of our IPLI principals who are reading Brene’ Brown’s work. You can reach me at [email protected].