Your Principal Scores Your Teaching as “Developing”: How to Get Up Off the Mat

It's a nightmare. After observing your third period, the school principal marked two elements of your instruction as developing

You try to apply growth mindset to the situation: "I'll dig in and improve through sheer effort." You try to re-center your emotions with braggadocio: "King Kong ain't got nothin' on me!" You go hyperbolic about relying more on student data: "I'll Mark Watney my way out of this! 

But self talk isn't helping. Is this the end of my career?  Did I spend enormous sums of money to earn my education license only to be rejected from my chosen profession? Can I even look at myself in the mirror? What now? 

I've donned the failure hat often and know what it's like to grab for Double-Stuffed Oreos and eat your way to bliss. To be transparent, here are my most painful ego smack-downs:

  1.  I flunked my MA 2-book literature exam at the University of Minnesota after studying for six months and had the privilege of taking it again. 
  2. I was asked to kindly stop my volunteering at a high school.
  3. I ran for student body president at the University of Puget Sound and had the entire Greek system block vote against me.
  4. The chair of my department at a small college in Georgia made the dean of the college observe me teach after students complained that they didn't like how I wasn't teaching phonics the traditional way. 

So I know this stuff hurts. 

In the following paragraphs, I'll discuss how to come back from a professional pounding. However, none of my tips will apply if you realistically feel like you will never become more than a mediocre teacher (and your trusted friends agree). In this case, cut your losses and find a career where you can be successful, admired, and make a lot more money. Mediocre teaching skills will result in a misery safari that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

One more caveat...This maxim does not apply to teachers who've taught fewer than three years. Because the rookie years include nausea-inducing ups and downs that have nothing to do with your future instructional efficacy. 

So, here's my advice...

If you disagree With the Assessment, Say So 

Sometimes the observing/evaluating administrator doesn't have her/his act together. If you legitimately believe the principal incorrectly assessed your teaching performance, write a memo in which you provide evidence to contradict the negative assessments. 

Defending himself to a principal, a middle grades teacher I know prepared a very careful set of talking points. Looking the principal in the eye, he delivered the following words slowly and deliberately: 

"When I interviewed for this job, I accepted the position and came to Franklin Middle School instead of Melville because of your strong reputation. I think you see how much time, integrity, and work I put into teaching a group of students that has a reputation for being challenging. 
You indicated recently how effective I was as a teacher--which suggests to me that in your heart, you don’t look at me and see a non-proficient instructor. I recognize that there is a lot of weight on you to use your authority as a principal to turn this school around. I don’t pretend to know all those pressures. But I’m looking you in the eye and telling you I’m on your side. And I’m asking you to use your authority to be my champion and not penalize me with that negative evaluation. Would you please tell me that you are not going to do that?"

Can you guess what happened? That teacher got everything he wanted. 

Let it in: The Evaluation Stings!

Don't try to be macho and pretend the evaluation doesn't rattle your emotions. Suppressing feelings burns mental energy. 

Here's the good news about feeling awful. The brain typically only feels cruddy for a short period of time before recasting emotions as not a big deal.  ​Try and embrace the "ouch" while still seeing the good in things.

Attend to Core Needs

See to it that all of the major "sets" of your life are taken care of: 

  • Physical: Eat healthy food--but not too much. Exercise in moderation. 
  • Emotional: Talk to trusted friends or professionals about your feelings. 
  • Intellectual: Is your thinking clear? If not, address your physical and emotional sets. 
  • Spiritual: Connecting with your higher power can relieve anxiety and help you see the big picture. And what's the big picture? You're standing on a rock spinning 1000 miles per hour and are literally made of stars

Clarify Recommended next Steps

What have you been told to do by the principal to improve? Resist the tendency to brace against criticism--a stance that makes you only hear 75% of what is said. Instead, lean in to the criticism and ask questions that will give you a more granular understanding of what behaviors need to change. 

When I had my annual performance review with an administrator a long time ago, my boss told me during a private conference that I needed to "tighten up."  I wrote her words down on a legal pad and waited for more instructions.

When nothing was forthcoming, I said in a reasonable voice, "After teaching all day long, I tutor kids and coach for another 2-3 hours, then grade and plan. On the weekends, I grade and plan for another 10-15 hours. I'm not trying to tell you that I work harder than anyone else, but I am working very close to my capacity." 

"Just tighten up," she reiterated, still leaving me confused as to what she meant.

"This isn't a dodge," I said. "But when I go home tonight, I'll​ tell my wife that we discussed how I am supposed to "tighten up." But I won't know how that might specifically occur without us taking some work off my plate." 

I took out a pen, expecting my boss to express concrete ways for me to enhance my professional performance. Instead, her face softened: "Just tell your wife that everything is fine. You and I are good."  

Following that conversation, I didn't worry anymore. After all, the administrator had told me that "everything is fine."  

Ultimately, a principal's evaluation should be accompanied by specific examples of how you can improve. If concrete information is not provided, ask for it.

Form an Accountability group

Making fundamental changes takes focus and will. But you don't have to change on your own. Having a group of friends to support you has been shown by several key studies to boost physical and psychological health, as well as resilience. Ask a group of friends to support you by becoming members of your goal setting and peer accountability group. Jennifer Stone, Ph.D,  who researches this subject, writes...

Scientific research shows that people who have a peer accountability group are able to achieve their goals far faster as compared to those who go it alone. Affirmations from group members lift our spirits. Accountability propels us forward. Approaching the future with a sense of control has been shown boost the immune system, help with stress management and increase the probability of successful outcomes. Goals groups work!

Set up an accountability group via messaging, email, or social media. There's even a free goal setting and accountability app: Make.Me  

​Be patient with yourself. It takes time to make a big change stick. According to research by Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, and Wardle for the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes an average of 66 days for a routine to be done with “automaticity”—meaning with efficiency and little effort. The average time it takes to reach automaticity ranges from 18 to 254 days! So anyone who tells you it takes 3 weeks to form a habit, is just guessing. The researchers also found that missing a day did not significantly effect automaticity. However, missing a week had a far more substantial effect. The takeaway, never hurry, never cease. 

Focus on the Learners

People freeze when they feel like they're being judged and that their livelihood might be negatively impacted. But keep in mind that all this effort is to help your students conquer life. Says Angela Watson, "Don’t allow the observation or evaluation system to get you so discouraged that you have no energy left for your students. The best thing you can do as a teacher is keep giving it your all.

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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd’s Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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