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Professional Growth

3 Ways Evaluating Your Classified Staff Can Make a Positive Difference in Your School (and Where to Start)

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It was always cold when I walked to the bus stop, at least in my memory. Down the hill to the corner store, fumbling with a cassette for my Walkman, lugging a far-too-heavy backpack. Every day of the school year, Ms. Nuse was the first school employee I’d see, and at the end of the day, the last one, too. She was no nonsense, but kind. She drove bus 23.

Teachers are often the first to come to mind when we think of school (and rightly so), but the vast number of non-certified staff also play a pivotal role in education: bus drivers, food service professionals, office staff, security, custodians, crossing guards and many others. Yet when it comes time to think about evaluations — especially evaluations designed to result in professional growth — the focus is almost entirely on teachers.

Yes, many districts evaluate classified staff. Others do not. Still others may conduct quick-as-possible evaluations to stay compliant with state or district requirements, but without putting significant resources toward ensuring those evaluations result in employee growth.

That’s not surprising. Evaluating employees in a way that prioritizes growth and emphasizes feedback takes time. Yet there are some compelling reasons for taking that time, even when doing so is not strictly required.

Why Evaluate Classified Staff?

1. Classified staff are vital to the success of your school and students.

No shock here, right? Without caring, dedicated people to bring students to school, prepare breakfasts and lunches, ensure a clean facility, set up computers, welcome visitors, keep students and employees safe and countless other jobs, instruction would grind to a halt, and quick! Doesn’t it make sense to invest in the continual development of these men and women?

Simply making sure jobs are performed more effectively isn’t the only reason, however. Most of us can tell stories of favorite teachers over the years, but the other employees working in a school can make a powerful impact, as well. An article for The Atlantic in 2015 quoted Valerie Maholmes of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: “‘Sometimes it’s not teachers who are most influential — maybe [it’s a] janitor or parent who is volunteering in the school,’ Maholmes said, stressing the transformative potential of adults who ‘already have strong, positive relationships with kids.’”

Especially for students who may not do as well academically, positive relationships with adults who aren’t teachers can make a difference in their wellbeing, David B. Cohen writes for Education Week.

2. Evaluations make it possible to offer targeted professional development.

That professional learning should be targeted to specific needs and strengths won’t raise many eyebrows. But without a systematic way of identifying those needs and strengths, how can we expect that to happen? Employee evaluations that are part of a broader culture of continual growth for every employee can help inform professional development offerings and shed light on trends and patterns across the district, showing what kinds of learning opportunities are worth investing in for your people.

3. Evaluating classified staff can increase retention.

This is not to imply that only having a summative score on a spectrum of “Developing” to “Highly Effective” will increase employee satisfaction and bring new job applicants through the door in droves. A score by itself will never do that.

But consider: what happens when classified employees receive the same level of care and interest as teachers and other certified staff?

When people feel valued, invested in and cared for, when their roles are viewed as important to the success of students, when they can truly take part in the mission and vision of the school, they tend to be happier. They are more engaged and pour more of themselves into their work. And notably, they tend to stay in their jobs longer.

The key, of course, is making sure evaluations aren’t ‘gotchas,’ that there is a strong feedback component, and whenever possible, that employees are included from the beginning and have input into how the process is constructed.

Those reasons for evaluating classified staff are probably not breaking news to most readers. Yet the time required still prevents many school systems from committing the resources needed to do this work well. Cydney Miller, a colleague at Frontline Education and former HR Director at Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Tennessee, believes that’s a mistake. At a time when many districts find it difficult to fill teaching positions, teachers are often asked to do more with less: larger classroom sizes, a never-ending river of new pedagogical techniques and strategies to implement, still only 24 hours in the day. The job is hard — but she argues that the better equipped a district’s classified staff are, the better supported their certified staff will be as well.

Where to Start When Evaluating Classified Staff

For districts that want to begin the journey toward evaluating classified staff, Cydney offers a few thoughts:

  • Begin with each job description. A dearth of examples and rubrics to measure success can be a daunting roadblock for some. So many different jobs are done by classified staff that using a single rubric for every position won’t yield the best results. Yet you may already be halfway there: start with each position’s job description to create a rubric for each job category. This way, each individual will see how their specific job contributes to the overall success of the district, and will have a clear lens through which to view strengths and areas for growth.
  • Scale up existing practices. Many schools may already do some form of evaluations for non-certified employees. In such cases, see where you can supplement those efforts with formative, growth-oriented conversations. Say you’re already spending 30 minutes twice a year evaluating employees, yet aren’t seeing the benefits noted above. Rather than trying to scale the mountain of forming a brand-new program, see if spending 45 minutes with each employee would be doable instead — and spend those extra 15 minutes in real conversations about goals, performance, career ambitions and areas to improve or strengthen.
  • Train evaluators to give feedback and conduct reliable, unbiased evaluations. Evaluating classified staff shouldn’t necessarily be the work of one person. If all evaluators have a common understanding of performance criteria and are trained to provide meaningful, relevant feedback, employees will be more likely to respond positively to evaluations.

It’s worth reiterating that evaluation for the sake of checking a box is not the takeaway here. No one needs more on their to-do list. But if we believe that all employees matter to the education kids receive, that professional learning is valuable to the work being done in schools, and that one-size-fits-all learning is suboptimal, then honest conversations as part of a growth-oriented evaluation process can do a lot of good for classified employees… and for that middle schooler trudging through the snow to catch the bus.