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Selected Work by Judy Sklar Rasminsky

Effective Management: Evaluating Daycare Educators

Co-author Barbara Kaiser
Interaction, Summer 1997;
anthologized in Leadership, Administration and Management in Child Care (2002).
Column, 2900 words

Many supervisors live in dread as the year draws to a close. The daily tasks of running the daycare center—managing budgets and schedules, ordering supplies, developing policies, resolving parent and staff crises, finding subs and filling in for absent educators, caring for sick children, preparing for and attending endless board and committee meetings—all pale beside the task that now lies ahead: evaluating the staff.

Whenever you tell prospective parents about your center, you are making a promise about the kind and level of care that you will provide for their children. As the supervisor, you are directly responsible for ensuring that the staff is delivering that care. Evaluation is the tool that enables you to keep your promise.

The experts say that fair, clear and constructive feedback is linked to better performance, higher morale and a lower rate of turnover. According to Paule Jorde-Bloom, it is a “springboard for professional growth,” motivating educators to greater competence and increasing their commitment to the daycare. The result is good for everyone.

The trouble is that knowing this in theory may not help when you’re face to face with an educator in your office. You know only too well how hard the staff work, how difficult their job is, how minuscule their salary. You also know better than anyone else how your center’s limitations (its budget, its space) restrict what they can do.

In addition, you probably have a caregiver’s instincts—you don’t want to hurt anyone. Your staff is small enough so that you know some of what’s happening in their lives, and if Robin is going through a rough patch in her marriage you may be tempted to overlook her recent impatience with the children. And because you know that when your educators leave your office after their evaluation they are not going back to a ledger lined with numbers but to a group of vulnerable little people who depend on them, you want those educators to feel good about themselves and the job they’re doing.

The staff are probably even more apprehensive and intimidated than you are. The most competent and experienced educators are on edge when their performance is under scrutiny, and less competent and less experienced educators who lack confidence may be downright defensive, ready only to hear criticism and to feel unappreciated.

In the worst case scenario, war breaks out: offended staffers seek support from their colleagues, who may also feel insecure (if the supervisor can pick on Susan, she can pick on me, too) and lose confidence in your judgment, undermining your authority and the entire structure of the center. The staff is all aflutter with conversation, and the children don’t get the attention they need.

How can you avoid this powder keg, put the children’s interests first, and give your staff the constructive feedback they need to become better educators? We can’t offer guarantees, but here are some basic rules that will make the whole process of evaluating the staff a little easier.

1. Create a clear framework for your evaluation—you are most likely to succeed if your staff know what you expect of them. At hiring time, present each educator with a comprehensive personnel package that includes a job description and an evaluation form enumerating exactly when and what you will evaluate each year, from developmentally appropriate program planning to punctuality, from understanding and respect for the daycare philosophy to knowledge of the children. If your policies are fair and clear, the evaluation will be, too; and with a clear description as a starting point, the evaluation will almost write itself.

2. In order to provide valuable and useful feedback, you must spend time on the floor. If you are going to get to know the children and support your educators, this is essential in any case, but being out there with the staff and the children also enables you to do much better evaluations.

If you announce that you are coming to observe, or if you show up with your notepad every Friday at 10.30, or if you materialize once in a blue moon, your presence will change everything and you won’t see what you need to see. We advise you instead to become part of the daily routine—to appear often to borrow a pair of scissors, tie a shoe, help with a puzzle, talk to a child who could use a little one-on-one—so that everyone feels comfortable having you around.

Filling in occasionally for missing staff is another good way to insure that your presence is not unusual.

3. Make evaluation an ongoing process, not a once-a-year event. The final document will contain no surprises if you hold frequent formative evaluations—setting goals and giving direction—with each educator.

Informal evaluations, which are the natural extension of being around a lot of the time, are very important for passing along both positive and negative feedback. They can take place any time, any where. As you walk down the hall, keep your evaluation checklists in your head (one for naptime, one for mealtime, one for free play, one for transitions, etc.). You may notice that the three-year-olds are getting out of control. Then Rosie starts singing a favorite song, and in an instant the entire group is transformed, faces wreathed in smiles, ready to go to snack. Tell Rosie then and there, “That was great. That made me feel good, too.”

Likewise, if you walk into a noisy, chaotic room and find the children building a block structure that is too high and potentially dangerous, you can’t ignore it. If other adults are in the room, you don’t want to humiliate the educator with public correction, so you could model the appropriate response and get the children to fix the structure. If the educator is alone with the children, you could say, “I think the block structure is too high. Do you want me to tell Elaine to take off some blocks, or will you do it?”

If everything seems to be in order, keep yourself busy for another few minutes while you look around. There is always room for growth, even in the best educators.

Formal evaluations take place at regularly scheduled times (usually two or three times a year, including the final evaluation), follow the job description and evaluation form, and are always written. You should have a special schedule for evaluating new staff while they are on probation.

When you are doing a formal evaluation, you may realize that you’ve missed certain activities on your usual visits to the floor. Figure out what you want to observe, check the schedule, and set that time aside. If you want to see how the group moves from one activity to another, you must plan be there during transition time. If you need to watch a structured activity, you may have to stay for a while. You can be less intimidating and more helpful if you sit beside John, whose behavior tends to be disruptive. (On the other hand, if you’re coming to see how the educator handles John, you’d better sit somewhere else.)

4. Evaluate your staff only on what you have seen yourself, not on hearsay. If a parent complains that Dorothy doesn’t understand her son very well, don’t call Dorothy in—investigate for yourself. If a staff member is worried about the children’s safety outside because a fellow-educator seems to dream in the sunshine, don’t call the educator in—investigate! No matter how trivial the complaint, investigate.

If you don’t see it, don’t evaluate it. If you do see it, you can say, “I noticed that you didn’t count the children when they came in from outside” without implicating anyone else. This solution enhances the children’s safety and the quality of care by allowing staff to feel free to tell you about their concerns.

5. Meet with the educators as soon as possible after an observation, even if you gave them feedback earlier. They get nervous when they know you’ve been watching them, and that creates unnecessary tension. This is especially important when you notice that an educator isn’t doing something well.

Discuss what you saw, why it happened, and how to avoid it the next time. Your goal is to give the educators tools and to help them generate their own solutions to problems. “The room was so noisy you didn’t seem to have any control, and you had to shout to be heard. What can you do to lower the noise level?” 

Return to observe a second time within a few days, and then a third, to be sure that the educator is practicing what he or she has learned (or that what you saw the first time was an aberration). When you see improvement, tell the educator right away.

6. Keep specific, detailed notes of all of your observations, discussions and follow-ups. They help you to remember what you saw and to prepare what you are going to say—and at the same time they remind the educators that evaluation is a serious business. Whether the comments are positive or negative, show them what you’ve written, have them sign it and put it in their file. You never know where things are going, and if a block structure falls and breaks a child’s finger, the record will show that you and the educator discussed this problem three days before. This process may be time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

7. As you supervise, keep the educator’s education, experience and level of maturity squarely in mind. Educators are learners going through stages of development in their profession; and just as you wouldn’t expect the same behavior from a toddler that you would from a five-year-old, you can’t expect the same level of expertise from a new early childhood graduate or untrained staff that you would from a veteran with a university degree. Knowing each educator’s stage of development is essential to giving constructive feedback and setting appropriate goals.

According to Lillian Katz, every stage of development requires a different style of supervision. Stage I, the survival stage for new educators, requires a more directive supervisor-educator relationship. New employees on probation need a lot of guidance to succeed. The first evaluations they receive at your center will be crucial for the future of their work at your center as well as for their own development. Frequent observations and informal feedback give them an idea of what they’re doing well and which areas need improvement; but they are also an opportunity to convey what your center considers important—because each center has its own standards and emphasis. For example, teamwork is more crucial in a center where two teachers work with 16 children who move from room to room than it is in a center where the children spend most of the day in one room with one teacher.

In Stage II, consolidation, educators with a few years of experience still need direction but are ready to collaborate with their colleagues. When educators reach Stage III, renewal, they often find themselves at the brink of burn-out, unchallenged and perhaps considering a career change. For some that may be best; others need help finding more challenging responsibilities and new opportunities for growth. At Stage IV, maturity, the educator is ready to take on more responsibility for others, and if there are new educators at the center this is a good time to set up a mentoring program.

8. When it is time for the final evaluation, plan it carefully. When and where will it take place? Many educators (and supervisors!) need the authority of the director’s office and desk to hear (and deliver) their evaluation message. Others may listen more attentively if you pull your chair around to the other side of the desk or seat yourselves in comfortable chairs in the staff room or a nearby coffee shop. (Bear in mind that if you take one staff member out to coffee, you’ll have to take them all!)

Set aside about an hour for each session. If you know that you’re going to deliver some really bad news, schedule the meeting for the end of the day on Friday to minimize disruption to the center.

9. Give yourself plenty of time to go over the notes of all of your previous evaluations, observations and conversations, to put things in perspective and to figure out what you want to say. This is probably the only opportunity you’ll have all year to think about the whole picture, and it may enable you to figure out that you’re not satisfied with someone’s performance.

Before you write a word, consider the best strategy for approaching each educator. Besides taking into account Jane’s stage of professional development, you must assess her level of maturity. How able is she to assimilate information?

Begin with the positive. One of the best aspects of an evaluation is that educators can come away from it feeling that they’ve gained some recognition, that you’ve noticed and appreciated their talents. When you start the conference on an up note, it becomes easier for the educator to accept constructive criticism.

Although Jane’s work may have 10 areas that could be improved, there is no point in telling her about all of them—either she won’t hear you, or she’ll quit in despair. If this isn’t your intent, focus on three or four of the most important, putting the children’s safety first, the overall well being of the group second, and professionalism third. Save the rest of your thoughts for future evaluations.

10. Make your criticism as constructive as possible. Rather than saying, “You leave too quickly at the end of the day; you’re always watching the time,” explain, “In daycare we can’t be clock-watchers. Sometimes the children’s needs really require you to stay 10 minutes longer. If you have to leave early for an appointment, I’m sure we could arrange it if you tell us in advance.”

Use the concrete examples you’ve gathered from being on the floor to support your points. “You’re doing a great job” doesn’t tell anyone anything. It is more helpful to say, “You are working very well with the parents. When Jamie was having trouble separating from his mother in the morning, you took the initiative in discussing the problem with her and figuring out that he would find it easier to leave her and fit in with his friends if he arrived at the center 15 minutes earlier. This solution has been very successful.”

11. Make self-evaluation an important part of the process. Your perceptions will probably resemble your educators’, but asking what they think will open the door for discussion with staff who might be reluctant to ask for help under ordinary circumstances. It will also engender a more positive attitude—and better results—in every staff member who can honestly evaluate his or her own performance. You can ask the staff to write evaluations of themselves and compare them to yours, or get them to participate at the end of the process by setting appropriate objectives for themselves. Allow them to take the evaluation home and think about it, then meet with them again.

12. The objectives should be clear, concrete, measurable, attainable, and geared to the educator’s stage of professional development. Because success is the ultimate goal, confine yourselves to three, and work out a plan and a time frame that reflect the objective’s difficulty. People can’t change over night, and they often find it easier to fix one thing at a time. A plan for having a less chaotic room during free play might include a first step of selecting just four toys to put out and a second step of setting up an art activity to engage the children who like to draw.

Base the next evaluation on these objectives, and schedule it to give the educator plenty of time to progress.

13. In some centers the annual evaluation can be the basis for a promotion, a raise or even contract renewal. If your center runs this way, it is especially important to be sure that your evaluation process is systematic and fair and that you think long and hard about what you write. (Personally we prefer to use a salary scale founded on training, years of experience and years at the center—we find that it produces a less competitive atmosphere.)

14. The supervisor and the educator should sign both the written evaluation and the objectives. If an educator still disagrees with something in the evaluation, set a time limit for submitting a written response that will be filed with the appraisal. It is a skillful supervisor who will work with the educator to reach consensus and turn a criticism into a mutually agreed upon goal.  

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Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.

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