• Aubrey Patterson

Amplifying Job Descriptions with Formative Assessment Practices

New Position

Last August, Michelle transferred to her current position at her district office. She had a lot of success in her previous role as a school secretary, but this position seems to have more opportunity for advancement. Of course, it has taken some time to learn the duties but she always asks a lot of questions and feels she is doing well. Michelle is a people-pleaser and frequently asks if the superintendent is satisfied with her work. She is quite satisfied to hear “you’re doing great.”

Last week, five months into her new position, Michelle was told her work is below expectations and suddenly received an improvement plan. She has yet to see a job description and didn’t know three of the five items on the plan were even her duties. Michelle is crushed and frustrated. She wishes she had never left her previous position where she had prospered with a clear job description and a principal who gave frequent constructive feedback.

Clarity Precedes Competence: Formative Assessment for Non-Teaching Staff

Teachers are joined by many other adults who play a critical role in learning. Whether the person is a secretary, principal or an assistant superintendent, all adults deserve formative support. Effective leaders fully understand that clarity precedes competence and that effective feedback is important, so why is it we very rarely encounter effective assessment practices being used with the adults in a school or district office?

The most obvious, yet often overlooked proactive support and basis for all assessment is a well-constructed job description.

Job descriptions are notoriously ambiguous, wordy, and all too-often outdated or non-existent. Often a scramble for clarity only comes when there is an issue. Suddenly a very clear job description may seem the panacea to make the present feel a little better and provide insurance against future problems.

When job descriptions come only from a place of accountability, they often result in cumbersome attempts to prevent predictable problems. These precise and very lengthy job descriptions don’t allow for formative practices as there is simply too much to review regularly. Is a job description really the same as a how-to manual? Does it really need to include so much?

Fig. 1. Formative Job Description of a Digital Education Administrator

There is a solution that allows for clarity, accountability and brevity. Even better, there is a way to combine serving others and specific positive reinforcement, much like the assessment for learning practices that rule the day when working with students. Aligned with the powerful belief that clarity precedes competence, specific positive reinforcement of clear targets has been the norm with all staff in the Lloydminster Catholic School Division for almost a decade. (Fig. 1)

Where job descriptions do exist in schools, most are designed as prescriptive lists that could be checked off on a tablet without discussion. What if, instead, we select specific key indicators from all outcomes we desire and discuss these regularly? Surely we could choose a few items from each category and agree that if these few were being done to our satisfaction, it is highly unlikely all others are in disarray.

Drilling down on just a few clear items, each “check-in” would also result in much deeper discussions and provide the occasional unexpected gem of an idea. Most staff would certainly enjoy a 30-45 minute coffee or snack with a supervisor 3-4 times per year to have work acknowledged, be affirmed and hear someone say, “is there anything getting in the way of you being excellent in your job?”

Is this not preferable to job reviews done once a year or only when there is a problem?

Now, as Rocky Balboa so astutely observed, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.” Corrections will be necessary. Leaders may observe urgent items that need to be addressed and decide less urgent items can be handled as part of the formative processes. Certainly, a supervisor needs to step in when necessary, but there can be no doubt that greater clarity and increased frequency with specific positive reinforcement increases the trust necessary to collegially solve issues when they arise.

Assessment for learning works with students and adults. The simplicity of the job description and the clarity of the processes will amplify successes of the adults in the room. School administrators, teachers and all of the adults in a school deserve every opportunity to lead and be led in an environment that embraces assessment for learning for everyone.


Canada ~ Lloydminster ~ Alberta

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