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Why, How, and When to Evaluate

There are no two ways about it, every educator should be evaluated. Regardless of whether the educator is a paid staff member or a volunteer, the importance of an educator’s responsibilities, and the amount of contact an educator has with students and the general public, require that he or she be evaluated on a regular and frequent basis.

Unfortunately, when some people hear that they are to be evaluated, they panic. They presume that the purpose for evaluating their performance is to highlight their vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Staff members can grow nervous and sullen, and volunteers often rebel and even threaten to quit. This is both regrettable and very problematic as no one charged with the responsibility of teaching and interacting with the public should perform such duties without the benefit of review and assessment.

Indeed, evaluations should be considered a “benefit” to the person evaluated. When conducted properly and positively, evaluations help fine tune an educator’s performance. By revealing how the “actual” relates to the “ideal,” evaluations show us how to go from where things are to where they are supposed to be. In other words, evaluations help to make us better at what we enjoy doing.

Instituting a system of evaluation requires an element of trust on the part of all participants. The evaluator must understand that the purpose of evaluating should never be denigration. He must use the evaluation to provide direction and positive assistance. And, those who are evaluated must understand that such supervision is both the right and responsibility of every institution conducting public programs. No one, whether staff or volunteer, should be allowed to have a totally free hand when it comes to representing an institution or teaching its visitors.

Unfortunately, evaluations are so controversial that few museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, or gardens employ this valuable tool with their docent programs. In fact, evaluations are so controversial that several of the staff members and volunteers who were approached to write about evaluations for this issue were unwilling to do so. They did not want to rekindle the tumult that took place within their institutions when the idea of evaluating docents was put forward.

What is an Evaluation?

An evaluation is a constructive method of assessment. It is not a test, but a systematic way of measuring performance and effectiveness against a consistent standard.

Evaluating offers a uniform way of assessing whether an institution’s goals and objectives are being achieved efficiently and effectively. The purpose of evaluating, therefore, is three fold: to clarify institutional expectations; to hone skills and performance in a manner consistent with institutional expectations; and to increase job effectiveness.

Evaluating is most decidedly a two-sided proposition. To make sense, an evaluation must have clearly defined standards to measure against. In this way, it places pressure upon an institution to succinctly summarize and express its expectations. In addition, by requiring an institution to make its goals and objectives explicit, evaluating should prompt an institution to consider whether its training programs and resources for professional development provide educators with the opportunities needed for meeting and exceeding those standards.


The simplest type of evaluation should also be the one that occurs most frequently — that is, self-evaluation. Self-evaluation can be accomplished in many ways, from personal reflection through the use of checklists and forms. Regardless of how it is accomplished, self-evaluation should become an habitual part of one’s touring responsibilities and time should be allocated for completing it.

Ask a summarizing question of your visitors. Toward the conclusion of your tour, ask visitors a question that requires them to summarize what they have learned. For instance, you might ask, “What are you most likely to remember about your visit, today?” Listen carefully to your visitors’ responses. They tell a great deal about what you’ve taught.

Hopefully, their answers will reflect the theme (or “big idea”) of your tour. For instance, if you were teaching third graders about different . forms of transportation, you might be | delighted by answers such as, “Travel I long ago was much slower and more difficult than it is today.” – or – “When cars were invented, everything changed.” If, on the other hand, these same students focused on small details, like the date that your Conestoga wagon was built or the name of the first automobile built in Los Angeles, you may wish to rethink the amount of time and energy you devote to such incidental information.

Personal reflection. After touring, take a few moments to consider how you felt the tour went. What actually happened? What did you learn that you might apply to future touring situations?

How did you perceive your overall performance? Did you have enough information about the objects exhibited to feel competent and comfortable while teaching?

What was your tour theme? How did your introduction inform visitors about the theme of the tour? How was the theme reflected in the way you examined objects at each stop along the tour?

Do you know how to teach at the grade or experience level of the audience? Did the audience remain attentive throughout the tour or did their attention begin to wane at certain times? Did you get active involvement from the audience?

How was the pace of the tour? Did anything happen during the tour to throw you off kilter? What did your visitors seem to enjoy most? What worked well enough that you might want to repeat it with other groups? What didn’t work and should be revised or re-examined before being used again?

How might you improve your teaching performance? What other information or resources might make your teaching more successful?

Individual checklists or forms. The supervising staff member or governing decent council might develop a personal evaluation checklist or form to help guide and formalize the self-evaluation process. These forms could be filled out at the conclusion of each tour or touring day.

The personal evaluation checklist or form would accomplish the same thing as personal reflection, only using a structured format to formalize and guide the docent through the self-evaluation process. For many people, having a structure ensures that the self-evaluation process will take place on a consistent basis.

Peer Observation

“Peer evaluation” can be very dicey. Just the idea of one docent evaluating another can become distinctly personal. Many docents do not want to receive critical feedback from their fellow volunteers and comrades. And, most docents find it difficult to critique their neighbors, team mates, or social friends.

Peer observation, on the other hand, is a process by which one docent observes another docent. The observing docent listens and looks for some specific event. Often times that event reflects an area of concern to the teaching docent, such as asking open-ended questions or listening to visitors rather than speaking over them.

So, in the examples mentioned above, an observing docent might record the number of open-ended questions asked by the teaching docent at each stop along a tour. Or, the observing docent might make a record of every time the teaching docent cuts a visitor off while the visitor is talking.

Group evaluation

Docents who tour as a team on the same day might undertake evaluations as a group. Following their tours, the group might sit down together and compare their experiences. During group evaluations, they would discuss both their triumphs and their tribulations aloud. They would learn if other docents had similar touring experiences, and they might share ways to teach more productively and handle situations effectively.

Discussing their perceptions about the mood and behavior of a throng of school kids can help docents with their self-evaluation process as well. Did the other docents feel that these students were distracted, or was it just me? Did the rest of the docents find the students to be ill prepared, or was it just me? Did my fellow docents get terrific participation, or was it just me?

Group evaluations help docents validate their experiences and, when need be, reevaluate their perceptions. They can also be a route toward practical solutions to common problems, by encouraging docents to network among themselves for teaching techniques, activities, and ideas.

Supervisory evaluation

Evaluations conducted by the staff member in charge of, and responsible tor, the docent program can take place at any time, but usually take place at regularly prescribed intervals. Such supervisory evaluations offer docents an opportunity to receive the kind of personalized attention they deserve. It is a time when docents can learn how supervisors view their knowledge of content, teaching techniques, understanding of audiences, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and so forth.

Supervisors who conduct evaluations should use a standard set of measures with all similar types of docents, and these measures should be shared with docents prior to the time of evaluation. For instance, all first-year docents would be told at the beginning of their training program that they will be evaluated before they will be allowed to tour. Also, the supervisor would share with docents the criteria used to assess competence and readiness for touring.

Supervisory evaluations can range in type and formality. The supervisor might occasionally- follow tours unannounced, and give informal feedback to the docent who conducted the lesson. More formal evaluations should take place with advance notice to the docent, and with time scheduled for an in-depth, follow-up conversation when the supervisor can discuss his or her observations and the decent can respond and/or ask questions.

Docent evaluation of the program

It is only right that docents be given an opportunity to evaluate the docent program. At least once a year, docents should be permitted to evaluate the supervision, content, and character of the docent program, and to request the support they believe is needed to make them more successful.

As mentioned earlier, the process of evaluation ought to be a two-way proposition. Docents should be given a chance to express their feelings about the conduct o\ the docent program, the quality of the training sessions and their content. the appropriateness of the touring techniques taught, personal attitudes, available resource materials, and other facets of the program that either contribute to, or hinder, their individual success as an educator.

Docent evaluation of their institution’s program can be accomplished in an anonymous fashion, using checklists, forms, or other such devices, or can be done in open, roundtable-like discussions. It seems preferable to do both, however, as anonymous evaluations allow docents to share thoughts they might be reluctant to share in a group situation, and the group dynamic might stimulate comments that individuals would not think to bring up.

In conclusion

Docents should be told when they are recruited that evaluations will occur and how often they will take place. Active docents in existing programs should be informed of the evaluation process at the beginning of their training and/or touring season.

Docents who have served for years without the benefit of evaluation should be asked for their assistance in instituting a process of evaluation. They should have input into the criteria used for evaluation so that they are enfranchised, and do not feel that this is being used to “weed them out.” (In fact, evaluations should not be used for “weeding,” but rather for “feeding” docents.) If docents become alarmed at the prospect, conversations about their fears must take place, but with the knowledge that the issue being discussed is how to evaluate, not whether to evaluate.

Presumably, the supervisor of the docent program is evaluated by the museum hierarchy, and that staff member’s evaluation will, in some measure, be based upon the performance of each and every docent who serves in the program. It is only right and proper, therefore, that the staff member have an opportunity to give input into each and every docent and to discuss performance.

Evaluations will lose their “fear factor” if they take place frequently and become a normal part of the program. Perhaps it is best to conclude by saying, as far as evaluations are concerned — the sooner the better and the more the merrier.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Why, How, and When to Evaluate,” The Docent Educator 6.4 (Summer 1997):  2-5.

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