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A Tale of Two Teacher Evaluations

As one of my opening lessons on science lab safety, I use a scenario of students who create utter mayhem in the lab with glimpses of them also being safe. This anticipatory set is fun to read and students quickly identify things they should never do. By the end of the lesson they have internalized all eight safety rules. Today, Congress is struggling with how to advance teacher evaluations in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and states and school districts across the country are challenged to implement education reform laws on this topic. My hope is that the following assignment could help inspire them to get it right.

Directions: Read this true story about my two teacher evaluations, one year apart. Underline all the things that went wrong in these evaluations and circle all the things that went well. If you finish early, pretend you are Superintendent of my school district and write in the comment section of this blog post.

Year One
It was my third year of teaching, and I was extremely excited to start a new job as a founding teacher of a turnaround elementary school in one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods. I had my concerns, though. The principal was just 30 years old and had spent most of his professional career teaching African American history at a suburban high school. I saw the first red flag during the job interview, when he complimented me for coining the phrase "just right books," which anyone who has ever taught reading knows is an old, commonly used phrase referring to books that are not too easy, and not too hard.

The first year was challenging. One teacher abruptly quit a month into the school year. I became the social committee chairwoman to try to foster positivity on the staff. I organized the staff holiday and end-of-the-year parties in lively downtown restaurants. I led a toy drive that brought more than 400 gifts to students for Christmas. I bought monthly birthday treats and get well soon and sympathy cards for the staff. Most importantly, I worked tirelessly in the classroom. In fact, I worked extra hours after school almost every day, despite having a newborn baby at home.

When it was time for my teacher evaluation, the principal gave me all Strengths on my checklist based on two formal observations. I thanked him, but told him that I knew I had weaknesses and I wanted to talk about them. He said my biggest weakness was that I was too hard on myself.

"Marilyn, when I tell you that you are one of the best teachers in the primary building, I'm not trying to blow smoke up your ass," he said. "You're an excellent teacher. Just keep doing what you're doing."

I walked away feeling uneasy about his choice of words. I knew I was a strong teacher, but I wanted to continue to grow.

Year Two
One-third of the staff had gotten fired or quit after the first year. Teacher and student morale were at an all-time low. I was too overwhelmed to lead the social committee and no other teacher agreed to do it. The principal and his two assistant principals (who he playfully called his "two wives," although all three of them had spouses of their own) decided to mix things up. They put teachers in grade levels they didn't want to teach. They cut my 3rd grade team down to two teachers, which gave me 33 students. Second grade, however, remained a team of three, and each teacher had only 14 students. Why? Admin thought making class size small in 2nd grade would make the students more successful in their 3rd grade—albeit, overcrowded—classes. Besides, the strongest teachers were in the 3rd grade and they expected us to work our magic.

A dozen of my students came in reading at or below the 1st grade level. I had six students with major behavior problems. One student threatened to kill himself and was briefly committed to a psychiatric ward. So when my reading assessments weren't completed on time and the principal argued that 2nd grades' assessments were in, I told him to do the math: Twice the number of students, twice the time needed. He did not appreciate my newfound frankness.

Following an instance in which my team partner and I raised concerns about the primary-level assistant principal's competence, things really began to fall apart. Nothing I did was ever good enough. When my principal came to observe my guided reading lesson, he criticized me for not using a whiteboard the way the expensive literacy consultants showed us to do in a PD. I pointed out to him that I use index cards so that my students can practice their custom word list at home. The nitpicking continued, but I stood up to defend my pedagogy and classroom management techniques. Besides, I was working closely with an outside, professional teaching coach who lauded the same lessons my principal said were failures.

In early March, the principal called me into his office. I knew how hard I had been working and that I had been making gains in the classroom, so I naively expected him to pay me an overdue compliment. Instead, last year's "one of the best teachers in the primary building" was now an "unacceptable." He told me that I had turned negative and no longer believed that my students could learn. After I finished the school year, he said, I would not be invited back.

Stunned but composed, I looked him in the eye and said, "I want to thank you for hiring me, but when I come to work, I don't come to work for you. I work for God. I have been praying about whether I should quit, but I'm not a quitter. So thank you for answering my prayers."

Then I burst into tears. I told him that I was not crying because I wanted my job back—I didn't. I was upset that, once again, my low-income African American students would lose a good teacher. And the year I left, so did another third of the staff.

Within four years of the school's opening, both the principal and his "two wives" were off to other exploits, as well. Interestingly, the principal and his primary-level assistant are now actually married to each other.

I am now happily working at a charter school where teacher evaluations are fair, substantive, and self-reflective. But the experience I wrote about almost caused me to quit the teaching profession. Education policymakers must get teacher evaluations right before that infamous checklist kills the spirit of another good teacher.

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