I still get nervous when I view my official teacher evaluations. Although they are usually positive, there is always that one growth comment stuck in there so that you can “work on something.” My growth comment is usually something like this: “Mr. Theriault needs to work on submitting his roll sheets every day and on time.” Even though that comment might seem silly, I take it to heart. I know it adds a little bit of stress to the attendance clerks and their administrator, and I don’t like giving anyone extra work. Last year I paid a student to stop by everyday to remind me to take roll. (Thanks Sam)
So funny, I’ve never spoken of my tenure. Not once.
Now I can shrug that off of course, but that’s not the purpose of this post. The purpose of the post is to talk about teacher feedback and evaluation at its best and worst. The purpose of this post is to help teachers who have been given a ratemyteacher.com drive-by assasination. The purpose of this post is to help students who truly want to shift education and learning in a way that will help them learn. The purpose of this post is to help parents to figure out whether or not their son or daughter has an effective teacher. I’d rather not dive into the “online comments” but sometimes you have to explore the unexplored places of what we do.
“[You are too smart to spend your life exploring The Comments.] You value your time on earth and understand how precious and brief it is, and know not to spend any of those hours walking the superheater miles irradiated ungrammatical ragebarf that unspool in [any space that has online comments].”
“The Comments are not a conversation, and despite being argumentative in the extreme they’re not even an argument. They are a cacophony of furious and fuming assertion, a thousand monologues screamed at the same time in something like the same pitch, all day and all night, forever and ever, amen. It is, finally and most fundamentally, a pose-off.”
“The Comments are an echo chamber in which to lay out your own armchair biases- luxuriously inflexible and unfailingly certain, one way or the other- and make the world conform to and reflect them.” Footnote (1) Baseball Prospectus Annual 2016
So let’s put aside the “evaluation criteria” of ratemyteacher.com for a second. I mean any evaluation tool that uses “textbook use and exam difficulty” to “rate” a teacher is flawed at best. Let’s take one second to talk about why schools hire teachers.
- They seem good at pedagogy. (I mean how much can you really know from an interview or sample lesson)
- They seem like a pleasant person to work with. They have good social skills.
- They have enthusiasm.
- They can coach a sport or fill a school need: theatre teacher, journalism teacher, cheer advisor. These are real needs and they don’t show up on any rating criteria.
- They have a degree and clearance from the state.
Those are just a few of the reasons why schools hire teachers. Do you really think that every school can afford to only hire “the best teachers?” What job place in America is filled with nothing but “the best?” Now schools can do whatever possible to hire the best they can get. Unfortunately schools can get in a rut in how they hire teachers. When was the last time your school tried out some innovative interview questions or invited the teaching candidate to eat lunch with the department before they hired them? Let’s return to the question “how good is good enough?” Every job, EVERY job has people who are better at certain aspects of their jobs than others. There are police who are not the best in the gun range, but they can calm a tense situation with just a few words. There are doctors who don’t have A+ stitching skills, but can identify an unusual illness with just one look. There is a reason you don’t have just one teacher growing up. Hopefully different teachers are filling the gap. Hopefully.
But, what if you have a teacher that just doesn’t seem to be working for you or your child? Well, if you are a parent you can see if you can swap teachers. If there is room to swap, a swap can often happen. No one wants to keep an unhappy student in a class they don’t want to be in. Trust me, I’d rather have that student in another teacher’s class. Sometimes students and teachers don’t mesh. All of my CP classes are packed 100% full. Students were trying to get into my class, but not everyone likes being my student.Think of how many people love chocolate and yet there is someone out there that doesn’t like chocolate. Everyone is going to have their haters.
What if you can’t get out of a teacher’s class? Well, I guess your kid is going to get a crash course in “how to hang in there.” My son had a middle school science teacher that didn’t do a science lab ONCE. I contacted the principal and got nowhere, he didn’t even have the nerve to sit in the teacher’s class and hold that teacher to the basic state standards of a lab science class. I suggested to my son that I let the principal know that I wanted my son to just sit in the library and read science books instead of sit in that class, but my son didn’t want to be “that kid” so he learned about perseverance and what NOT to do when you are running a class or training session: for a whole year. None of us were happy about this, but there are worse things to go through.
In high school, students should talk to their teachers. You are on your road to adulthood. Act like it. Even if you are ignored, at least you took a swim in the adult pool. Bring up your concerns as questions? Mr. Theriault “How are you preparing me for [blank]?” Mr. Theriault, “why do you do this?” Try and ask those question after class so it doesn’t seem like you are challenging the teacher in front of the class. Ask the teacher if you can tweak the assignment or do something different, but perhaps more challenging. I’ve always appreciated those conversations. If a student can figure out a way to make the display of their learning more interesting than anything I came up with… I’m all ears.
You can model your willingness to listen to student feedback by talking about assignments after they are done. Just sit in the front of the room and ask students “so, how did that go?” “What did you like about doing this?” “What should we do differently next time?” Tell them what your goals and objectives were and ask them if they can share with you other ways to achieve the same goal. If my teacher approached learning like this I would feel much more comfortable with approaching them with a concern that had been eating away at me. You can even use a Google Form to solicit feedback from students. I’ve done this and so has Sean Ziebarth. Listening to feedback and reflecting on feedback can help you move towards being a great teacher.
Now not every kid gets a great teacher, but every kid deserves a teacher trying to do something great. The best teachers are those that don’t complain about kids and instead look to themselves when things go wrong in the classroom. Good teachers don’t complain about “kids today.” How is that going to help anything in the classroom? Yes you can vent about a kid or ask for help about a kid, but the best teachers turn inward and then ask others for help. We cannot control the students we get, but we can control how we engage and inspire them.
So how do parents find inspiring teachers or the schools that hire them? When my son was born, many years ago, we didn’t look about any ratings or review websites. I mean have you ever seen the reviews on Yelp? People will give a one star review because their server took too long to bring a check. Judging a school based on test scores or reviews is short-sighted at best. One thing we did was looked for teacher websites. I can’t tell you how many schools have a space for teacher websites, but only a handful of teachers will take advantage of it. If you care enough to share your class online then it means you are probably doing something worth sharing and you are willing to spend a little time welcoming others to your class. We also looked at PTA websites to see how involved the community was with the school. We even went to back-to-school night to get a sense of the school and the teachers.
Now not every great teacher posts pictures of their student work, classroom, or assignments online. My wife doesn’t. She’s a great kindergarten teacher, trust me. Instead of trusting anonymous online reviews how about asking a real person that you know and trust? Word of mouth is much more reliable, than online comments. When you ask someone in person at least you know who is speaking and that it’s not some anonymous person with an ax to grind. Additionally, you can ask follow-up questions and engage in a more nuanced exploration of “who is this teacher?” I doubt any of my students are using a site like ratemyteacher to find out more about their teacher, why would they? They can just ask the students who had the teacher the year before, and trust me they ask.
One of the biggest problems with evaluation is a lack of perspective. I made a huge mistake the first few years when my son started playing baseball. We went from a coach that had super organized practices, the kind where kids are moving quickly from drill to drill with no downtime waiting in line watching others practice, to a coach that I thought wasn’t as skilled. At the end of the season I put that coach on a “do not draft my son list.” I figured that if my son had better coaching he would get better faster. Boy what a moron I was. That coach turned out to be one of the nicer coaches we had, but I didn’t have the next five years of experience to help me understand what a good job he was doing at the time. I still regret that decision to this day. I have students all the time complain about me or another teacher only to watch them realize a few years later that we might have been better than they thought. Far too often we only understand how good we had it, after experiencing something far worse. I have students time and time again tell me that their best teachers were their high school teachers. Yet here they were looking forward to college every minute as they stared at that classroom clock.
Speaking of time, does your school make time to survey students and parents about how they feel about what is happening at your school. Does your school share the results of those surveys with students, parents, and the community? Does your school conduct regular surveys on teacher effectiveness? If you put the language of effective pedagogy in a survey, perhaps students and parents will understand what they should be looking for in an effective teacher. How do students and parents even know what to look for if they aren’t seeing the language of effective instruction? I can’t tell you the last time our whole school had an annual survey on school culture and classroom pedagogy, and yet this should be a regular process for a school.
When I was the WASC accreditation coordinator I asked students two open-ended questions on a WASC survey. Here was one of them: “What do you like best about FVHS?” Want to know their number one answer? It was “our teachers.” Did releasing the result of that survey impact public and student perception about our school and how good our teachers are? Of course. This is why if you don’t tell the story of your school, or your class, someone else will.
That someone might be an online troll. That someone might be an angry current, or former student. Every year I walk by students (usually honors students) who go out of their way to ignore me in the hallway. Usually those students are the students who didn’t get an A in my class. Even though I hand out lots of As in my class, not everyone gets one. When they don’t get one, they and their parents are upset. They usually blame the person handing out the grade. Sometimes those students take out their frustrations in anonymous postings on a review site. Here are just a few of the ways you can deal with this.
Don’t feed the trolls. They are angry, they want someone to validate their anger. Don’t elevate their point by bringing attention to it. My life got so much better when I quit reading the comments underneath anything published online. I no longer read comments under newspaper articles, YouTube Videos, or anything potentially political.
“That is what The Comments are for, if they have a purpose- they are a safe space for people to share their passionately held idiocies and gripes and fixes. No one is listening, and no one should, but the comments are not there to be read. Think of them as the ghost vault in Ghostbusters- all those restless, rageful shades are trapped, removed from the world through which we all walk, and then dumped into a tank where they can slime each other forever, safely sequestered from everyone else.”
“The secret sadness of The Comments as a way of being is how false-bottomed and fake it all is. What appears to be a stand on principle or some damn-the-torpedoes assertion of bravery is, finally, a retreat.”
“[The Comments is not] principled, although it poses as such. It is mostly an elevation of reactions and hunches and received wisdom and under-examined biases over anything and everything that might challenge them.”
“The people positing and posturing and sternly saying [this] in The Comments are there because it is the easiest, safest, most isolated place to be. It is difficult to imagine them negotiating daily life with much joy.” see Footnote 1
Understand that there are mean people in the world. You probably won’t change them, but there are also nice people in this world. Perhaps that mean review of you will spur you to take few moments in class and have a class discussion about online comments. Many of our students have experienced online harassment. Who do THEY turn to for comfort? They are just kids, with a potentially fragile ego. Maybe use your anger to find a way to help others deal with harassment. Helping others feels good and makes the world a better place. Make sure to hand out those compliments in class. Let all your students know that someone thinks they are worth praising.
If it gets really bad you can try and find out the name of the student who is harassing you, you can even attempt to sue the student for libel. I’m not recommending this action, but it’s a possibility.
Please remember this very important idea. What we say about someone, often says more about us than them. People who are negative, people who gossip are showing more about themselves than the people they are talking about.
Get online. Define who you are before someone else does. You don’t have to brag about yourself, but you can share your philosophies about teaching or even share your assignments or student work. Let the world get a glimpse of what you do and what you think and then let them compare that with an anonymous review. We live in a different time. Our students do too. Our doctors, our restaurants, our cleaners, our auto shops all have anonymous online reviews. Don’t let those reviews define who you are online. If you have a friend who is doing something great, share it with others. Fill the world with stories of gratitude, community, love, and inspiration.
There is one form of evaluation and feedback that I find not only inspiring, but it’s super helpful in combating the negativity of ratemyteacher.com and other anonymous review sites. What is this magical evaluation? A simple thank you letter from a student. I love my student thank you letters. I keep some on the wall in my class and others in a folder in my cabinet. The folder is called “there are people who like you.” If you want to really make a teacher’s year, write them a thank you letter. I keep mine longer than any gift. In fact I thought they were so powerful that I had an idea recently to start a website called “writemyteacher.org” instead of rate my teacher. I imagined a website where teachers all over the United States could post thank you letters that were linked to their name. So when people Googled their name they would see these letters instead of an anonymous review. Imagine the impact of that site on those who think teachers aren’t worth their salary? I flew the idea past a few teachers, but most of them felt uncomfortable posting thank you letters online. That’s too bad because these letters are full of useful information about which “evaluation criteria” matter most to students, not just those chosen by ratemyteacher.com. Students like teachers who:
believe in you
encourage exploration and inspire confidence
teach you about life- force you to think and grow in unexpected ways
The best part of these letters is you know exactly who wrote them and that they are truly trying to communicate something important to YOU, not as an online pose, but as one human being to another. They are not a part of The Comments, they are communication, they aren’t just feedback, they feed you back what you gave to others. I think if we just sit down for a second and approach this problem honestly, and with bravery and hope we can find a way to help each other understand what we need and what is and isn’t working for us. Let’s reclaim this conversations from “The Comments” and elevate it back to where it belongs, to the story of our shared community: a place of love, a place where we work on elevating others, not tearing them down.
Footnote 1: The text in quotes is from the:
Baseball Prospectus Annual 2016 I subscribe to Baseball Prospectus and it is the first thing I read every morning when I wake up. The material I quoted is from the Los Angeles Angels essay by David Roth a contributing editor at Vice Sports and a co-founder of The Classical.
Here is a recent video that the Fountain Valley High School Baron News Network journalism students created about students rating teachers on ratemyteacher.com. I thought they did a remarkably professional job. Sean’s students don’t even seem like HS students. It wasn’t an easy topic to tackle in a high school setting. People are sensitive about the subject, as expected, but they gave many teachers a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns and had students back up many of those same feelings about the site.