Teacher Eval: Liberace or the Kid Next Door?

A quality evaluation is a beginning; a useless one, an end.

That’s the conclusion I draw from a quote by the legendary Madeline Hunter in a recent Ed Week article by David Finley: “If you hear someone playing the piano, it doesn’t take long to figure out if it’s Liberace or the boy next door practicing.” Hunter was referring to teacher evaluation and although she may be right, so what?

After all, it’s true that a teacher can be fairly and quickly judged in short, qualitative terms: It’s not particularly hard to tell whether a teacher is a virtuoso or a fledgling. Clearly, that judgment is too black and white. (See #TeachingIs: 50 Shades of Grey.) But I’ve publicly suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that we adopt six-word evaluations modeled on Smith Magazine’s six-word memoirs:

  • “Gets better every year: a keeper”
  • “Red flags all over this one.”
  • “Builds community like no one else.”
  • “Loved by students for wrong reasons.”

That’s funner to play as a game than actually adopt as a policy, but aren’t short, general descriptions how we judge our colleagues, at in our own minds? Granted, after that judgment we can go on at length about our reasons, but as an illustration, think of some different colleagues where you work. I bet your first thought is a one or two word statement of overall quality, followed by a short, five or six word explanation.

And I don’t think any of this kind of thinking about colleagues is a particularly bad in and of itself, but what end does it serve?

So while it might be possible to make a short, accurate qualitative opinion about a teacher, that opinion will almost certainly be static and unserviceable.  In contrast a useful evaluation looks forward and defines the shape of next piece in a teacher’s professional puzzle.

In the case of the virtuoso, the next piece might involve finding means by which they can share their expertise or assume more roles as a teacher leader. The next piece for the novice might be a concrete quantitative goal, like cutting transition times by half or something more complex, like creating more informative assessments.

Regrettably, my district’s evaluation tool is an amalgam generated by combining student results on standardized tests with an observation and reflection protocol that intends to be growth oriented but is ridiculously onerous for teachers and administrators. And at the end results in a single number that purportedly describes the teacher’s quality.

Which by the criterion at the start of this post makes it useless in practice and a lot less fun than the six-word evaluation game.



Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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