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November 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 3

One to Grow On / The Evaluation of My Dreams

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In the education job that exists always in my dreams—and sometimes in my reality—here's what I'd encounter in terms of evaluation.
My ideal evaluator would care deeply about the work I do and would have a vision for how that work, done artfully, contributes to the betterment of people. He or she would visibly pursue his or her own personal and professional growth. This evaluator would work from the belief that no teacher ever finishes growing; everyone has the capacity to improve. When excellence is at the core of "how business is done here" and when growth toward expertise is the path everyone in a school walks, then feedback from school leaders is more energizing than enervating.
To keep me at my best, my dream evaluator would
  • Communicate a vision of the potential power of my teaching, so my work would never become merely a mass of details to attend to, a daily grind, or "just a job." It's easier to muster the courage to change when that change is in the service of labor that seems meaningful and important.
  • Mentor me. This leader would know a lot about what I do on the job (and continue to learn about it) and would also know a good bit about me (and continue to learn more). I'm more open to change my practice as an educator when the person recommending the change knows well the content area I teach within—and cares about me.
  • Watch me work often so that he or she would have a multidimensional sense of both what I'm doing and how I'm doing. When someone has a robust idea of what my job involves, I'm more likely to believe their feedback is a fair representation of my job performance.

Framing the Ideal Feedback

My dream evaluator would also give me—or any teacher he or she evaluated—helpful feedback. This ideal leader would
  • Communicate clearly and respectfully. When feedback is framed as a compliment to my capacity to grow in professional practice, and when I understand the feedback clearly, I'm positioned to move ahead.
  • Call my strengths to my attention and help me build on them. I'm often less aware of my strengths than of my weaknesses—and I suspect many teachers are the same. Capitalizing on my assets helps me compensate for liabilities.
  • Point out opportunities for me to continue to develop in my work. Showing me just what I might improve—and where and how—gives me a roadmap to more effective performance.
  • Be descriptive and specific, so that I'm aware of what this observer is seeing and thinking—and what I can do to improve. Precision in language helps a supervisor and a teacher share an understanding of goals. It helps teachers focus their efforts.
  • Provide feedback that's personalized to me and is delivered while there's still time to act on the suggestions. Good feedback gives me information that I can both understand and act on.
  • Deliver formative feedback and support for growth before any summative evaluation. Formative assessment reduces teachers' anxiety, diminishes the sense of threat, and increases the likelihood of success when it's time to move to a more judgmental stage of evaluation.
  • Acknowledge my progress when it's merited, even while pointing out my next developmental step. People typically need honest affirmation of both effort and progress to remain persistent.
I once worked with a principal who consistently modeled these attributes. She was in classes a good portion of most school days, and her everyday interaction with teachers—more than her required summative evaluations—propelled teachers forward. She developed shared goals for teachers, as well as personalized ones for each teacher.
This principal once left on a young teacher's desk a note that read, "I was so proud of the way you linked the content of your lesson with students' experiences today in the discussion. From where I was seated, it appeared that everyone was thinking with you, and you had a great response rate from a variety of students." When this administrator stopped by the teacher's room the next afternoon to brainstorm how this teacher might handle class transitions more smoothly, the teacher was eager to talk. She saw her principal as a source of useful information.

Promoting Growth

My ideal evaluator would help me construct my own options for how I might use feedback to move forward as a professional, rather than dictate next steps. That approach would help me find my own way, take ownership of my growth, and increase my autonomy as a professional. At the same time, he or she would provide concrete support for my continuing growth. I'm not always my own best teacher; like all workers, I need structures, guidance, and coaching that are appropriate for my development.
These things don't seem like too much to ask from a good evaluator: a relationship built on a mutual desire for growth in meaningful work, clear learning targets, formative assessment and support for taking the next steps, recognition of a teacher's strengths, and persistent feedback calibrated to that teacher's level of development.
Come to think of it, these same attributes of evaluation that exist always in the job of my dreams—and sometimes in the job of my reality—also exist always in the classroom of my dreams. And as often as I can pull it off, they exist in the classrooms that have been and are my reality.
Education leaders do well to model that which they commend. The word assess comes from the Latin root meaning "to sit beside." For teachers, as for students, the most effective evaluation comes from someone who sits beside us and helps us grow.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development, where she served as Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and Co-Director of the University's Institutes on Academic Diversity. She spent 21 years in public education, teaching students in high school, preschool, and middle school and administering programs for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1974. In 2022, Tomlinson was ranked #12 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings of the 200 "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #4 voice in Curriculum & Instruction.

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