The Future of Teacher Evaluation: Make It A Coastline, Not A Swimming Pool


Coastlines are in constant flux; the dynamic interplay of the elements, a diminished sense of boundaries. 

How can schools, and classrooms, be more like coastlines and less like swimming pools?

I’ve spent hundreds of hours observing classes. I’ve written hundreds of reports and summary evaluations based on those observations. Each one of those reports has been accompanied by a meeting with the teacher observed. I’ve struggled to meet all the timelines required by contract language to complete all of the steps in the formal teacher evaluation process. After all of the immense effort, the tens of thousands of words written, the timelines met, the “Satisfactory” or “Satisfactory With Improvement Needed” (fill in the blank with your school’s taxonomy here) I am left with a few simple questions:

Has any of it mattered to student learning? Has any of it contributed to a teacher growing as a professional?

These are very difficult questions for me to ask; as someone who considers himself as a glass-is-half-full person, they almost feel defeatist. But real positivity shouldn’t be fake; a smile for the sake of keeping up appearances. Being sentient beings means walking around with the burden of conscience; perhaps that is the heaviest boulder we must push up the endless hill. As professionals, we inherit structures and practices – some of them are the result of much thought and deliberation from the people that came before us. Some of these practices evolved in less deliberate fashion; habits that become tradition, perspectives and beliefs that unconsciously merge to establish the unwritten rules of “how things are done.”

Teacher evaluation in its current form is at a crossroads of these two dynamics; specific protocols captured in contract language, unwritten beliefs about the purpose of the process itself and the people that should be involved in it.

The culture of the 21st Century school is one of transparency and openness – one that sees its role as adapting to the learning needs of students rather than having them conform en masse to assembly-line culture (bell schedule, fixed amounts of minutes for different “subjects,” sitting in desks, etc. But how do the current teacher evaluation practices support this idea of public learning when it amounts to a private interaction between one administrator and one teacher?

Even if the teacher does grow and learn from this paper-heavy process, how does that experience help the broader organization? What do other teachers learn from it? What effect does it have on the school’s culture of learning? I don’t mean to sound rhetorical, but I feel confident in saying that the overall effect is slight to none.

My conversation with teacher Starr Sackstein yielded some tremendous threads that deserve immediate exploration and implementation at every school (in my humble opinion):

A focus on growth. Frequent, timely feedback – even a two-minute Vox to a teacher right after a visit. Developing a calibrated norm of quality that serves as the basis for giving feedback. Building a school culture of intervisitation/walkthroughs. Having a focused set of goals we all share to bring cohesion to our efforts at providing feedback on instruction. Taking risks.

If schools truly believe that “we are all learners,” then we must implicate teachers in the growth and learning of fellow teachers. When the only person allowed to give feedback on instruction is an administrator, then the rest of the system loses out on the opportunity to learn by giving feedback. Paradoxically, the 1:1 nature of teacher evaluation almost guarantees that pedagogy remains an individual pursuit, rather than a set of shared beliefs and practices that shift and evolve over time – because every living thing, after all, must change and evolve as a result of being alive. 

“The startling conclusion is that most school systems aren’t systems. They are only boundary lines drawn by somebody, somewhere. They are not systems because they do not arise from a core of shared beliefs about the purpose of public education. In the absence of shared beliefs and desires, people are not motivated to seek out one another and develop relationships. Instead, they inhabit the same organizational and community space without weaving together mutually sustaining relationships. They coexist by defining clear boundaries, creating respectful and disrespectful distances, developing self-protective behaviors, and using power politics to get what they want.” Margaret Wheatley, Working with Life’s Dynamics in School Systems

My classroom, your classroom. My instruction, your instruction. Maybe if you’re a friend I’ll decide to share with you. Most likely I’ll maintain a respectful distance from what you do, as long as it doesn’t affect what I do. I’ll go through a process of receiving feedback with the appropriately designated person (administrator) at contractually-designated intervals (in some organizations, these become more infrequent as a person moves deeper into their career). I won’t watch other teachers at work because I have nothing to learn from them and because I don’t have the time in the first place.

Okay, enough of me. I’ve asked my global team of thinkers and #EduCoaches to consider this question as well. My interest is in participating in a learning process – and if that means writing more and having more interactions with teachers around instruction and learning, then I am all for it. It’s why I became an educator, and it’s why I’m so interested in helping end the culture of Dog and Pony show observations that are about getting “scored” high rather than taking risks and learning new things.


5 thoughts on “The Future of Teacher Evaluation: Make It A Coastline, Not A Swimming Pool

  1. Eric, this is a thought provoking post. Having been in New York last year, investigating teacher growth and evaluation approaches there, I hear your call for a different way of thinking.

    As well as working on my PhD research on what makes transformative professional learning and leadership, I have been working for 2 ½ years on researching, piloting and developing a teacher growth model for my Australian school. We are at full implementation phase this calendar year.

    Our model has emerged out of research, and from our specific context. It involves teachers-trained-as-coaches who work with teachers. We use lesson data as the basis for reflection (not scoring! this is conversation) against the Danielson Framework for Teaching. There is also an administrative check-in process, for which the default position is helping the teacher grow their practice.

    The focus is on growth. Self-directed teacher growth. It is based in a belief in the capacity of teachers to reflect, learn and grow. Our Cognitive Coaching approach to professional conversations is focused on facilitating the teacher’s thinking, not giving advice or solving problems for them. It is partly based on research like this which shows what actually gets our brains to be open and changeable:

    All of this is based in a belief that schools are relational paces where trust is key to risk taking, growth, willingness to be vulnerable, deprivatising classrooms and learning from, with and alongside each other.


  2. I love the dichotomous metaphor – pool vs coastline reminds me of education vs learning | tourist vs traveller. Like any forced choice dilemma, the contradictions we navigate are ways of describing how we do what we do. Complex.
    Your post cuts a neat swathe through the middle.
    So (reflective paraphrase), you advocate authenticity via coaching practices? And (values clarification), it’s important to you to ensure integrity of Performance and Development processes as a real measure of the healthy, functioning system?
    Then (future indicator/ generalising to other contexts), recommended next practices are directed towards mindful awareness of neoliberal trends currently advocating accountability measures as a means to different ends?
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and provoking others, Eric.

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