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February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

Words That Encourage

The language evaluators use has the power to build or destroy teacher morale.

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So I went online to check my informal evaluations," began Mr. Vandalay, my friend and colleague, as we stood outside our classroom doors. "Now, I'm ticked."
"What happened? Did they mark you lower than you expected?" I asked.
"Not so much that. My scores were decent. I was found to be effective," he continued. "I'm frustrated with what my evaluator wrote. She pinpointed every single thing I did wrong, yet she failed to tell me what I did right. She blasted me for being at my computer and for not starting the class as soon as she thought I should have. But, whenever I actually did something right or met an objective, all she wrote was observed."
I could understand his frustration as I reflected on my own evaluations from the previous two school years. I recalled the feeling of accomplishment I experienced as I read over the positive comments and suggestions. Comments such as "your class is an amazing place" and "the teacher has fully empowered the students" were uplifting and boosted my morale. Yet, I also recalled feelings of defeat associated with negative or perplexing remarks. I was confused when I read that my implementation of a student-generated assignment was "baffling." What did that mean?
I quickly turned my attention back to my colleague as he continued to discuss his evaluation. "I realize that we don't have to always get pats on the back. It's my job to teach and my mission to do what I need to do for my students. But it would really be nice if there were something positive written on that form—just one thing at least. I put my heart and soul into teaching every day! Yet, it seems that no matter how much I try, I'm just not good enough."
At this comment, I became worried. Throughout the school year, Mr. Vandalay and I had conversed between class periods. He was always energetic, upbeat, and optimistic. He regularly demonstrated care and concern for his students and the profession. Now, I detected an edge to his voice that hinted of failure and defeat.
"I feel so belittled," he sighed. "I'm so tired of this. I've taught in some rough places. I've seen it all and had everything thrown at me. But things like this evaluation make me question my decision to become an educator."
If done right, teacher evaluations can be very useful. Many evaluations incorporate a design that enables evaluators to showcase each teacher's personal strengths while providing informative feedback concerning areas of need. Yet good intentions can often go awry, making evaluations a test of teachers' internal fortitude rather than a means of enhancing or improving instruction. What happens when the subjective language of teacher evaluations becomes a source of anxiety and disenfranchisement rather than a catalyst for positive change?

Words Matter

As teachers and education leaders, we are aware of the power of our words. Our words can have a significant effect on the lives of our students and in the relationships we foster with parents and colleagues alike. Why should the language used in teacher evaluations be any different?
Charlotte Danielson (2001) has stated that "an evaluation system should recognize, cultivate, and develop good teaching" (p. 13). If the purpose of teacher evaluations is to assist educators in identifying both personal strengths and areas that need improvement, the language used within those evaluations should make note of teacher successes as well as areas requiring attention.
Recently, a former colleague—a retired 6th grade reading teacher—stopped by the school to visit with friends and help out in the office. "I miss this place. I miss the joy of the classroom," she said as we sat down in my room to chat. "I am a teacher. It's at my very core. I've always been a teacher, and in my heart I always will be."
She looked around my classroom at the paper butterflies depicting student dreams and the other student work that decorated the walls. Student letters of gratitude littered my desk. "I used to get letters like these," she shared as she flipped through the handwritten notes. "I left because I couldn't stand to see education lose what education should be—helping children be everything they can be. I cried when I read my evaluation last year—and I am not a crier. I've learned how to protect myself in life. So the fact that my evaluator's words left such a strong impression says something," she confessed. "His words were just so demeaning and his tone so condescending. I'm never going to fit the rubric. I felt like I worked so hard only to never be perfect—never good enough."
My heart ached for my former colleague. She knew what it meant to dedicate her life to her students. Her passion for the profession was evident. Yet, the words on a single evaluation, the language used in defining her instructional effectiveness contributed to a drop in her morale that made her choose to leave the classroom for good.
"You know," she continued, "when the new evaluation system first took shape, my evaluator and I had some wonderful conversations. We talked about my teaching, and she helped me to stay lifted as she shared words of encouragement. I was able to reflect in a positive manner. But my second evaluator failed to do the same."
The commentary provided in her more recent evaluations insinuated that she only "went through the motions" in her instruction. Although she was deemed effective overall and accomplished within a majority of instructional domains, the attention to her shortcomings and the lack of positive feedback hurt. If those evaluating her could not see the energy and passion she put into each day of instruction, she wanted to remove herself from their criticism.
As teachers, we are careful to choose words that provide our students with informative feedback while maintaining their sense of self-worth. We don't want them to feel like failures. We want them to see potential in themselves and to know that we are here to help them improve and learn. So why not consider this goal when conducting teacher evaluations? After all, it's important to maintain teacher morale if we hope to retain our effective educators.
In a recent report by MetLife (Harris Interactive, 2012), the percentage of teachers who reported they were "very satisfied" with their career dropped from 59 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2011; those who indicated they were likely to leave the profession increased from 17 to 29 percent. Most educators enter the profession out of a commitment to improve the lives of students (Lortie, 2002). We teach to the best of our abilities because we feel a moral obligation to do so (Santoro, 2011). We want to improve and meet the needs of our students, and we welcome comments from evaluators that will help us do that. But it's important that evaluators use language as a positive vehicle for improvement rather than a means of destruction.

Encouragement to Improve

Recently, my colleagues and I sat together in the faculty lounge as conversation once again turned to evaluations. "My question is this," said Mrs. Smith. "Even if my evaluator believes I am ineffective, is it right for him to write something as hurtful as disdain on my evaluation? Because that's what he wrote. 'The students have an apparent disdain for the teacher.' Is it right for him to go on and on about every little thing I did wrong and fail to provide me with a single word of encouragement?"
Mrs. Smith began to tear up. "I have been a teacher for more than 30 years. I don't want my students to fail. I don't want to cause them harm. I don't set out to be an ineffective teacher. So, why not provide me with something to grasp—some hope that I can improve? When I read my evaluation, I felt useless … worthless."
"I was in the army before entering the teaching profession." Mr. Jefferson interjected. "In the army, you are evaluated, too. But they give you advice. … If you screw up, they let you know that they see what you did wrong, but they also offer you suggestions for how to improve."
The growing focus on teacher evaluations serves a real and important purpose. We want teachers to be effective. We want to ensure that our students are learning and receiving the best education we have to offer. As Danielson (2011) states, we owe it to the public to ensure integrity and productivity within the classroom. For this reason, we owe it to our teachers to provide productive suggestions for improvement, as well as commentary on the positive attributes of their instruction. Evaluators must use language that promotes development and reflection rather than language that leads to demoralization and apathy.

Benefits of Being Positive

After speaking with my colleagues and reflecting on my own experiences with evaluations, it's apparent that positive feedback can improve instructional development as well as teacher morale. In conversation, teachers have shared comments that sparked a sense of achievement in their hearts and helped them see where they were being effective. Teachers treasure comments like these:
  • "The classroom demonstrates an atmosphere of respect and care."
  • "Students are actively engaged and eager for more."
  • "It is apparent that the class community promotes student engagement and learning."
Reflecting on evaluations in which the evaluator has taken time to comment on their hard work and dedication to their students has given my colleagues the necessary boost to continue teaching for another day.
Danielson (2011) describes skilled evaluators as "those who support teachers" and "engage teachers in productive conversations about their practice" (p. 36). Teachers want to improve. I've never encountered a teacher who hoped to continue down a path that leads to student confusion and failure to achieve. Teachers care about their students and their effectiveness within the classroom. Those who hope to improve their craft—their calling—often read each word of their evaluations with care, and those words attach themselves to their subconscious and drive their emotions. If the intent of teacher evaluations is truly to assist teachers in bettering themselves as educators, we owe it to our teachers to offer feedback that both improves morale and provides guidance. After all, there's nothing wrong with—and a lot right about—a little encouragement and a pat on the back for a job well done.
Author's note: All teacher names are pseudonyms.

Danielson, C. (2001). New trends in teacher evaluation. Educational Leadership, 58(5), 12–15.

Danielson, C. (2011). Evaluations that help teachers learn. Educational Leadership, 68(4), 35–39.

Lortie, D.C. (2002). Schoolteacher (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harris Interactive. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Teachers, parents, and the economy. New York: MetLife. Retrieved from www.metlife.com/assets/cao/contributions/foundation/american-teacher/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2011.pdf

Santoro, D. A. (2011). Good teaching in difficult times: Demoralization in the pursuit of good work. American Journal of Education, 118(1), 1–23.

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