TWO WORDS! Specific Feedback

I used to write the words a lot, a lot. I mean, like all the time. When I was in high school, I’m fairly certain I had some kind of aversion to the thesaurus. In addition to committing the crime of boring writing, I wrote the words a lot as one word- “alot”. And I did it every time, all the way through high school.

This is a problem that today’s generation of word processing users do not have to deal with. In fact, my autocorrect is fighting me right now as I try to type “alot” for this post. But back in my high school days, every assignment I wrote was hand written, and I was on my own for spelling.

Each time I turned in an assignment, my teacher would return my paper to me with the red corrections (a teacher could use a red pen in those days without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings), and I would see the word “alot” marked wrong each time. A big, red “X” each and every time. It didn’t matter how many times I saw the word marked wrong—I would repeat the same error. A lot.

In the final semester of my senior year of high school, my English teacher—for reasons I don’t understand but suspect have to do with utter frustration—returned a paper to me with only one correction. Instead of the usual red “X”, my paper had the word “alot” circled. Not just circled—carved out on the page in red ink. It’s entirely possible that Mr. R emptied an entire pen barrel of ink that afternoon circling this word. Right above that red pool, he wrote, “TWO WORDS!” in capital letters.

Twenty-two years after that experience, I still remember it, and I’ve learned from it. I have yet to try to write the word “alot” again (until I began this post). Why? It’s not because I was embarrassed. I was conditioned to seeing a red “X” on that word.  It was because a teacher finally gave me specific feedback. For me, it wasn’t enough just to know that something was wrong; I needed to be explicitly told how to correct the problem.

My student life mirrors some of my experiences with the teacher evaluation process. For the first nine years of my career, the bulk of formal feedback about my teaching came in the form of end-of-year evaluations. My principal and I used two-page checklists to rate my effectiveness on 36 criteria.

We’d both check the boxes for “Satisfactory”, “Needs Improvement” or “Unsatisfactory” work. In 13 of those boxes, we could mark an “Outstanding”. Then we’d meet the last week of school to discuss the year’s performance and plan for the next year.

I was always profoundly disappointed with the entire process. To me, a “Satisfactory” rating was merely doing the minimum requirements of my job. Is that really all we can expect from teachers? I wondered.

But that was the way the system was. Either you demonstrated that you “Support district and school goals” or you didn’t. You “Adhere to state, district and school policies and procedures” or you don’t. You were either a teacher that “Dresses appropriately and is well groomed” or you weren’t. 

It was a great system—if you were an effective teacher. All you had to do was continue to show up and do what you had been doing (whatever that was). If you were ineffective, well…I’m not quite sure how you’d begin to improve. Maybe you’d have a “TWO WORDS!” conversation with your principal, or maybe not.

Perhaps worst of all, there was no incentive to get better if you were “Outstanding,” and no guidelines for improving if you were “Unsatisfactory.”

Over the last five years, states and school districts have been changing teacher evaluation requirements. Influenced by the desire to compete for Race to the Top funding, year-end checklists have been replaced with multiple observations and rubrics (like those designed by Charlotte Danielson or Robert Marzano), with descriptions of expectations. Teachers and administrators have a better understanding of the elements of good teaching and the degrees to which teachers meet those expectations.

This change in the evaluation system was long overdue. As an “Outstanding” teacher under my old evaluation system, I longed for specific feedback on ways I could learn and grow as a professional. Even as a “Highly Effective” teacher under my new evaluation system, there are several areas where I have the opportunity to continue to develop my craft. I receive specific feedback from a peer evaluator and my principal throughout the year in a timely manner, which means I can make changes and improvements in real time, not wait until the next school year.

I still have my “alot” moments from time to time. Old habits are sometimes hard to break. But at least now I have some clarity on how to make my teaching and my media center program better for students and teachers. A lot better.

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