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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  • Victoria Morse

    Effective Feedback

         As a peer evaluator, some of the evidence I collect during classroom observations relates to feedback and assessment. Accomplished teachers can design lessons where students gradually assume responsibility for their learning. In planning, these teachers  incorporate ongoing formative assessments to elicit evidence of student understanding. The indicators of students assuming responsibility can be seen when they monitor their learning and actively use that information in their learning. Danielson (2009) gives examples of some teaching practices that reflect examples of student-driven classrooms: “Students make corrections to their work following their self-assessments. Students can articulate the specific learning they acquired through self-assessment. Students keep records of their own performance on assessments and reflect on these, noting growth and patterns of the learning. Students formatively assess their own work, and the teacher provides feedback about their accuracy. Students have contributed to the development of the assessment criteria.” (page 353). Both teachers and students can use formative assessment strategies to monitor progress. When school communities work collaboratively and use assessment for learning, student learning is enhanced. Marzano (2007) stated, “One strong finding from the research on formative assessment is that the frequency of assessments is related to student academic achievement (page 13).

         Effective instructional leadership begins with clear communication and a culture of collaborative inquiry.  Communication both oral and written should provide teachers with beneficial and valid feedback related to student learning.  Danielson (2009) stated, “ A school leader must exercise softer leadership skills, a focus on vision and purpose, persuasion, appeals to professional ethics, and dialogue that engages teachers in a problem-solving approach to the multiple challenges facing their schools” (page 18). Improving our communication reflects a commitment to promoting continuous improvement. More importantly, conversations about teaching can explore its implications in daily practices, which all tie back to student learning.




    Danielson, C. (2009). Implementing the Framework for Teaching in Enhancing Professional

          Practice. Alexandria, Va. ASCD.

    Danielson, C. (2009). Talk about Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations.

    Marzano, R. J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for

        effective instruction. Alexandria, Va:   Association for Supervision and Curriculum


    • JulieHiltz

      Focus on Learning

      Thank you. One of best things I’ve seen come out of our shift in Florida to the Danielson/Marzano evaluations is recognition that our desired outcome is learning- not teaching. If we teachers doing what we should be doing, we’ve designed and delivered lessons to students that focus on the learning outcome not our delivery methods or technology or whatever else we’re going to use that day. Administrators doing evaluations now focus on feedback on the aspects of the learning and the lesson. Specific goals have made it easier for teachers and administrators to give specific feedback for improvement.

  • CarlDraeger

    Teaching and learning is a dialogue.

    In my work as a mentor teacher, I am constantly asked by my clients if their lesson was good or bad. I gently defer giving my ‘ruling’ in preference to applying the framework of what good teaching is to the lesson observed. Our district and teachers’ union have agreed that the common language of teacher evaluation would be Danielson’s Frameworks for Teaching (FfT). What I like about the FfT is that we can take the mindboggling complexity of teaching and break it down into smaller pieces which are easier to identify, measure, and improve upon. We use the rubrics (similar to the one appearing in your post) to delineate between Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, and Distinguished ratings. We take the time to discuss the characteristics of each rating in order to reach consensus about where the mentees current practice is AND provide a vision of what better practice will look like. It is in the conversation about the artifacts and their practice where real growth occurs.


    You really illuminated the need to guide improvement with “specific feedback on ways I could learn and grow as a professional.” Similarly, we need to guide our students to make their learning become more than a grade. I’ve heard it said that to an illiterate person an ‘A’ just looks like 3 sticks on the ground. If our grades have no meaning other than to ‘rack and stack’ our students in to categories, we are missing out on an opportunity to advocate for a growth mindset. After all, even an ‘A’ paper can be improved and a student receiving “100%” on all her math tests can be challenged to go deeper and farther.


    Thanks for sharing your experience. It really got me thinking about what is truly important.

    • JulieHiltz

      Learning is ongoing

      Thank you. As a visual learner, I love your quote “I’ve heard it said that to an illiterate person an ‘A’ just looks like 3 sticks on the ground.” If learning is truly the intended outcome, we need to make sure we understand what our goals are. Is it to score 100 points or understand how the history of St Augustine is linked to Florida’s history at large?  (A current discussion at my house, by the way.) As teachers, is it to get through the curriculum calendar or make sure our students have an understanding of the learning process, from acquiring knowledge to applying knowledge. It’s certainly a combination of both- some days more of one than the other- but ultimately we should focus on student learning. 

      I’m rated as a “Highly Effective” teacher in my district for the previous school year but I did not earn an Exemplary in every category. There are some things I need to continue to improve upon and I know what they are and what improvement looks like. An observation is a moment in time- some moments are better than others. 

  • JasonParker

    Really well crafted piece, Julie!

    Julie, I really enjoyed reading this piece. It’s extremely well crafted and well written. Very nice – and visual – introduction to a complex issue, which you’ve articulated extremely well. Learned a lot from this post – and the comments thus far. 

  • Denise Krebs

    I wrote “cheif” a lot!


    Your post made me laugh from the first sentence. I couldn't wait to see where you went with your "alot" story! In high school, I was in a vocational business class, and my title was chief clerk. I got specific feedback from my teacher, when he told me you can't be the chief clerk and spell chief wrong. He reminded me of the i before e rule, and I have remembered ever since. 

    Yes, specific feedback is important to every learner. That's why I'm advocating right now for no more numerical grading in Kindergarten! Yes, we do right now! Next year, thank God, we are going to use narrative report cards with specific feedback that will tell parents and children which skills the kindergarteners can do and which skills they need more time with.

    A specific teacher evaluation would be great too. It helps to know that the administration knows and shares what you do well and how you can improve. It looks like the rubric from Marzano/Danielson would be a good tool.

    I enjoyed reading your post and the comments. Thanks!