How Do We Identify Good Teaching?

Silverstein-s120x148As ASCD’s Annual Conference approaches, I’m excited to talk with colleagues about the many different ways we make a difference in the lives of children and, more specifically, how we identify good teaching.

When I first started teaching, the difference between “superior,” “satisfactory,” and “needs improvement” teachers usually boiled down to whether or not the principal liked you. Not very useful or objective.

Today, many districts are experimenting with new ways to evaluate teachers. Meanwhile, teachers constantly self-evaluate by engaging in their own action research; they reflect on their days and decide what strategies helped students learn and what strategies could have been more effective. How can and should evaluations by administrators or master teachers add to this?

Does evaluation look the same for all teachers at all grade levels? Should it include test scores? Do we evaluate and also support teachers through the evaluation process? How do we use teacher evaluation to not just improve one teacher but education across the nation?

Post submitted by Sabrina Silverstein, master teacher in District of Columbia Public Schools and an ASCD Annual Conference Scholar.


  1. I have been an educator for more than 30 years; most of those years has been as an administrator (principal and superintendent). I am not in favor of snapshot annual reviews; I do support the “movie” approach throughout the year. However, if you have to continue annual reviews I have some suggestions:
    Celebrate: Make it as positive an experience as you can, by talking about and celebrating everything that’s going right. If improvement is needed in an area, talk about personal improvement strategies.
    Focus on strengths: Discover and discuss the unique natural talents and strengths in the person being evaluated. Ask them, “What do you feel are the things here at school you’re really great at?”
    Resist the urge to fix someone: Even if you feel you want to use the time to correct a problem, don’t. Yes, performance problems must be solved, but trust me, during the traditional annual ‘performance review’ is not the right time. The administrator must coach to correct performance throughout the year, not during an annual performance review staring at a form with ratings.
    Promote excellence: Talk about excellence, and how you want to enlist their help in banishing mediocrity forever. Document the thoughts from each teacher on post-it notes. Group the comments under broad categories. Then, bring the whole staff together to discuss improvement strategies. Such a process is honorable to individuals and promotes school-wide improvements.

  2. I really appreciate Dean’s “movie” approach. I have had experience similar to Sabrina’s but it was based on who was the most vocal…
    I am not an administrator, but I am pretty certain most have to make time in their busy schedules for evaluations, which make me wonder how well do they actually know what is happening in the classrooms. Great admins can balance teachers, students and paperwork. The “movie” approach allows for teachers to feel like the Admin had time to look at all the different aspects of the practice, not just that one moment or that one test score.
    I believe that the evaluations should also go beyond a paper filed for accreditation reports or administrative purposes. They should be used as a basis for future growth for the teacher and also as a reference for admin’s growth – sometimes it’s a clash of styles among admins and teachers (as a teacher I asses a student and I can also identify where I fell short on a lesson).
    Evaluations are important, and hopefully useful. Even when the papers end up filed away, at least they served as a basis to begin conversations about our own practice.

  3. Conversations is a fine word to describe how the earlier comments promote better evaluation of good teaching. The power of feedback that is seen in research into student learning works for us too. Quality feedback is based on trus- not fear of bad test scores.
    Of course this all takes time. I wonder how evaluation works in other professions such as law, medicine, engineering, and architecture? I think Lee Shulman looked at this issue over his long career.
    Education has been too fascinated by the magic of the quick fix. The sooner we see that for the fantasy that it is, the better we can promote yje complexoyoesd of wehat becomes good teaching.
    One of the complexities is raised in Sabrina’s question. Is good teaching the same in every grade? every subj4ect?
    My short answer is no.
    But it is a very short answer.

  4. Teachers definitely need input into their own evaluations, whether it’s following up on the official documentation from the evaluator with classroom data or being more metacognitive about their practices. Evaluations should value what teachers bring to the table on more than just one snapshot 45-minute period of time. Evaluations really should show progress over time, and evaluators should be in classrooms often and give feedback even more often. I have a unique perspective on this because as of January 18, I became an administrator/evaluator, and I have scrambled to not just deal with the management side but the instructional side. I have made it a point to be in teachers’ classrooms as much as possible because evaluations, as Aline alluded to, are collaborations and conversations to promote best practices.
    But I still do have a lot to learn in my new role.

  5. In the district where I serve, an important portion of teachers’ evaluation is based on their work towards professional goals that each teacher writes–in conversation with her supervisor. Additionally, we administrators try to get a “movie” sense (to use the phrase from Dean’s post) of classroom instruction by conducting frequent walk-throughs. Under our district’s Race to the Top Scope of Work, we are examining appropriate ways to use student learning data as one piece of data to inform administrator and teacher evaluations. Our administrator PLC is focused on how to make evaluation more meaningful and more effective at increasing student learning, and we have been studying Kim Marshall’s Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration, and Close the Achievement Gap. Marshall’s book has incited great conversation and reflection amongst our team. I recommend it.

  6. Good teaching is often one of those things where “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” If you ask a parent, student, teacher, or administrator to point out the best (or worst) teachers in a school, it’s usually not a secret. What stakeholders have been trying to do is backwards-design good teaching and then use these elements for evaluations. Can we boil good teaching down to a checklist? Can we reverse-engineer what a “good teacher” looks like, regardless of their experience or teaching situation?

  7. When I ask my college students who are teacher candidates how they define a good teacher they respond with qualities such as “caring,” “builds strong relationships,” “has good control of the class,” etc. When I mention that these characteristics are not “able to be measured” in the traditional sense the debate begins. The discussion is in response to the anticipatory statement, “Most people know what a good teacher is.” The interesting thing is that one school of thought is that an effective teacher is one who gets peak performance from their students and shows gain in API, AYP, and other state or federal measures. But another side of the coin is that when students are at the bottom quartile along with the other aspects of poor performance such as low attendance, high poverty in some cases, transiency, language barriers, etc, a teacher who is able to show students the value of school and the potential of education may not show in measured gains, but may show in ways that we have yet to learn how to measure. The teacher who works with the lowest students and who can move them an inch may sooner or later see them move the proverbial mile. It is known that students who are low achieving value the relationship more than the content itself, and that may be the starting point that a good teacher will realize.

  8. Dean- I appreciate what you said about making evaluations positive experiences; this goes with what John said about trust and conversations. The idea of having teachers participate in their own evaluations seems so simple, but so important.
    I wonder if there is a way to address immediate issues and brainstorm strategies during the review process. Can we do this to make evaluations more useful as Alline suggests? Can we combine evaluations with Professional Development?
    Can we use the same tool to evaluate all teachers or should the tool be different since teaching may be different?
    Ron brings up a good point; what is more important- raising test scores or building relationships? Can we evaluate the ability to do both objectively and fairly? Should one carry more weight than the other in an evaluation?
    Thanks for the thoughtful responses!

  9. My short answer to Sabrina’s questions is, “I don’t know.” This is such a complex topic with each teaching situation and each teacher bringing their own circumstances to the evaluation process. Having been a school counselor for 32 years of my 38 years as an educator I am personally removed from this experience. I have been following discussions here at the University of Northern Iowa, in the state of Iowa and on the national level about what is effective teaching, what makes an effective teacher? I am wondering just as states are embracing the national Common Core Standards could we also have national Teaching Standards with a variety of accountable ways to evaluate teachers with the goal of supporting the teaches in his/her professional development that would in turn ultimately help kids learn better?

  10. To what degree does a principal need to have taught in order to be able to effectively observe teachers and give them productive feedback?

  11. I love, love, love the movie approach!!! Your movie approach lines up to much of what I consider when evaluating students. A snapshot in time doesn’t do anyone any justice. How can anyone improve on their practice in this manner?
    I especially like your thoughts on promoting excellence with the whole staff. This SHOULD be a conversation everyone is having regardless if they are being evaluated or not. This is an excellent way to promote teacher growth…we should strive for this where ever we are in our journey.


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