How to Truly Evaluate a Teacher

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How do you define greatness in a teacher? Nicholas Ferroni insists it’s about caring, empowerment and commitment – not standardized tests. 

This week of school, like every other week, was pretty normal: I gave out about fifty dollars to various students who didn’t have lunch money; I resolved two teenage relationship issues; I comforted three girls who, for some reason, think they are so ugly that no boys will ever like them; I got three students, who have whispered three words each all year, to speak in front of the class; I paid for four students to join the gym and also offered to train them in order for them to deal with their aggression constructively; I went out of my way to make sure that five of my students, who I know are having problems at home, know that they are intelligent, strong and have so much to offer this world. So, in the education world where you deal with hundreds of uniquely individual teenagers trying to accept who they are, it’s just a normal week. I am not trying to brag because my commitment to my students is not the exception but the norm, especially at the high school where I teach where so many of my colleagues, day in and day out, give their hearts, souls and money to their students without a thought. I also do not want your sympathy because I, like most teachers, went into education for this very reason: to educate, empower and nurture youth.

To me, and most people, there is not a nobler or more important calling in the world than teaching. But, for some reason, teachers constantly come under attack by many (mostly politicians). I can say with certainty that one teacher performs more of a public service than one thousand politicians. Politicians, however, are blaming teachers for failing children and claiming that we do not want to be held accountable in any way for diminishing test scores. So, to hold teachers accountable, and ultimately decide who is a good teacher, education boards and experts created these evaluation systems intended to weed out those teachers who are ineffective. They say it’s simple: teachers will be evaluated based on the success or failure of their students in the classroom. Now,it does sound simple on the surface, given that all students are exactly the same, with similar home lives and identical learning abilities. But, anyone who has ever been in school knows that, not only is that impossible, it is completely impractical. Besides, dare we come to a point in educating our youth during the most important and lasting years of their life where we no longer view them as human beings who need to be nurtured, but scores and statistics? The thought is too horrible to even conceive.


Mrs. Martino, my kindergarten teacher, was one of the most important and influential people in my life besides my parents. She was the one who noticed I was an awkward and insecure little boy, and made sure to remind me daily of how talented and beautiful I was. My success in life is directly related to the confidence this incredible woman instilled upon me during my most important years. I can only imagine the person I would be today if, instead of building my confidence and self-esteem, Mrs. Martino made sure I only learned all of my multiplication tables because my score on a state test would ultimately determine her salary at the end of the year, or if she completely disregarded the fact I needed someone besides my mother to believe in me and my abilities because her focus had to be on test scores and not nurturing human beings. I know for a fact that, if that was the case, not only would I not be a teacher, but I would not be the confident and compassionate person I am who is contributing to this world by attempting to build the confidence and self-esteem of my students, just as Mrs. Martino did for me.

How do we evaluate what I, and what most teachers, consider far more important than test scores and even more important than the subjects we teach: caring, nurturing and empowering our students in order to provide them with the confidence and tools to contribute to society and ultimately change the world? Unlike Mrs. Martino, and other elementary school teachers, who will not find out the true impact they had on a child until later on in that child’s life, I have the pleasure of continuing to have relationships with my students even after they graduate. I have the honor of seeing them graduate from college, pursue their dreams, and move on to do so many amazing things. I don’t know a single teacher who, after a student moves on and is no longer in his or her class, disregards or shuns a student because he or she no longer factors into that teacher’s evaluation. Again, I teach with such incredible people, who go above and beyond for all their students, past and present, and I know that this is the case at all schools in America.


Without going into too much off topic, has anyone advocating for teacher evaluation and merit pay ever even consider what impact it will have on the performance of students in the classroom? They are incredibly naïve if they think that the fact that all accountability now lies on a teacher’s performance, and not the student, will not lead students performance to decline. Why would students work harder to excel in the classroom, when they are completely free of any responsibility for their grade? This is ultimately suggesting that each student has no role in their own success or failure in the classroom. Any one of us who has attended school knows that without a doubt that, not only are we responsible for our own academic performance, but that we are far more responsible than our teachers, our parents and even our friends were for our grades.

This brings me back to my opening paragraph; the most important role a teacher plays in the lives of his or her students is not as an examiner, but as a nurturer. Attempting to evaluate a teacher based on standardized tests is like evaluating a doctor solely on whether a patient lives, dies, or is cured. Just as every doctor gives his or her all attempting to save and cure patients, every teacher gives his or her entire self to students (who we treat more like our own children than our students). I can’t imagine a world where teachers are so fearful of losing their jobs because their students, who may be going through so many various and horrible circumstances, that they disregard the emotional role of an educator and focus solely on the academics. I will never tell a student, “Stop crying! I don’t care if you are depressed, or you haven’t eaten breakfast, or your parents beat you. I need you to do your work and study so you do well on your exam, so we meet our district goals and my pay is not garnished!”


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Originally appeared at The Huffington Post



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About Nicholas Ferroni

Nicholas Ferroni is a host, writer, blogger, historistan, educator and activist, and proud Rutgers alum. Find him at Huffington Post, or on Twitter @NicholasFerroni


  1. wellokaythen says:

    “Any one of us who has attended school knows that without a doubt that, not only are we responsible for our own academic performance, but that we are far more responsible than our teachers, our parents and even our friends were for our grades.”

    I really, REALLY wish that this was obvious to everyone, but it is clearly not obvious. Currently in a lot of school systems, among many politicians, parents, teachers, and students, it really is the school that is held most responsible for a student’s success. My school talks about degrees as if they were manufactured widgets and students are just inputs that we process. We instructors then have to ignore the vast majority of factors over which we have absolutely no control.

    A heavy focus on standardized test scores has motivated some very unethical practices. Some school districts in Texas were caught when they kept expelling students with low test scores as a way to improve the schools’ test scores. In some schools, students with low scores are shunted into special ed programs which may be exempt from a lot of oversight. In some cases, there is great incentive to cheat and redo your student’s bubble sheet to make you look better. The NCLB program rewards improvement, so there is actually some incentive to prevent students from doing too well on the first tests. The more ignorant you can make students look on the first diagnostic test, the better you will look by the end.

    I have some very serious concerns as someone teaching at the post-secondary level about the first half of the article. Yes, it is important for students to feel a sense of empowerment and get some basic life skills, but at some level the high school diploma has to MEAN something in terms of knowledge. Standardized tests have some major problems, but there should be some way to figure out if students are getting the actual academic skills and knowledge content they need. These things are not incompatible with each other – students can get self-esteem and academic knowledge.

    But, what’s the point of making them confident in themselves if they’re ignorant? That’s just passing them on to someone else to teach them what they should already have. By that point they already think they know everything, because their self-esteem has been so reinforced that they have no intellectual humility.

    If the main role of high school teachers is to be social workers and substitute parents, then we should all just be honest about that. Call them social workers and not teachers. Evaluate them as social workers not as teachers. Evaluate student success not as students but as welfare recipients. If a high school diploma is mainly a symbol of personal empowerment, then let’s just call it a certificate of personal empowerment instead of a diploma. If a primary goal is to feed, babysit, and provide mental health counseling, then let’s just call it that instead of calling it a school.

    If teachers are not primarily teachers, then they should not be evaluated strictly as teachers. Create a rubric for evaluating mentors, social workers, babysitters, and parents and apply that.

  2. If this is what teaching really is, then let’s make it official. Let’s clear the air and not let anyone have the wrong impression.

    If your high school is more of a social welfare center than a place that teaches academic knowledge, then the ethical thing to do is to make a note of that on every graduate’s transcript. Put a disclaimer on the transcript that says that the diploma represents an achievement of basic life skills, not preparation for college.

    Don’t let people getting a diploma from that school think that they have been prepared to go to college.

    Don’t let colleges get the false impression that your school’s diploma shows any particular level of learning.

    Warn all your graduates that they still have a lot to learn before they’re ready to go to college. Warn your seniors that you’ve just been taking care of their basic personal needs and that they still haven’t really learned any of the academic stuff yet.

    That would be the honest thing to do.

    • Nicholas says:

      Either this is the most foolish comment ever made related to education, or you are not familiar how the education system actually works. If it is the latter, I will gladly explain, but if it is the former, then you will not understand my following comment.

      In a perfect world, where every student, every student, receives the love, confidence, support and encouragement of their parents, teachers would ONLY be required to teach, not to nurture. But, in reality, most students, even those with supporting and encouraging parents, still are emotionally insecure and in need of constant support. As a teacher, our FIRST job, which is the most important, is to make sure a students is comfortable with themselves and in our class, BECAUSE if a student is not, they will not learn, no matter how incredible the teachers is. It’s same way that YOU or I, when angry or upset, are not very receptive to criticism or even advice.

      Now, in school, all schools, students receive GRADES based on their academic performance. From your comment, you are suggesting that myself, and other teachers who actually care about their students as human beings, disregard their education and give them A’s. The fact you said “Be honest with colleges” supports that is what you believe. However, that is not even close. I DO prepare my students for life and for college, and I also have students attending Ivy league schools as well, and they have done very well. Students get the grades they earn, since that is the case, their grades are reflective of their academic performance. Also, if I have a student who comes in every day angry, hating the world and themselves, they will NOT be receptive to learning or to anything.

      And for your information, the student in the picture with me is a FORMER STUDENT of mine, and who was being suspended and kicked out of school every day. He was troubled, had anger issues and was self destructive…. But, I began taking him to the gym with me, where he could relieve his anger, we talked about life, he went from a potential drop out, to the top 25 % of his class, and he recently graduated from MY ALMA MATER and one of the best state schools in the country: Rutgers U. Now, based on your theory he would have been unprepared for college, yet he excelled.

      You are entitled to your opinion, I am just glad that you are not in education. Cheers.

      • Oh, dear. I hope this response is not indicative of the level of critical thinking and writing that high school students are learning today. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt and assume I’ve just caught you on a bad day. Some of the more sophisticated standardized essay tests would have spotted numerous reasoning errors in your most recent message. Is it possible that you may be overlooking some of the benefits of using standardized testing?

        It’s plausible to assume that I am not in education. That is certainly possible. Jumping to that conclusion would be a poor inductive leap, however, and actually inaccurate. Even if I were not in education, I am at least familiar with relatively mainstream ideas about logical fallacies, rhetorical devices, and other aspects of what is often called “critical thinking” skills. I think I may use your article and recent messages as examples when teaching critical thinking issues and effective writing. It’s generally accurate to say that I am “in education,” although I would prefer to be called a “teacher.” “In education” makes it sound like I’m part of some sort of racketeering system, and the word “educator” is now overused, usually to refer to anyone who does any job remotely related to schools.

        The statement that my message was the most foolish thing ever written about education is humorously hyperbolic. I won’t capitalize “hyperbolic” as a key term or to add unnecessary sarcasm or condescension. (To be honest, I’ve written much more outrageous things about education than I have here, so this is hardly even the most foolish thing written by _me_, much less the entire history of education. I’m sure there are assessment materials you’ve been given on inservice days that are just as asinine. At least my language was relatively transparent, unlike a lot of the jargon produced by schools of education. Here is where you and I are probably in some agreement.)

        So, really, your message opens with a false dichotomy – either this is the most foolish thing ever written about education (doubtful) or I am not in education (untrue). It ends with something that may or may not be true. I’m not sure I am actually entitled to my opinion, whatever that means.

        The point about the preconditions for learning is a good one. You’re right about that. If some things are not in place, then students won’t learn anyway, and much of what you mentioned in the article is to help students have an opportunity to learn. But, then we’re right back where we started. If the goal of giving them money for lunch, listening to their romantic disappointments, and telling them they’re special is to get them ready to learn, then at some point it would be good to test whether they are really ready to learn.

        Otherwise, we just sort of have to take you at your word that you shelled out that money, listened to their problems, or got them to exercise more. In fact, it would be absolutely crucial to have good records about the amount of time you spend doing those things, because if you’re in a union the union ought to know how much unpaid labor you’re doing. If you’re not getting paid to do something and not getting trained to do it and not evaluated fairly on it and are expected to do it anyway, that’s unfair, so there should be some numbers on how much labor goes into that.

        My larger point, which admittedly I could have stated in less aggressive terms, is that as much as people don’t want to think it, there’s a perception of good schools and bad schools. Some teachers do a good job and others do not. Diplomas from different schools have different values, different kinds of academic meanings. At some level, at some point, it would be useful if there were some relatively objective way to tell the difference.

        The example of the student who went on to Rutgers seems to support my points a little more than it does your argument. The facts that you mentioned in your message are awfully concrete, dare I say, almost *standardized* measurements of teaching/learning success – his graduation level, the ranking of the school he attended, etc. The way that your message measured your success as a teacher was ultimately not in terms of his self-esteem or life skills but in terms of his preparedness for college. (I am going to assume for the sake of argument that being admitted to a college and graduating from a college means that he was prepared for college when he entered. Not deductively true, and I have plenty of firsthand knowledge that a lot of college prep happens in college not before college, but close enough.) I would draw my students to what is often called an “appeal to authority,” using the name recognition and prestige of an illustration to add weight to an argument, for example the name dropping of Rutgers. If it were Harvard, then the word “Harvard” would appear in every paragraph, as people who went to college “in Cambridge” are wont to do.

  3. I appreciate what you are saying, but you seem to be missing the most important two points your opponents make.

    First, while all of us have seen and know what a good teacher looks like, ALL of us have also seen a bad (for lack of a better word) teacher.

    Second, the transition to merit pay is not actually about “merit pay,” so much as it is about ending the tenure system that protects bad teachers.

    I feel like this discussion can never go forward because saying “There are good teachers and they help students!” isn’t really a response to “There are bad teachers and we cannot fire them because of tenure.”

    Now, it’s entirely possible that standardized tests are not the way to analyze teachers. If the teachers want to come up with a viable alternative, I’d be happy to hear it. But for the past two decades the mantra of the teachers’ unions has been “spend more money, hire more teachers!” with no willingness to budge on the tenure issue, or even acknowledge bad teachers exist, even though we all know they do.

    If you want to engage your opponents, come up with a real solution. Explain what we can do to get rid of tenure and transition those teachers who are actually bad out of the system. If there was a viable alternative, I’m sure that many people would happily drop their desire to see standardized tests; but that presumes a viable alternative.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    Not everything important is measurable. Not everything measurable is important.

  5. assman says:

    I think the author of this article has given a very strong argument for simply ending the education system altogether. I agree that supporting young people and even mentoring them is extremely important. I am just not sure why it has to be done by teachers. I never respected teachers when I was in school and I still don’t today. Teachers had zero impact on me. When I was in high school I always thought teachers were stupid. And now that I am older I fully agree with my younger self. But there were plenty of people I never even met that had HUGE impacts on me. Hell there are television shows that did more for me than any teacher.

    School was the worst thing that ever happened to me and I am glad I have left it behind. There are few people I know that think that school was a positive experience. I say the worst thing about the whole thing is the incredible artificiality of it all. Its like this stupid little bubble. The real world is utterly different than anything I encountered in school and I honestly feel like i have learned more in a single year outside of school than I learned in the 20 years I spend inside of it. Going to school is a massive waste of time, potential and life.


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