Teaching Profession Opinion

Evaluation Lessons From Roger Ebert

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 13, 2015 5 min read
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The school year is turning to the second half and this can mean a heightened attention to teacher and principal observation and evaluation; catch up if you are behind, hurry up to make the deadlines. The intent, however, is to continue to improve professional performance. That outcome is coupled by a problem: feedback is accompanied by a value, a number, and a label. Part of evaluations may be based upon student test results which some feel are loosely connected to teacher performance, yet others believe it is directly connected.

Evaluation as Feedback
But here we are addressing the part of the evaluation that is done by the supervisors of teachers and principals. The qualitative process, that requires some sort of evidence, should be intended as feedback. Suggestions and comments by the supervisor can inform conversations about the nature of improving performance. There are those who believe feedback with a measure cannot be the route to improved performance and that coaching, a far more complicated process that includes confidentiality and excludes a measure, is a better route to improvement. We both agree that coaching, in its proper form, is a better avenue for improvement; one that is separate from the measured and labeled outcome. However, we are mandated to observe and evaluate and label. We also have to play the hand we have been dealt.

Roger Ebert as Evaluator
The documentary “Life Itself” about the life of Roger Ebert is a multi-dimensional study of a very interesting man and his work. He was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize (1975) for film criticism. His writing was recognized as being insightful and revelatory. As a critic, he was viewed as a true expert of the cinema. One slice of the documentary that is of particular importance to educators is when Martin Scorsese spoke about receiving reviews from Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert had praised the work of Scorsese often, but in his review of “Gangs of New York,” for example, Mr. Ebert nests his criticism into the larger view of Mr. Scorsese’s successes:

All of this is a triumph for Scorsese, and yet I do not think this film is in the first rank of his masterpieces. It is very good but not great. I wrote recently of “Goodfellas” that “the film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share.” I didn’t feel that here. Scorsese’s films usually leap joyfully onto the screen, the work of a master in command of his craft. Here there seems more struggle, more weight to overcome, more darkness. It is a story that Scorsese has filmed without entirely internalizing.

In the documentary, Mr. Scorsese recalls his respect for Mr. Ebert and his appreciation of the fairness and skill in his reviews, even when they included a warning that Mr. Scorsese might be headed down the wrong path. How can we engender this respect for criticism and use it as motivation to grow as professionals? We do expect it of students. Evaluation is part of ongoing assessment of progress in all aspects of life both personally and professionally. How can we master the context in which it lives right now?

Coaching and Evaluating
We have to be sure of what we are talking about. When the observer praises something even the observed doesn’t think is all that good, confidence in the process is lost. When the evaluator fails to note something extraordinary the evaluated accomplished, confidence in the process is lost. Bob and Megan Tschannen-Moran, in their book Evocative Coaching describe the value of

...the positive principle holds that positive actions and outcomes stem from the unbalanced force generated by positive energy and emotions. Negative energy and emotions associated with identifying, analyzing, and fixing or correcting weaknesses, also generate an unbalanced force, but that force--which runs counter to the language of empathy--lacks the necessary orientation and magnitude to transform and propel systems in new directions (p. 127).

Our challenge lies in the fact that coaching and evaluating are different. Yet, to simply evaluate will reduce the process to one that runs counter to our intention. We have to do the best we can to meet the evaluation requirement while we try our best to earn the respectful attention of those in our charge.

The Importance of Trust and Empathy
If we want the respect Scorsese had for Ebert’s reviews, we have to earn the confidence of those being observed and evaluated. One route to that end is earned trust. We have to know our craft (cinema), choose our focus (the audience), and agree upon which facets of the work are important to focus on for the result to be a successful review. Trust and confidence are the basis of the relationship we need to have in order to be a guide on the journey of improving professional performance. What Roger Ebert found in movies can be found in schools. He allowed movies to open his heart, to see other perspectives and understand the experience of others. He could analyze whether the movie accomplished what it set out to do, with a bar that was set and known. As the evaluation season continues to barrel toward the year’s end, and the rush to complete these darned things consumes, a nod to the work of Roger Ebert may serve as a way to remember why we are doing this in the first place; to meet a deadline or to “identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us” and help them along?

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. - Roger Ebert

Tschannen-Moran, Bob & Megan (2010). Evocative Coaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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