Fixing racism and sexism in performance evaluations will take a lot more than metrics

KLOWTIFY Commentary Team

Seeing a headline like the one that ran in the The Chronicle of Higher Education — “Teaching Evaluations Are Racist, Sexist, and Often Useless” — instantly transported me to a time in my 20s when I was a student teacher.

On the surface, my experience was positive: I was hired. What I experienced while student teaching did not disenfranchise or discourage me. But it could have.


As a student teacher, I earned exceptional marks in all categories. Just a month into the term, the principal observed my teaching during a creative writing section. Then, upon submitting a stellar report back to my University, he decided I was capable of teaching on my own, without the supervision of another licensed teacher in the classroom.

I finished the remaining four months of the school year largely without direct observation.

When the time came, I interviewed for the open position in the English department, against other highly-qualified teachers, coming from well-known districts, and with Master’s degrees in Education. Two of the competing candidates were even published authors.

But they still chose me.

On the one hand, I felt like I’d finally made it. Like a career-version of a coming of age story, one where the final chapter was me finally earning, by my own grit, a place in society as a real adult. But on the other hand, I knew there was something unfair and demeaning about what it took for me to get there.

There is a certain difficulty to really see a situation globally, for what it is on all levels and for all stakeholders, when you are in the thick of it. But there were specific and calculated reasons behind why I was hired over the others. At the time, I really wanted to believe it was because I was a great teacher. But with space and time, I know it was much more sinister and complicated than that.

For my student teaching experience, I was eventually left alone to teach six sections of high school English, across three different courses, while writing my own curriculum from scratch. For free. Completely uncompensated. And without a licensed teacher in the room for direct observation and mentorship.

I had to ignore the ass-grabs and the leering and the off-color remarks from a boss. I had to ignore that when I was hired on, other male 1st-year teachers with lesser qualifications and lower marks were offered higher starting salaries in other departments across my district.

At one point, I tried to talk to the site principal about advice I’d been given by my mentor at the University. She’d been shocked to learn of my specific circumstances and lack of direct support in the classroom. She’d encouraged me to raise the issue with higher ups, and to seek a way to get more day-to-day oversight and real guidance for my emergent classroom practice. She was concerned that the sheer burden of the highly unusual workload and absence of oversight was robbing me of the professional development a student teaching semester was designed to foster.

But when I broached the topic with a supervisor on site, I was interrupted three sentences in, told to “man-up” and was literally patted on the head like a child. He said that he was actually giving me an opportunity no one else was getting, and that it was “naive” of me to not see it that way. He said to “focus my pretty little head on the classroom” and sent me packing out of the front office.

In my second month into the job, I questioned the school’s disciplinary processes and punishments that were treating students unequally and creating barriers to academic success. Standing in front of an open door to the detention room full of Black and Brown faces, I was told point-blank that it was “not my responsibility or place to question the institution” and that I was “an inexperienced teacher that didn’t know the first thing about controlling an effective learning environment.”

Needless to say, I had to swallow my pride and relinquish whatever “silly notion” I had that I actually had a voice in solution-seeking and protecting the rights of students.

If I’d been a male student teacher, would I have been better supported? I will never know. But I do know the other male student teachers in my cohort had an experienced instructor with them at all times and were only teaching one section of a single course.

Would I have had to endure ass-slaps; or a distracted boss ignoring my well-supported line of reasoning, only to look up from my chest and respond about something completely unrelated because he’d not been paying attention?

Would I have been hired if I’d stuck to my guns on the issue of support, or the state requirement to have a licensed teacher in the room at all times? If I’d told anyone about my discomfort of the touching and staring and sexual comments coming from a boss? If they’d had to pay me a wage equal to my similarly qualified male counterparts? Did I get the job simply because they could justify paying me less?

Would I have been hired if that boss didn’t already have a pending sexual harassment claim against him? If I’d not kept quiet and remained amicable and painfully tolerant, would my excellent marks for good work in the classroom have suffered? I will never know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t.


I will never know because I’d not yet learned how to stand up for myself as a professional. I did what I had to do to survive at the time.

What I do know, now, in the safety of owning my own company, and being my own boss, and owning completely my successes and failures: doing what’s right, standing up for yourself and others — it almost always happens on the backs of the most vulnerable, the smallest player with the most to lose.

The powerful therefore have an enormous responsibility. Aggressors will not change their behavior without external motivation. And the injured will continue to have to choose between standing up or shoving off with their livelihood and stability on the line.

Without a doubt, the challenges facing the American education system are monumental. But if we can’t protect, support and fairly evaluate and compensate our most vulnerable educators, I don’t see a bright future for solving the teacher shortage, much less attracting top talent that might actually inspire real change for the students and communities they serve.

We can reconfigure teacher evaluations, swap out the metrics, broaden evaluator pools, rethink the criteria. But until we address the underlying structural and cultural violence, until we take head-on the reasons race and gender affect our behaviors and decisions and opportunities — it’s hard to imagine how we will move the needle at all.

Instead, we must step back and think about a whole-person approach to finding holistic and equitable solutions to subjective, racist, and sexist practices that continue to plague many aspects of our education system. Looking at the performance evaluation system and beyond is a critical place to start.