What I Learned from My Worst Evaluation Ever

Tigers taking the field against White Sox 08-03-2016I was sitting at the Detroit Tigers’ second August home game and had just taken this picture when I did something I’m learning not to do in the evening or at baseball games: I checked my email.

In it I found the anonymous evaluations from a recent set of presentations. Among these was a first for me: a really bad evaluation. Reeeeeally bad. It was right in the middle of 28 glowing ones, but it stood out because it was the longest and because of its sheer negativity. If it hadn’t contained fourteen sentences starting with “Mr. Bailey…,” I would have thought the person had attended a different session than all the other reviewers. It was truly awful, and it hurt.

My first reaction (after the hurt) was to belittle the reviewer in my mind for failing to understand my presentation.

My second reaction was to wonder what avenues there were for identifying and contacting the evaluator.

My third reaction was to tell myself, “Well, you can’t please everybody.”

My fourth reaction was to think.

There are few better circumstances for thinking than watching a baseball game alone. (The rest of my family needed the night off.)


The Questions

The questions I kept coming back to were “How can there be so many rave reviews and one bitter one about the same session?” and “How can the bitter one be this bad?” The rave reviews really were rave, with praise so effusive that I would be ashamed to put it in this post. So what was the deal?


The Lessons (or, The Questions, part 2)

Here are the thoughts I had as I watched young Michael Fulmer match Chris Sale out for out. (Pitching duels are the best baseball games for thinking.) They’re phrased in the 2nd person because I was talking to myself, but feel free to treat them as addressed to you if you find that helpful:

1. Think of your students. Most of them enjoy and benefit from what and how you teach, but there’s a good chance that some, like the author of this evaluation, wish they weren’t there. What if this evaluator were stuck with you for 180 days? What would you do to make the class worth their time? What would you do to learn from how they experienced your class? How would you teach and interact with the class differently?

2. Think of all the people whose jobs, social situations, or relationships involve frequent, harsh criticism. Remember to have compassion for them, don’t add to it, and watch and learn from how the best deal with it.

3. Don’t judge the critic, who was honest and specific.

4. Don’t be defensive. Even if you’re defensive only in your own mind, it will prevent you from learning from criticism. If you’re defensive aloud, you will alienate people and lose out on future constructive criticism.

5. Follow up. You don’t know who wrote the evaluation, but you can develop some questions based on the critique and ask attendees you trust what they think about different aspects of the workshop and about your ideas for adjustments.

6. What bits of the critique can you act on directly? Here’s one idea already: You need to make the connection between A and B more explicit, where A is the practices, tasks, and interactions that you demonstrate and B is the overall purpose of a session.

7. In what ways do the things you do in your own class need to become more explicitly connected in students’ minds to the purpose of the class?

8. Learn from everyone. Learn, learn, learn!

9. ABT: Always Be Tweaking.


I intend to reflect more and learn more from the workshop and the critique. If I come up with something worth adding to this post, I’ll do it. In the meantime, I encourage you to learn, learn, tweak, tweak, learn!

Posted in Learning, Teaching and tagged , , , .


  1. Hey, Justin. I love that you’re walking us through the entire process (and that there may be more to come).
    It merits examination and reflection, for sure, but that’s not where the process begins. So good to acknowledge the reactions that come first. I hope I’ll be as able to look at it as plainly the next time I’m faced with a heavy dose of negative. I can also imagine an appropriate time might arise for walking through the process with a student or with a class. Thanks for breaking it down. I appreciate your generosity.

    Personally, I’m still feeling the buzz from your sessions. 🙂

  2. I think that this is beautifully written. I had a similar thought on one that I received but did not think it through as clearly as you did. This a marvelous perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for always thinking and tweaking. I have a lot to think about and tweak coming off iFLT! Cringing with you from afar, it’s always hard to read harsh criticism even when you have a method for processing it.

  4. Thanks for this! I ask my students to evaluate me at the end of each year, and there’s always one or two that hurt my feelings… but I can usually tell who wrote it (shhhh, don’t tell) and that gives me a better insight into why they might be feeling that way.

    I’ll never forget one evaluation where a girl I was convinced hated me the whole year wrote: If you’re going to greet people at the door, make sure you say hi to every student. I was afraid to say hi to her because I couldn’t handle the daily eye rolls, but she really really really wanted/needed to be acknowledged. I still think back, years later, to that one girl and wonder what our relationship would have been like had I gone out of my way to talk to her every day.

    Also, hoping to blog your session today!

  5. Criticism is so hard to take. I’m the worst. And when it is anonymous it is even harder! Maybe that person just wasn’t ready for your message. Maybe he or she was just grumpy. I think you’re awesome and hopefully you care about my opinion enough to take it to heart!

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