A recent New York Times Op-Ed piece identified one type of charter school that has regularly produced results: those with “high expectations, high support” paired together. Among several other elements, schools that offer “high support” focus “on giving teachers feedback about their craft and helping them get better.”
Yet in many schools, feedback and coaching is still a contentious topic. While I am inspired by movements that promote peer learning and observation, such as #observeme and Pineapple Charts, I am troubled that in many schools and districts, regular, consistent feedback loops do not exist. Sometimes even when they do exist, teachers can choose to opt in or out.
At the Mobile Technology Learning Center (MTLC), we work with educators to help uncover inconsistencies in these cycles. When we bring the need for teachers to regularly engage in conversations about their practice to school and district leaders, reactions vary. Some enthusiastically embrace the need to observe classes
and to give feedback. Others approach it warily, worried that they will face pushback from teachers or run afoul of union policies.
Which prompts me to ask, Why do some teachers react so vociferously to the prospect of feedback? One reason, discussed by Dr. Katie Martin in The Feedback Paradox, is that relationships matter (and need to be invested in!).
Another reason – and the focus of this post – is that coaching often isn’t skillfully done. I’ve heard administrators comment, “If I don’t tell teachers what they are doing wrong, how will I help them grow?” And teachers lament, “You get feedback only when you are doing something wrong.” This is not unique to education, I’m told; in the business world, employees often receive coaching only if they are struggling to perform.
This needs to change.
As a school administrator, I prioritized time in the classroom and honest, open discussions with our teachers. In one of my proudest moments, as I transitioned to the MTLC, a teacher—who I witnessed grow tremendously—commented to me in tears of gratitude, “You never said anything negative.” Like any leader, I’ve certainly had experiences in which I was at my finest, and a number where I was not. But one thing that helped me stay positive with teachers during the hardest times was remembering that their job is really, really hard.
As school leaders, we have a responsibility to put the inherent frustrations of our roles aside and elevate the spirits and strengths of our teachers. One of the most important aspects of our job is to make teachers’ jobs easier. They are on the front lines and making a direct difference in the lives of the children we serve. The following tips, while certainly not comprehensive, are a starting point for administrators and coaches who are working to keep feedback conversations both positive and constructive:
1. Put empathy in the driver’s seat. Take a moment to put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. I repeat: teaching is hard. It is emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting. What might the teacher be thinking or feeling in this moment? What might you want or need if you were feeling that way? (Hint: I’m guessing it’s not to be told all the things you’re doing wrong).
2. Avoid evaluative statements. Remember: encouragement, not praise. Your words have power. You can celebrate a teacher’s success without fixed, value-based statements like, “You’re great!” (Instead, you might say, “I noticed you implemented x strategy that you’ve been working on! How did it feel?”). You can also point out a challenge without naming it negatively (“I noticed that when you were passing out papers, the energy in the room seemed to shift. What are your thoughts?”)
3. Ground your statements in evidence. “I noticed…” is your best friend. Combine it with student behaviors or learning outcomes and you’ll be set. (“I noticed that 5 students did not complete the assignment.”) Most teachers will be able to build on that comment without your having to ask a follow-up question.
4. Ask questions that push teachers to reflect on the connections between their teaching moves and student outcomes. Reflection is one of the most powerful tools for growth. At a recent StrengthsFinder coaching training, a facilitator reminded us that good coaches “hold up a mirror;” by sharing data from your observations (look at what the students are doing!), you provide an opportunity for teachers to look at their teaching through a different lens. Good reflective questions are neither leading nor condescending. If you are looking for a very specific answer, you’re probably not asking the right question.
5. Allow teachers to make mistakes. This is a hard one because our children shouldn’t be guinea pigs; at the same time, however, if a teacher comes up with an idea that I think isn’t very good, as long as it doesn’t put children in harm’s way, I bite my tongue. In the long run, it’s better for a teacher to try, fail, and learn than for me to tell him or her how to do the job (trust their experience and expertise!). And—to be honest—sometimes I’m wrong and their idea turns out to be brilliant.
Most importantly, be authentic. There are multiple different approaches to coaching and feedback; find what works for you. If you’ve already got some strategies that are working, please: share them in the comments! And as you move forward with coaching and feedback, keep in mind the sage words of Dr. Don Clifton (of the Clifton StrengthsFinder): “What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”
Professional Learning Specialist, IEE
Follow me on Twitter: @datraut