I am wary of high stakes, anxiety-producing, number-heavy, hoop-jumping evaluation systems.
Imagine my delight and surprise to learn that as a new principal in Bellingham, I could use a collaborative, online video platform for all teacher evaluations. The platform would be private, efficient, and teacher-driven; both parties would be able to view, code, and upload videos. I jumped at the opportunity to use Teaching Channel Teams in lieu of scripting into a state-sponsored platform.
Here’s a startling statistic: 40% of high school students are chronically disengaged in school. There are enough reasons to go around, and I’d agree that many of them are outside of a teacher’s direct control. But some of them aren’t. As we pursue a set of skills, I have a great deal of control over how that happens in my classroom, so going into this school year I asked myself:
- How can student-interest and inquiry drive the learning?
- How can my teaching be more responsive to student needs?
- How do I help students realize their own agency and ability to effect change?
Out of these questions came my Getting Better Together project focused on pursuing personalized learning and customized instruction.
When I was in the classroom, I had the good fortune to have a team teacher. We were very similar in our personalities, and that sometimes caused tension, especially when we were first getting to know each other. The first few weeks of our five year relationship were very cordial. We were testing the waters and seeing how the other person operated in the classroom. We tried to figure out how to make our teaching styles and pedagogical beliefs work together, all while getting to know our new students and some of our colleagues. We joked later on that it was like all the adults were dressed for prom, done up in their best outfits and afraid to get dirty. Lucky for me, about a quarter way into the school year, the prom dresses “came off” and we quickly moved into giving each other critical feedback on practice and really tried to mesh our styles and beliefs, not just make them work.
One of my favorite education books is The Courage to Teach. In that text, Parker Palmer explores teaching as a daily exercise in vulnerability. As teachers, we expose ourselves, and often the content we love, to an at-times unforgiving world. Difficult students, dud lessons, doubting colleagues, short-sighted initiatives, all exacerbated by the challenges of our lives outside the classroom, can eventually harden a teacher. And that skepticism can make it a lot harder to take the risks necessary to get better.
So finding the courage to continue to care deeply, to continue to seek feedback, can be challenging. But I’ve found, as scary as it may be, that student feedback has been an important catalyst for reflecting on and improving my practice. Hearing directly from students also aligns with my own deepest motivations. More than test scores, or my desire to introduce students to great novels and great questions, I teach so that students feel someone believes in them and they feel empowered to learn, grow, and succeed. Measuring success on that mission requires hearing directly from students.
So much of teaching is living in tension: giving more support vs. letting a student productively struggle. Following your own judgement vs. following the curriculum. Praise for good work vs. pushing for better.
And one tension I think about often is giving students my best vs. having more to give to future students. Burnout is a real risk in this profession. We have to find ways to do the job well and in a way that let’s us make it a career. As a teacher of high school English students and a father of a toddler, I feel this tension acutely. Fortunately, I’ve found some strategies to help make feedback more time-effective, without sacrificing the support and direction students need for their growth.
I have a love-hate relationship with giving feedback. I love how potent a tool it is to help students move their learning forward. I love the occasions when I can get the feedback to students “just for them, just in time, and just helping nudge forward” as John Hattie said, and see their skills blossom. I hate when I see an intimidating pile of student work. I hate when I feel I don’t have time to give ideal feedback. And I hate when I commit time to giving feedback, but it doesn’t help students.
So, I’m spending some time this year re-thinking feedback.
A wise person once told me that if you lose a teacher’s trust, it’s nearly impossible to regain it. Without trust, an instructional coach has very little influence over the professional growth of a teacher, and ultimately, student achievement. The majority of coaches, including myself, do not possess the “power of the pen,” meaning that our advice is not enforced by consequences (like being written up or getting dinged on evaluations). When a coach works with a teacher, and the teacher accepts feedback and recommendations, it’s because they want to improve their practice.
Instructional coaching is one of those positions within a system of schools that is complex — not complex in terms of being difficult, but complex because of the nature of the relationships that exist between coaches and teachers. There is a balancing act between providing relevant and honest feedback and supporting the school’s bottom line. How does trust fit into this act?
“… a critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. A critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.” — The Glossary of Education Reform
Being critical friends means that we can depend on our colleagues to help us reach our potential. We all serve as critical friends (and really, aren’t these two words synonymous?) who push our practice, help one another see bright spots, and offer resources and a clear path for steps to quality teaching and learning. And while critical friends are who we are for each other, it’s also what we do. Critical Friends is one of many protocols we engage in to provide feedback aimed at improving project design, quality of instruction, and deeper learning experiences for our students.
Why we give feedback
A phrase that I often hear in my work supporting schools is “the culture of the students will never exceed the culture of the adults in a building.” Engaging in the Critical Friends protocol requires a professional culture that is grounded in a shared sense of ownership. It requires a staff that deeply respects one another and can uphold professional norms when engaging with one another. What Critical Friends requires, it also generates — a culture of collaboration. Once a staff is able to successfully collaborate, then they are ready to become a learning organization that can grow together in their practice.
Providing feedback. It’s so much more than sharing some helpful information with another person regarding his or her work. It’s a gift — a chance to help someone improve themselves or their work, and ultimately our students will benefit.
If you think about it, feedback is as much about you as the person you’re providing it to. Your feedback is a reflection of you. The quality of it, and the time you spend giving it, shows how much (or how little) you value the feedback process. The fact that someone is asking you for your feedback speaks volumes. After all, someone has made himself or herself vulnerable to you. They have invested time in their work and trust you and your professional opinion. I hope thinking about feedback this way puts you in the right frame of mind when evaluating someone’s work, or, more accurately, their labor of learning.
While there are many things to consider before providing feedback, narrowing the focus to a few simple A-B-Cs can be quite helpful.
A. Feedback should be accessible and action-oriented.
Any ideas you provide should be easy to understand and conveyed as suggestions or questions. Reactions need to be shared in a friendly, helpful way. Try to avoid expressing a feeling of “change this, or else what you’ve done won’t be any good.” Also, if it’s fitting, suggest a possible action that the person you’re providing feedback to can take that may lead to project or performance improvement. A great way to start an accessible, actionable feedback statement is in the form of a question that begins with the words “What if…?” or, “How could…?”
Ubiquitous at best. Overused and cliché at worst. Nevertheless, I was hooked. I started to notice it everywhere. I’d say “great” when a student offered a response; “great” when she really dug in and started working; “great” on the margins of papers.
All over the margins of papers. But because I was using it to describe everything, I wasn’t saying anything. Our feedback, our praise, our gentle nudging is most effective when we are deliberate with our words and precise in our communication. And once again, I learned a valuable lesson from paying attention to the kind of classroom data that helps me change my practice: student work. Upon reviewing my feedback on student work, I noticed I needed alternatives to my “go to” praise if I wanted it to matter.