The most difficult part of the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach is giving feedback to teachers who have decades more experience than you do. I was barely a toddler in dogs years and there I was, telling teachers who had 20, 30 years of skin in the game how to improve their instruction. The proposition still seems absurd, even now, almost 5 years after I did it for the first time.
How did it go, you wonder? Terrible. It was a damn disaster. I thought I was being objective, impartial, dispassionate, and direct. It turns out, I came across as a know-it-all who could care less about the challenges these particular teachers faced on the daily. See, my first gig outside of the classroom was as an instructional coach for 3 different alternative schools that served special education students whose behavior was so disruptive that they had been exiled to psuedo-schools for weeks, months, or even years at a stretch. Yup. If it sounds like the express train to prison, that’s because that’s what it was for many of the students who were forced to go to school there. These programs were the exemplars for the school-to-prison pipeline. And I was hired to somehow, I don’t know, fix them. Now, to be fair, the schools weren’t set up to be successful. The allocation of resources for these schools ebbed and flowed like the tide. There weren’t enough social workers, the kids needed regular group therapy and other psychological services that they didn’t receive. Their books and computers were all castoffs from other schools, professional development for the staff and leadership with regard to best practices in instruction were non-existent, and the rest of the district barely even knew that these schools existed. The staff and students may as well have been on Mars for all the contact and support they received from the rest of the district. The staff at these schools were the Bad News Bears and I was Mister Miyagi. Wax off. And on and on. I’m mixing pop culture to references to illustrate a larger point. The situation was jacked up from the start and the folks who worked in these schools had to lean on one another for everything. This being the case, the Principal was more friend and mentor than instructional leader for these teachers…and as a result, the feedback provided to these teachers wasn’t always honest, nor did it force the teachers to reflect on their practice.
So, for all the tact I lacked in my delivery (I really was terrible at giving feedback when I first started out), my comments were accurate. The instructional practices were poor. The kids weren’t learning as much as they could. Lots of time was being wasted.
I didn’t believe in the compliment sandwich back then…and I still don’t now, because the work is the work. If my plumber makes a mistake that could leave my carpet covered in water, I’m going to point it out without telling him or her how much I appreciated the fact that they arrived to my house on time. My personal feelings about using compliments to lessen the blow of a valid critique aside, I understand that a lot of people NEED to have that blow softened…not because they can’t take it, but because they’ve received pretty dishonest feedback for most of their careers. Which brings me to my larger point…poor feedback is killing the profession. And here’s how…
- First, when feedback is cursory and overwhelmingly positive OR negative, observers, coaches, evaluators, etc. rob teachers of the opportunity to truly reflect on, and improve their practice. Most teachers work in silos for at least seven and a half hour a day. They don’t get to see other teachers deliver instruction. They don’t get to see themselves, and really only have time to reflect on the relative effectiveness of their lessons at the end of the day.
- Second, if teachers receive shitty feedback for years and are then confronted with feedback from a person who may not be their best friend, but who observed their lesson with a critical eye for improvement and student achievement, it’s hard for them to swallow. They may feel that the individual providing the feedback “doesn’t like them” which may or may not be true, but should ultimately be irrelevant if the feedback is based on actual facts. Feedback shouldn’t be relationship contingent
- Third, instructional leaders ought to model what they expect teachers to do. If you want teachers to deliver timely, specific, honest feedback to students….then shouldn’t we do the same? “Good job” or “You did X wrong” is terrible feedback for students and for teachers.
- Fourth…let’s skip the fourth reason. Reasons one, two, and three are enough.
Here are some suggestions on how to improve the feedback teachers receive:
- Stay in the room for longer than 15 minutes. If you can’t stay in the room that long, come back later. Tell the teacher that you didn’t see enough of their lesson to provide a meaningful critique or something along those line.
- Stop doing softball evaluations of your friends and doing audits of your not-friends. You know who you are. Stop doing that, Fam. It’s not cool.
- Leave your phone or walky talky in your office. Be present. I’m writing this for myself as much as I am for whoever may be reading this.
- Have a come-to-Jesus meeting about the kinds of feedback you’ll be giving this year. Emphasize that the purpose of this feedback is to help teachers improve their own practice so that student receive the best possible experience while they’re with any teacher in your school.
- Allow teachers to conduct peer observations. Once they see the practice of their colleagues, they’ll understand the need for specific and honest feedback.
- Encourage teachers to video-record themselves as they teach. Allow them to evaluate themselves using whatever instrument is used to provide feedback in your school. This one right here is money. Thank me later.
Feedback and coaching helps us all get better. If that feedback isn’t coming from a place of honesty, support, and delivered in a professional manner, it isn’t helping anyone. If the culture and climate of your building haven’t been shaped to allow for accurate feedback to be shared, the feedback won’t be helpful. The act of providing teachers with feedback then just becomes another compliance task for which we check off boxes and collect documentation. Our teachers and students deserve better than that.
It’s getting late, so I’ll stop here. Pardon me if this post is a rambling mess. As always, thanks for reading. Leave a comment or two if you agree with me or not. Let’s start a conversation.