Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Our Feedback Is Backfiring

By Peter DeWitt & Nathan Lang — May 26, 2016 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s blog is co-authored by Peter DeWitt and former teacher and administrator, Nathan Lang, Ed.D. who works as a consultant with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

There is no such thing as constructive criticism in the eye of the recipient.” - Todd Whitaker

Feedback is something we all understand is important. We most likely became even more aware of the importance of feedback after the September 2012 issue of Educational Leadership (ASCD), which was titled Feedback for Learning. Some of the best thought leaders on the topic, which included John Hattie, and the late Grant Wiggins wrote about what feedback. Some articles focused on what feedback is and what it was not, as well as focused on how powerful feedback can be when we do it right.

John Hattie, who Peter works with as a Visible Learning trainer, has found in his extensive research that involves more than 250 million students, that feedback can have an effect of .75, which is nearly double the hinge point of .40 which shows to have a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

However, what we all need to take away from using feedback, especially where Hattie’s research is concerned, is that we can’t merely say we give feedback when we really don’t. Sometimes we are providing praise, and other times are feedback is so generic that it’s not effective. We need to reflect on the feedback we give, and have clear dialogue with teachers around the specific feedback. One way to do that is to look at the documents we use for classroom walkthroughs and formal teacher observations, and examine what we wrote down as feedback.

But...let’s start with walkthroughs.

Don’t Call It Feedback When It’s Not
After principals walk through a classroom, they may give a pat on the back, “awesome job,” or give a thumbs up. Maybe even send you an email or leave a sticky note with “I loved being in your classroom.” Sometimes, the walkthroughs don’t focus on anything with substance at all, which you can read more about here.

However, praise and pats on the back is not providing feedback, but providing affirmation. Teachers need affirmation, and we would say they need some form of affirmation every time you walk through their classroom. We all need affirmation and there is lots to give and receive.

Feedback has a much different purpose. Although the means to an end may look similar to affirmation, feedback needs to be specific and timely, and it’s even more powerful when it’s focused on a specific goal. This does not mean we believe you can’t have fun conversations with teachers, and that every conversation has to be about feedback. However, it does mean those times when feedback is given have to be explicit.

Feedback Around a Goal
Districts, and the buildings within that district community, often have leaders who are working toward a specific initiative. Sometimes that initiative can focus on literacy, which although a good initiative should always be a goal since it’s our job to make sure students can read.

Within those initiatives, teachers can work on specific goals. Usually initiatives are wide enough that all teachers and leaders can find goals within them. It’s important to remember that the goal should be focused on student learning. Hattie has written before in the Politics of Distraction that we spend too much time focusing on teachers, when our focus should be on students.

In the best case scenario, leaders would sit down with teachers at the beginning of the year to get an understanding of how the teacher’s goal that focuses on student learning works into the building or district initiative. After all, if teachers were involved in the original initiative process they should feel inspired to find a goal under that umbrella.

Leaders can document (in whatever way they want) each specific goal for their teachers, which won’t only helping them in the feedback process, but also the teacher voice process. The Teacher Voice (TVAIC) work of Lisa Lande and Russ Quaglia shows us that many teachers don’t feel as though their leaders know their individual goals. Leaders who know each goal of their teachers certainly helps teachers feel valued, and it will assist leaders throughout the whole year as they work to provide effective feedback to their teachers.

After that original process, teachers and leaders are on their way.

Don’t Always Schedule a “Meeting
If you need to schedule some time to share feedback, don’t schedule a “meeting” or a “conversation.” These words have already taken on a less than positive connotation. These words signal the defense shields to come up.

Instead try a simple and polite, “Let’s chat about how I can support you.” This language dismantles whatever concoction of negative self-talk that may be developing in the mind of the teacher. It may sound like a simple statement, but we know that after years of some tough accountability and mandates, teachers don’t often feel supported.

Instructional Coaching expert Jim Knight has written a great deal about the partnership principles, where coaches work in partnership with teachers. Those partnership principles are equality, choice, voice, dialogue, reflection, praxis and reciprocity, all of which you can read more about here.

Both Nathan and Peter believe that the partnership principles don’t just work for instructional coaches, but can provide a powerful connection between teachers and leaders. If leaders can do anything when talking with a teacher, it’s to ask how you as a leader can support them.

How do you start?
The first sentence you speak sets the tone and foundation for everything that happens after that. “I walked through your classroom today and wanted to share some concerns.” This will certainly not end well. Or... “How do you think it went today?” We’ve already learned that this is a precursor to some form of criticism, so we are bracing ourselves.

Instead, acknowledge their passion and your role in supporting them. One way to do this might be to refer back to their specific goal. Even if leaders have to walk around with a piece of paper or their tablet with each teacher’s name and their goal beside their name, it will help leaders stay focused on the conversation. “How is the goal of X going? Is there any support I can offer?” Maybe even using an element of impact would be helpful. “Have you seen any changes in your students while using your new strategy?” is a question that can be used. This not only helps the teacher focus on the goal, but helps the school leader look like the instructional and collaborative leader they are working to be.

Another question that could be posed is, “I know you want to be the most effective teacher possible and I hope I can support you in a way to be just that. Do you mind if we chat specifically about the learning goal of X that we have been working on together?

Ask teachers to reciprocate
This is an open invitation and is not necessarily prompted during the aforementioned conversation above. It can sound something like this, “Now that we’ve been working together, I would sincerely value feedback and/or suggestions you can give me about my leadership of the school.” Or maybe something like this, “We all see things through a different lens. Do you mind sharing with me what I see from your lens regarding my leadership?”

One of the things Peter did as a principal was flip faculty meetings. For example, Peter took the Educational Leadership articles by Hattie and Wiggins and sent those out to staff before the faculty meeting. The staff was going to work together to look at what feedback was, and whether they were providing feedback to students...or just providing praise.

Peter was also very open about the fact that he didn’t feel he was providing effective feedback to teachers, and they all needed to grow in that area. As a leader, don’t forget how important it is to put yourself out there and be honest about when this is an area you need growth as well. Not only did this provide an opportunity to be honest about the feedback they were given, it gave them the opportunity to walk out of the faculty meeting with a common understanding.

Friend Your teachers
The feedback suggestions above will not fly if you are hanging out in the ivory tower. Your leadership must embrace all stakeholders as equals. We have to stop using the “blurring the professional lines” excuse. What do we mean by friends?

Jane E. Dutton, found that high-quality connections don’t require “a deep or intimate relationship.” (Although these connections will continue to deepen with time.) A single interaction marked by respect, trust and mutual engagement is enough to generate energy for both people. So even though it may appear short-lived, don’t underscore those connections. These small moments of connection have exponentially high relational impacts.

Feedback backfires when it’s evaluative, unidirectional, insincere, inconsistent, and corrective. Feedback inspires when it’s relational, multidirectional, authentic, continual, and growth-centered . Feedback is contagious, and becomes cultural norm when it’s woven the inside the fabric of everyday communication. If we want teachers and students to become rock stars at seeking and acting on feedback, then principals must be willing to seek the humility to say, “I value you and what you have to say, how can I better support you?

Nathan Lang, Ed.D. has been a teacher, education supervisor at NASA-Johnson Space Center, an elementary assistant principal, a high school assistant principal, an adjunct professor, and the Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press. Forword by John Hattie). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.