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Professional Development Opinion

Teachers Want Better Feedback

By Miriam Greenberg — August 17, 2015 3 min read
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You’ve heard it before: “Your call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance.” If you thought this message was just a stall tactic before reaching an actual person, let me assure you, the calls are taped.

For a short time, I worked as a telemarketer, selling reading supplies to dupable literates. At my call center, managers “listened in” to assess the impact of the sales conversation, to identify missed opportunities for upselling pen and ink refills, and to coach us on better advising customers to purchase lap desks they never knew they needed in the first place. Though I dubbed my supervisor “director of wiretapping,” my sales doubled after I implemented her feedback. Mousepads and folios flew off warehouse shelves. Never in my career, before or since, have I received more feedback on my own advice-giving than I did after those late nights by the phone.

These days, we give a lot of lip service to increasing the amount of feedback given to teachers. Research indicates that these efforts are worthwhile. Teachers’ improvement can be predicted by the extent of their interactions with those more expert in teaching and by the extent to which they seek instructional advice from their colleagues. Further, in order for classroom observations to be meaningful to teachers, they must be accompanied by high-quality feedback.

The problem is that districts and states are spending an increasing amount of time training observers to measure performance, but very little time training them to give useful feedback. Identifying the difference between “proficient” and “effective” differentiation, for example, isn’t worth much if you can’t support a teacher in understanding how this plays out in the classroom and what would make a positive difference to his or her students.

Teachers don’t want a blank check. They want a useful conversation between professionals."

As part of the Best Foot Forward study by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, we spoke with teachers and observers across the country about their typical post-observation conversations. There is so much skepticism and defensiveness in these dialogues. For example:

[My administrator] said, ‘Well, how do you think you did?’ and [he gave] the thumbs-up. ... He goes, ‘I’m not worried about you.’ I guess it was a compliment. ‘If there are any questions, just email me.’ And I’m like ... '[T]he whole year really went by and ... this is what I’m getting?’

Teachers don’t want a blank check. They want a useful conversation between professionals.

When we spoke to administrators, we learned that few of them received formal training on feedback delivery. Instead, they relied on their impression of what good feedback sounds like, either learned through trial and error or recalled from the days when they were teachers. We might call this the “folkways of feedback.”

This raises the question: Do we know what an effective feedback conversation sounds like? There are a few things that education leaders might do to find out:

Listen in. Ask observers to audiotape feedback conversations for formative purposes. A cheap way to do this is with smartphones, but remote conversations can be recorded with webinar software, like Adobe Connect. With permission, those tapes can be used for administrator self-reflection, school-leader professional development, or feedback calibration. Observers and coaches want to get better, too.

Collect teacher-level satisfaction data. This is to identify those who are finding the feedback they receive useful. Even easier, ask teachers to nominate great feedback-givers. Find those exemplary coaches and administrators, and ask them to share what they are doing right.

Consider letting teachers videotape their own lessons. These tapes could then be submitted to observers. Many observation platforms allow for tagging comments onto specific moments of the video, closed-captioning style. Those comments can be audited and analyzed for quality. Moreover, in the Best Foot Forward study, we found that conversations following video observations were significantly less adversarial than those following in-person observations, as well as perceived as more useful overall.

If we expect teachers to grow, we must pay more attention to the quality of support they receive. Coaching, like teaching, involves a complex skill-set. Yet we do not spend nearly enough time giving feedback to our sector’s feedback-givers. For the sake of educators everywhere, let’s call it “quality assurance.”

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