Feedback, Growth, and Positive Change in Teaching Communities

By Principal and Guest Blogger Derek McCoy

Change is hard. But change is also necessary for us to make a difference in the lives of students. We won’t be relevant if we don’t change practices from five years ago. We won’t create rigor if we don’t embrace new methodologies created from new understandings and technologies. Setting a vision is imperative for change — we have to know where we are going as a school. Along with the vision, we have to make sure we are well trained and well resourced. But all of these lead to some immediate questions:

  • How well do people understand what we’re trying to do?
  • Are we using the resource the right way?
  • Is this the right resource?
  • Are students engaged in class?
  • Are we seeing the student work and outcomes we want and need to see?
  • Did the training hit or miss the mark?

Reflecting on progress is essential to change and growth but can be a silo effort. Receiving feedback on our efforts is what moves the needle. Feedback can and needs to be a collaborative experience wherein both parties are focused on the learning and teaching in the room. If the student outcomes are not what we are looking for, then what does the person looking in see as gaps and opportunities we can capitalize on? Sometime we can be doing such a good job at something or have found a happy pattern that we don’t always see opportunities for improvement — and EVERYone has opportunities for improvement. Educators who think they don’t have opportunities for improvement are shortchanging students on next level learning and growth opportunities [OFIs].

The Threat of Feedback

Feedback is feared because it can feel evaluative. I have been giving feedback as a math department chair, instructional coach, Director of Curriculum and Innovation, assistant principal, and principal for many years. And every year, there are many conversation points that have to be repeated. None of us want to feel that we are doing a bad job — and hearing OFIs regarding an item we’ve put substantial energy and effort into can really hurt. That is where it is incumbent on the person giving feedback to over-communicate that the goal is not personal against a teacher but to build up student learning. Instead of pointing a finger and making someone feel less than, make them understand that this feedback begins a growth experience in which we both are involved.

The visual I like to use for feedback is instead of pointing in a direction and telling people where we are going [standing apart from them] I am wrapping my arm around their shoulder and having a conversation of fears and hopes all the while we are both stepping forward. Pace of progress is irrelevant — the relationship is most critical.

Over the years, I have had some experiences and training that have shaped my approach to giving feedback to teachers:

Coach, Don’t Correct

I’ve shared my professional experiences above and in each of those roles I’ve come to understand the different layers of conversation appropriate for each. In none of them, does it serve to denigrate or belittle anyone. “Correcting” can be a short conversation, coaching is a commitment to having several conversations about possibilities and options.

Data Collections Fuels PD

Since I’ve been a principal, we have always used Google Forms to collect data on classroom visits and provide feedback to teachers. I’ve enjoyed the script add-on Form-Mule to provide feedback to teachers but recently a PLN member Leslie Kinard (@lmkinard) helped me with some next level features using AutoCrat. With either of these, our instructional team regularly reviews our data to see our strengths/OFIs and plan PD or talks or other appropriate support. This keeps our focus strategic rather than reactionary.

False Positive Produces a False Mindset

Carol Dweck talks about the danger of hollow coaching and not providing productive feedback. The same applies when we are collaborating with teachers and ignore OFIs or only talk about less challenging things. We don’t want talks to be difficult, we just want teachers to grow — simply because student growth hinges on our growth.

Coach Your Coaches

I will be the first to admit that while I was unskilled at giving feedback, I very rarely broached OFIs with others. Different positions and roles don’t automatically imbue us next level skills, particularly in cognitive coaching. Be ready to have talks with your team about what, how, when, and why we have to have change conversations.

It takes a culture shift to make a staff ready to receive feedback on instructional changes but it absolutely has to happen. Here are several accelerators you can implement in your district:

  • Set a vision for feedback — What is the purpose of this feedback? Over-communicate to your staff that feedback is about growth and information, not evaluation. Openly communicate that everyone can grow and improve. We shouldn’t make growth about test scores alone. Looking at student learning happens through multiple lenses. Learning is not about test scores topping out, it’s about relevant experiences for students.
  • Share both the feedback tool and what is being looked for in visits. Take the mystery out of what is being looked for. As you set your vision, there should be benchmarks and goals to to reach. Is it what role can technology playing in the learning or how are students being empowered in the classroom [teacher-centered vs student-centered]. When we know the agreed upon goals, we will strive to accomplish them.
  • Make it about the conversation afterwards. Often when I go into follow up discussions, I don’t take notes or open my laptop. I make it about communicating and connecting — the most important thing on my mind is building up the person in the room to see the change in learning our students need and deserve.
  • Is there evidence of the professional development implemented? Use the data to make adjustments as needed. Not only are we attending to goals but teachers see a transparent system in place of responding to data.

I believe in my heart that every teacher wants to do the best he/she can for students and providing quality feedback is one of the best way to make that happen.

Derek McCoy is the principal of West Rowan Middle School in Rowan-Salisbury Schools in North Carolina. He is a presenter and trainer leadership and innovation learning strategies. In 2014, he was recognized as a National Digital Principal of the Year by NASSP. He can be reached at tweets at @mccoyderek. Learn more about his efforts:

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