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December 2015/January 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 4
Co-Teaching: Making It Work
How to give a colleague feedback that will both promote change and preserve your professional relationship.
It's human to want to feel competent. No one likes to be criticized, and we sometimes push back when we get feedback from a coworker that suggests our performance leaves room for improvement.
But the truth is, feedback is essential for individual growth and development. Without feedback, we educators really don't know whether our own perception of our performance is accurate or whether we're truly having the impact we desire.
In King Arthur's Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations, David Perkins1
claims there's good news and bad news about feedback:
The good news is that feedback is essential for individual, community, and organizational effectiveness and learning. The bad news is that feedback often flops, yielding no meaningful exchange of information and driving people apart. (p. 42)
Perkins says there are two components to a feedback exchange. One is the content—the message the person initiating the feedback (the observer) wants to deliver. The other is the relationship—how important the colleague on the receiving end of the feedback is to that observer.
If we focus only on content in delivering feedback, we may deliver a message that's too unfiltered, laying it on the line in a critical or judgmental way. This can feel painful to the person we're addressing and can provoke defensiveness and negativity. For instance, a teaching partner who hears this kind of feedback might dismiss the message and instead focus on all the reasons that she does things a certain way and why her current practice makes sense in the current situation.
Yet if we focus only on the relationship, our message often gets blurred or not heard at all. This often happens when we pair "warm" and "cool" feedback. Give your colleague "two glows and a grow," and he might either focus totally on the glows (dismissing the "grow") or obsess about the "grow" and not even hear the strengths mentioned—strengths that he could build on to improve.
A New Frame for Feedback
So when a teacher collaborating with a colleague (or two) has a concern, how can that teacher give feedback that the person will hear and accept as valid? What kind of feedback moves the hearer to take responsibility for making some changes?
Perkins suggests giving "communicative feedback" that "clarifies the idea or behavior under consideration, communicates positive features worth preserving … and poses concerns and/or suggestions toward improvement" (p. 46). I call messages with these qualities reflective feedback. This approach works well for opening up difficult conversations with colleagues and friends. And it's an excellent tool that teacher leaders can use to start professional conversations with their teams and that administrators can use to give feedback after observations or walk-throughs.
The approach starts with showing up with a positive mindset about the coworker. Begin with the belief that this teacher, like you, is capable and wants to do the best job possible. Your role is to focus on strengths and help your coworker add to the knowledge and skills he or she already has.
The reflective feedback frame uses three steps:
These three steps open up a conversation for giving constructive feedback, and each question or statement should take no longer than one minute! Ideally, this conversation won't involve giving a long list of examples justifying your observations or presenting your ideas for change. It will be about engaging the other person in thinking about his or her practice and owning its effect on students.
This kind of feedback is specific and builds on people's strengths. It changes the conversation from one in which the observer does all the talking (and thinking) to a dialogue. The person giving feedback speaks less than the person to whom the feedback is addressed.
The following anecdotes, composites of situations I've observed with clients, show reflective feedback in action. They reveal how a teacher who's concerned about a colleague's approach can move that colleague to thinking and action.
Kenny had been assigned as a mentor to Joyce, a new teacher at a suburban high school. Between them, they taught all the sophomore English sections and were responsible for implementing project-based learning in their instruction (a new district initiative that year).
At the end of the first grading quarter, Kenny noticed an obvious discrepancy in the quarterly grades that he and Joyce had given their students. It bothered him because he knew the classes were fairly even, heterogeneous groups. Was he being too easy in his grading of project work? Was Joyce being too hard?
Kenny knew the principal would be looking at this discrepancy. If it continued, parents would complain. So the following week when Kenny and Joyce met to co-plan instruction, he opened the discussion with, "Joyce, I've been looking at our grade reports for the first quarter. I've noticed a difference in the grades you and I have each given." With this statement, Kenny clarified the topic. He went on to a value statement: "I know you, like me, want the students to take this class seriously and do substantive work in these projects." Kenny then made a reflective proposal: "Can we talk about what grading criteria each of us uses for the student projects?"
Joyce described her criteria for grading projects, which were very similar to Kenny's. But then Joyce acknowledged that she was frustrated by the attitude of many students. They goofed off in class and didn't use their work time wisely. It appeared to her that many just threw something together at the last minute for their projects. So she'd begun to give greater weight to grades for participation and class behavior. She hoped this would get students to focus more on the knowledge and skills she expected in her class. Kenny listened to her, and their dialogue proceeded like this:
Kenny: It sounds like you're wanting to get the students' attention through the grading process. And the emphasis on class behavior is really pulling down the overall grades for some students. Something that helps me sustain students' interest in the project work over time is to break the larger project into smaller chunks, so I can give grades and feedback all along the way.
Joyce: I've thought about doing that but figured that would just give me more grading to do.
Kenny: Well maybe you could use a student-to-student review process for "grading" some of those chunks. I've done some of that. But mostly what I do is walk around the room as students work and give feedback informally. That seems to help keep them engaged throughout. What do you think might help the students become more engaged in their project work along the way?
Kenny started this conversation from the perspective of curiosity—not judgment. As he and Joyce shared ideas for grading and helping students sustain interest in work over time, both gained from their exchange.
Grace, a teacher on the 8th grade team of a school in "corrective action" because students hadn't made adequate yearly progress, found the reflective approach invaluable. The school's scores were close to where they needed to be, but they hadn't made adequate progress because of one subpopulation's scores in reading and two groups' scores in math. Grace was passionate about achieving student success, and she knew it would take a team effort to do it.
By February of the school year, the teachers saw from their midterm testing that they weren't getting the results they needed. Several team members seemed cynical, joking that they just needed "better-quality kids" to get the results they wanted.
Grace was frustrated. She knew the school couldn't successfully teach all students until every teacher believed it was possible to get good results from the students they served. She wanted her teammates to give their hearts to this work—not be cynical. But as one person, what could she do?
Grace had read in literature about change that what people complain about gives clues to what they care about. She guessed that her colleagues' sarcastic complaining was a sign that they weren't feeling competent themselves—competent to engage boisterous, assertive kids who weren't mastering the material.
Looking closely at the data, Grace noticed that many students who struggled but who were shy or late bloomers (those considered "quirky") were generally doing OK. She decided to use that strength to start the conversation the next time her team met. At the next meeting, Grace posed a clarifying question that made her beliefs explicit, followed by a value statement and proposal:
It's going to take real effort on the part of each of us to get our school out of corrective action. I've noticed that we seem able to teach many of our shy students and our late bloomers to do fine on the assessments. I'm wondering what we do specifically with these kids that helps them. Could we apply some of that insight to helping our more boisterous students who are failing?
Team members begin to discuss strategies that had worked for each of them to help the quieter struggling learners in their classrooms—and that might work for less quiet "difficult" kids who were falling behind. One teacher noted that she made an effort to have personal conversations with the shy students to draw them out. Another said she informally diagnosed the learning styles of the "quirky" kids so she could plan instruction that might engage them more, and another often gave these students choices of how to demonstrate their knowledge on assessments.
Before long, they had a big list and the beginning of a commitment to try some of these strategies to address tough learning challenges together. Teachers' comments began to show recognition that no one silver bullet meets the learning needs of every student but that all students can be successful.
Grace opened up an ongoing conversation. Rather than casting blame on others, she took ownership for her part in the problem and stepped up to the responsibility of finding a solution—jointly. Grace's approach also kept the problem separate from the people. She showed up with the belief that her team, working together, could get the results they wanted.
School leaders can use reflective feedback to help teacher teams collaborate. Susan, an instructional coach in an elementary school, hoped to help teams of teachers plan and implement project-based learning in their classrooms. One 4th grade team—composed of a veteran teacher, a brand new teacher, the Title I teacher, and an English as a second language (ESL)teacher—wasn't functioning well.
Maggie, the veteran, dominated conversations with her project ideas. The others remained mostly silent. So co-planning usually revolved around Maggie's ideas. But then the other teachers would complain to the principal—and Susan—that they had no voice and wanted a new team assignment.
The next time Susan met with this team, she gave this feedback:
I've noticed that most of the time there are few ideas suggested here for project work. From my experience, the most effective teams consider many different project ideas and incorporate pieces from many of them to design specific projects. I know each person on this team wants to engage your kids in this learning as effectively as possible. What might be some planning norms you could set as a team to ensure that you consider multiple ideas, share your perspectives, and end up with high energy when planning projects?
For the next 20 minutes, these teachers discussed meeting norms. They talked about times when they'd been part of design meetings that went well—and they began speaking about how they each approached planning meetings. The new teacher didn't feel she had much to offer. The ESL and Title I teachers believed their role was to offer support, not direct the planning. And Maggie admitted she just wanted a decision to be made, so when others were silent, she jumped in to fill the gap.
The team members suggested planning norms that incorporated each person's ideas. Susan acted as scribe and promised to bring their ideas back to the next meeting for the team to consider further and adopt as their method of planning. Susan had opened up a safe, neutral space for team members to talk about a problem. She gave the work back to the teachers.
Conversations involving difficult feedback are never easy, but good frames can help you enter them without immediately igniting defensiveness. Then it takes a positive mindset and curiosity to move through the conversation. Leave the majority of talk time for the other person and really listen. By speaking your truth honestly and listening to the truths of others, you'll help the conversation become more authentic and your relationships become deeper and more trusting. You truly can learn to say what you mean without being mean!
Author's note: Although these examples reflect real situations, all names are pseudonyms.
In one 3rd grade classroom where I was the special education teacher, the general education teacher and I had different teaching philosophies—everything from how we designed our lessons to how we gave incentives and administered consequences. Often, we clashed. For example, I would greet our scholars at the door because I believed that providing them with a personal greeting from their teacher set the tone for the day and the culture of the classroom, whereas she believed that greeting scholars at the door was wasting instructional time. We were complete opposites!
We also had different understandings of our roles. In addressing students' individualized education program (IEP) goals, she would say, "Well you're the special ed teacher—I don't have anything to do with that." Even when we placed scholars in small groups, I noticed that she would give me those who had IEPs, and she would never work with them. That was just not OK. It was like we were segregating kids in the classroom. These were our kids—not her kids or my kids.
When things went awry in the classroom—a student didn't sit down or didn't take out a notebook immediately—her first response was, "This student may need special education." At that point, I had to have a conversation with her. But instead of saying, "You're wrong," I asked, "What can we do to help this student before referring him for special education?"
That began to open up the opportunity for dialogue, when she said, "Wow … we haven't tried anything." We went on to talk about what we could do differently to make that child successful.
Eventually, we ended up coming together. One day I said to myself, "I have to get into her thinking because we have to get along." I asked her to have lunch with me, and she obliged. My goal was not to talk about work, but just to get to know her—what growing up was like for her and why she believed the things she did. Gradually, as we shared our feelings, we were able to come to an agreement about what was best for the scholars. Because it was not about us; it was about the scholars. From that day forward, we had lunch together every day, and I realized she was a different person outside work.
Relationship building takes time; it doesn't happen overnight. That's what some people don't understand. It's like any other relationship—if you're not communicating or being open to the differences you each bring to the classroom, that's not a healthy relationship, and it's going to fall apart. You have to allocate time to discuss your strengths, preferences, likes, and dislikes with each other. Effective planning is not seeing each other in passing during third period and planning whimsically by saying, "Hey, we're doing osmosis today, right? OK, great, see you then."
Forced relationships such as co-teaching can be very difficult if you both come from and have different cultural beliefs and ideologies. I learned a long time ago, it's better to understand than to be understood. Once we understand each other's differences and strengths, it shifts our thinking, and our actions so we can embrace diversity and build tolerance.
Karen Baptiste is an associate at the Center for Transformative Teacher Training and formerly worked as a special education instructional manager in the New York City Department of Education. She is a 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader and currently serves on the Legislative Committee.
Perkins, D. (2003). King Arthur's round table: How collaborative conversations create smart organizations. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Perkins, D. (2003). King Arthur's round table: How collaborative conversations create smart organizations. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Marceta Reilly is a leadership coach and author of several books, most recently, with Linda Gross Cheliotes, Opening the Door to Coaching Conversations (Corwin, 2012).
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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