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April 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 7

Creating a Culture of Feedback

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Three ingredients for feedback that resonates.

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According to a 2019 Gallup study, only 26 percent of employees strongly agree that the feedback they receive helps them to produce better work (Wigert & Dvorak). In the book, Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen state, "When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn't good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn't good at giving it" (p. 3).
If leaders expect the feedback they give to translate to improved results, they need to practice delivering it in such a way that others are willing to receive it and act on it. As I've learned throughout my career as a school and district administrator, for feedback to build capacity—and, ultimately, to improve student achievement—leaders must (1) build a culture that supports effective feedback, (2) frame critical feedback with care, and (3) put steps in place to ensure the feedback sticks.

1. Build a Culture That Values Effective Feedback

Teachers won't be receptive to your feedback if they don't believe you have their best interests in mind. To create an environment that thrives on using feedback for growth, allow your staff to VET (visibility, engagement, talking) who you are as a leader.

Visibility is key.

People in any organization need to see their leader often. If your role is to provide feedback that is focused on supporting the growth of your direct reports, make yourself present where they work. It is very difficult to provide constructive feedback, especially feedback based on patterns of behavior or practices, if you take a drive-by approach.
Schedule time on your calendar to be present in various parts of the building so your staff gets equal attention. For example, if your 6th grade teachers or the entire math department is on the second level of the school, spend at least 10–15 minutes observing each of those teachers in action and provide them with immediate feedback. You can leave a sticky note on their desk, send an email, fill out an electronic feedback form—unrelated to the formal evaluation system you use—or leave a voicemail. This informal feedback is similar to how a coach provides feedback to an athlete—short, focused, and timely.
During these informal interactions, reinforce the positive practices you see. Spending time in classrooms—just being present—gives you the opportunity to notice the subtle things that make a big difference in student learning: Like the way a teacher opens and closes a lesson, gives students feedback, or transitions the class between activities. Ensure that teachers see your presence in classrooms as nonthreatening.

Engage in collegial conversations.

As you spend time observing teachers in different parts of your building, analyze the trends you see and adjust accordingly. Listen to learn about their passions and the areas in which they are seeking to grow. Take mental notes and later provide resources to help them further their knowledge and skills. Follow up throughout the year and express interest in informally seeing their work in action. You might be surprised by how often you will be invited into classrooms to observe learning and share your insights.

Talk about your own areas of growth.

Modeling your growth process is an effective strategy for building a culture of learning. When I was a principal, for example, I shared my goal of visiting classrooms more often, why I wanted to grow in this area, and the specific actions I was going to take to achieve this goal. Through informal surveys and focus groups, I asked teachers to provide feedback on the frequency of my informal classroom visits and the impact my presence was having in their classrooms. In return, I was transparent with them about the challenges I was having visiting classrooms on a consistent basis.
Practicing vulnerability demonstrates to your staff that you, too, are willing to put yourself out there for the sake of improvement.

2. Frame Critical Feedback with Care

Giving critical feedback to an underperforming teacher is considered by some to be the instructional leader's "most difficult job" (Hall, 2019). But it's a part of the job that you can't opt out of. The only way to get better at providing critical feedback is to practice giving it in a way that it can be received. It is not what you say, but how you say it that matters. Your tone and body language play a critical role in how your feedback is received.
Reflect on the following: Will the teacher perceive the feedback you are conveying to be helpful or harmful? Will they believe that you are committed to supporting them throughout the growth process, or are you too focused on documenting the problem? Keep these questions in mind as you plan your discussion and ensure that you focus on providing support and partnership.

Feedback with Empathy

Going into a feedback session with an empathetic lens can help you filter your words to be kind but direct.

Manage your emotions.

Typically, critical feedback is given in response to behavior that is unproductive or detrimental to the organization. This means that emotions on both sides tend to run high. When planning your feedback session, acknowledge any feelings that may arise—and be specific about how you'll keep them in check. Some strategies to stay calm:
  • Practice breathing techniques. Before a tense feedback session, focus on your breathing to ground yourself in the present moment. Try breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of eight for a few minutes (Seppälä, Bradley, & Goldstein; 2020). It can also be helpful to bring attention to your breath and posture during a meeting.
  • Practice silence. It's OK not to respond to every statement that is being made. Making room for silence can help you be a more intentional listener.
  • Repeat a mantra. When engaged in a difficult conversation (with anyone, really), try repeating a phrase in your head as a reminder to stay centered and focused. Create a mantra such as "This will pass" or "This isn't about me" (Gallo, 2017).
  • Take a break. In sports, coaches get several opportunities to call a timeout when the game is getting away from the team. If you feel that the feedback session is becoming too tense or unproductive, call a timeout. State the reason why the break is needed and reconvene in 5–10 minutes—or even the next day depending on the need.

Plan and practice.

Prior planning for formal feedback meetings shows that you care about the outcome, the person receiving the feedback, and the progress you are seeking. It also forces you to identify your objective and goals.
Consider the following practice tips:
  • Ensure that the conversation is not one-sided. You should not be the only person speaking if your goal is for the teacher to act on the feedback given. Prepare questions ahead of time that are aligned to your objective and that elicit reflection.
  • Practice your words aloud. This can help you identify unproductive words or phrases that might come up. Some to avoid include: "No offense, but …", "I'm sure you can agree.", and "In my opinion …."
  • Plan for unexpected turns. Try to anticipate the many directions in which the conversation could go. You may not be perfect in predicting the course of the discussion, but at least you will have spent time brainstorming ways to respond to different scenarios.
  • Don't be rigid or overly focused on your script. Being scripted makes the conversation about you and your emotions; it prevents you from demonstrating leadership agility. Use your script as a flexible guide and be nimble in your approach.
  • Close your feedback session with clearly defined next steps (unless processing time is needed). Consider asking questions like: How can I help? What can we commit to?

Shift your perspective.

Finally, try to take the perspective of the person in front of you. Going into a feedback session with an empathetic lens can help you filter your words to be kind but direct. Once the session starts, pay close attention to the person who is speaking and try to identify the fear and anxieties that may be surfacing. Remember, you are only seeing a fraction of what they may be experiencing internally as they listen to your feedback. If possible, seek to address any surface fears in a productive way.

Practicing vulnerability demonstrates to your staff that you, too, are willing to put yourself out there for the sake of improvement.

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Sanée Bell

Make sure you stay focused on changing behavior rather than fixing the person. Practice active listening skills by maintaining eye contact, using wait time before responding, and reframing the situation so that it is moving in a productive direction. After identifying a behavior or practice that needs to change, work with the teacher to develop a plan focused on improvement.
Feedback should move a conversation from discovery to action—yet delivering it is more art than science. Always leave those you lead with dignity and hope after a critical feedback session.

3. Ensure the Feedback Sticks

For feedback to make a difference, we must be mindful of relational contexts and ensure that teachers have time and space to understand it and integrate it into their practice.

Be aware of identity factors.

I was once in a feedback session with a teacher that seemed to be going well. We both identified the same areas of focus for growth and came up with a plan of action. I thought the session was productive and positive; however, as we were wrapping up, the teacher asked me, "Are you not happy with me as a teacher?"
I was baffled because in my mind, I had done everything "by the book." That is, everything except consider how this teacher's identity was going to be impacted by my feedback. Teaching is a personal endeavor. So much about what we do as educators is tied to who we are and what we believe about ourselves. This was a veteran teacher who was new to our campus. He did not know me as a leader or my approach to partnering with teachers.
When I later reflected, I realized that though this teacher agreed with me verbally, he was probably acting out of compliance rather than true understanding. I was able to identify where I made some critical mistakes in my haste to "fix" this teacher. I had not spent enough time establishing a collegial relationship with him. Because he was experienced, I assumed that rapport could be developed at a quicker pace. It would have been useful in hindsight to have conducted more informal visits in the teacher's classroom before the formal observation.

Allow time for teacher self-assessment.

Prior to the scheduled feedback session, develop some questions around what you observed in the classroom, including the outcome of the lesson, the work students were engaged in, and the behavior demonstrated by the students. Too often leaders dive right in to explaining the rating of an observation without taking the time to process the lesson with the teacher.
Ask questions that promote deeper analysis:
  • What worked well in the lesson you delivered?
  • How did the students demonstrate their learning of the content?
  • What aspects of the lesson would you change? Why?
Asking questions leads to dialogue and self-discovery about what is working and what can be refined. Prior to sharing observation data with the teacher, give them the opportunity to self-assess where they feel their lesson scored based on the rubric. Then discuss how your observation results align with or differ from the teacher's self-assessment.

Allow time to practice.

To master a new skill, one must practice intensively for several hours (or 10,000 hours for complex skills, if you ask Malcom Gladwell). After providing teachers with feedback, allocate time for them to practice their new learning.
During this practice period, work with them to identify resources or support they might need. Allow them to give you the green light indicating when they are ready for you to return to observe and provide additional feedback. Remember, "bite-sized" change can be more easily managed and can build efficacy. Help teachers to set a goal and schedule progress checks along the way.

Allow time to reflect.

It's not always necessary to immediately discuss next steps. Space for deeper reflection can give us an opportunity to consider the next course of action. Rushing through is an invitation for the teacher to dismiss your feedback. If the feedback session was emotionally heavy, give the teacher time to process it. Schedule a follow-up meeting to collaboratively create next steps.

From Good to Great

As a former athlete, coach, and now sports enthusiast, I've spent a great deal of time watching how athletes are coached. I love to analyze coaching moves and the adjustments that the athlete or team makes in response. Some coaches are masterful in this craft, while others are still trying to figure it out. Each coach is different, as are the players they are coaching. To get the best performance out of their athletes, coaches must use a variety of feedback techniques.
The same is true for educational leaders. Get to know your staff, their strengths and opportunities for growth, how they respond to feedback, and the type of feedback they need. Leading is coaching; it is being able to skillfully deliver feedback in a way that impacts performance.
We must tread cautiously, however. Teachers need to feel respected, to have a voice in feedback sessions, and to be given time to practice and reflect. These are the ingredients of a true partnership centered on learning.
References

Gallo, A. (2017, December 1). How to control your emotions during a difficult conversation. Harvard Business Review.

Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The story of success. Back Bay Books.

Hall, P. (2019). The instructional leader's most difficult job. Educational Leadership76(6).

Seppälä, E., Bradley, C., & Goldstein, M. R. (2020, September 29). Research: Why breathing is so effective at reducing stress. Harvard Business Review.

Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2015). Thanks for the feedback. Portfolio Penguin.

Wigert, B., & Dvorak, N. (May 16, 2019). Feedback is not enough. Gallup.

Sanée Bell is a central office administrator and former principal. She is the author of Be Excellent on Purpose: Intentional Strategies for Impactful Leadership (Lead Forward, 2019).

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