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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Laying the Groundwork for Teacher Feedback

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I'm glad that's over."
Those words could be uttered by many principals and teachers after a post-observation feedback session. Both are often equally relieved to have the whole meeting behind them.
Maybe that's because none of us likes being in a position of giving or receiving critical feedback. When we work with people we like, we want them to like us. Too often, evaluators describe in great detail what the teacher's doing well, but their feedback regarding areas of needed growth is vague and less useful.
Leaders might ask teachers to "tighten up their pacing" or "work on building a classroom community" or "make sure students are engaged," but they don't always give teachers specific data and suggestions that can actually produce improvement. Understandably, this kind of feedback can leave teachers feeling defensive or at a loss for what to do next. If you've ever been asked, "Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it," then you know you haven't given the kind of feedback that's likely to lead to improvement.
At Health Sciences High and Middle College, we reached a turning point through work with Jennifer Abrams (2009) on having hard conversations. Following a book study, Jennifer presented to all the faculty members during a professional development session. She taught us how to identify specific actions that were of concern and what we could do to remedy the situation. We role-played and practiced a range of situations, from receiving an unintentionally hurtful comment to observing a colleague who needs to improve his or her teaching quality. Because of this work, our school chose to add "honest, humane, and growth-producing conversations occur regularly" to the expectations we have for one another.
This dialogue begins long before post-observation meetings. Here's how one school leader, assistant principal Will Mellman, laid the groundwork for productive feedback conversations.

Develop a Shared Sense of Good Teaching

Anyone who has been around classrooms as a student, parent, teacher, or administrator believes that he or she knows what good teaching looks like. But scratch just below the surface, and you'll find quite a few different definitions of good teaching. Is the classroom quiet and orderly, or is there a buzz of productive noise? Is the teacher delivering direct instruction at the front of the classroom, or is it hard to spot the teacher because he or she is sitting at a table with several students? Reaching agreement on the most effective, research-based teaching practices is an important step toward improving instruction schoolwide.
At the beginning of the school year, Will formed a professional book club with the new mathematics faculty. He selected Better Learning Through Structured Teaching (Fisher & Frey, 2013) to discuss the gradual-release-of-responsibility instructional framework that our school has adopted.
During several lunch sessions, he and the other book club members discussed the theoretical underpinnings and practical applications of the framework's components—clearly established purpose, teacher modeling, guided instruction, productive group work, and independent learning—and shared insights about specialized applications in mathematics. During the school year, Will led learning walks with the new math teachers through other content classrooms to build a broader sense of how these instructional moves thread throughout the curriculum.

Build Relationships Through Routines

At the same time, Will adopted the practice of making rounds. Just like hospital physicians check in regularly but briefly with their patients, he visits the new math teachers' classrooms nearly every day (Fisher, Frey, & Pumpian, 2012). He asks, "What would make your job easier?" or "Who has been of help to you, so that I can recognize them?"
He intersperses these daily rounds with informal 10- to 15-minute observations. These are not times to fill out evaluation forms; Will comes equipped only with notecards and envelopes. Before leaving, he writes a short thank-you note to the teacher, along with a question inquiring about what happened next in the lesson or how the teacher assessed the learning. These notes result in hallway conversations and e-mail replies that deepen professional relationships.

Use Social Media to Share Practices

Over time, the book club conversations have shifted from face-to-face to virtual. Will uses the school's learning management system (LMS) to warehouse short videos of classroom practices among the teachers. Either he or the instructional technology coordinator film, lightly edit, and post the videos on the LMS for the mathematics team to watch. Part of each department meeting is devoted to discussion of these practices. As a result, the team is building an archive of materials to support one another.

Forge Group Identity

Will communicates with the mathematics team every week about logistics, upcoming events, and areas of focus. Many administrators do this, but Will makes sure that he uses these regular communications to build the team's identity, too. He addresses them in e-mails as "Nation Builders" to forge their collective sense of efficacy. He and county math coordinator Melinda Shacklett guided them in writing a vision for what "the best math instruction in the universe" would look like, including descriptions of high-quality instructional tasks (Munter, 2014). Perhaps most important, the teachers have outlined their own expectations of themselves to strengthen a classroom community:
The teacher creates …
  • Enthusiasm and passion from students.
  • A well-structured environment.
  • Academic and behavioral supports to foster success.
  • A growth mind-set among students.
  • Risk taking and a culture of error (productive failure).
  • A superbly managed classroom.

Move on to Productive Evaluation Conversations

During the second semester of the school year, more formal teacher observations are initiated. The groundwork laid during the first half of the year will undoubtedly help Will host humane, growth-producing conversations. With the vision statement that teachers themselves developed in hand, this administrator can tie his observational data and feedback to their stated goals.
In the that accompanies this column, you can watch how Will supports one of the mathematics teachers, Joseph Assof, in his professional growth. The lesson Will has observed was a review for an assessment. Joseph is pleased that his students assumed more responsibility for their learning and that he was able to target a review based on what his students knew and did not know. But Will notes that the purpose was focused on students completing the task rather than on what they were supposed to be learning. Their conversation, which is positive and growth-producing, results in a renewed commitment for the teacher to ensure that the purpose for learning is always relevant for students.

Abrams, J. (2009). Having hard conversations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., &, Pumpian, I. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Munter, C. (2014). Developing visions of high-quality mathematics instruction. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 45(5), 484–635.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.


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