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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

Principal Connection / Reaching Out for Feedback

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Are you better at your job now than you were a year ago? How about three years or five years ago?
That's a relevant question regardless of how good you are now or how good you were then. After all, principals should become better at our work as years go by because we learn from our experiences and because we understand more about how students learn. Plus, we should set the tone; if we expect our students and their teachers to grow, we should be growing, too. It should be apparent to others that we're always improving.
But schools are remarkably insular institutions, so "Have I improved?" is an especially difficult question for principals. Sure, schools are filled with people. But despite the schoolwide assemblies, faculty meetings, and crowded halls, much of what principals do is unseen and unknown by other adults. A big portion of our time is spent in individual or small-group meetings; working on the computer (writing reports and feedback from observations); supporting committee work; or e-mailing—as well as playing the important yet superficial roles of monitor, greeter, and tour guide. Typically, my important work takes place when I'm alone—reading, thinking, or writing to know what I am thinking. My mom used to ask, "What do you do all day?" and she wasn't alone in wondering.
Because much of what principals do isn't obvious to others, the comments we get about our performance are often unhelpful (plus, people are quicker to complain than to compliment). This lack of feedback from those with whom we work most closely makes it hard to know if we are improving.

Reach Out and Ask

So what can we do? First, we must remember that leadership doesn't come from a title or position. Leadership is based on relationships, and we need to be sure that we have strong and positive relationships with those with whom we work. We can't rely on the smiley faces people put in e-mails or an absence of complaints. Periodically asking colleagues how they perceive us is an essential step.
You might construct a multi-item questionnaire through an online application that offers anonymity, like Or, at the end of a faculty meeting, distribute index cards with boxes people can check indicating how they would respond to various questions. Questions like, "Are my expectations clear and realistic?" "Do I provide good feedback and positive reinforcement?" and "Can I be trusted?" will tell you how your colleagues see you. Questions like, "How could I help you more?" or "How might I provide support?" (which will require offering some way for people to anonymously give longer answers) can show the path to improvement. Ask for specific suggestions about what you could do differently. (Yes, I know this takes courage, but whenever I do so, once I've picked myself up off the floor, the gains are worth the price!)
Having teachers identify what you should start, stop, and continue doing is an effective way to solicit their thoughts. Teachers tell me they find it easier to respond to such "stop-sign" words than to identify my strengths and weaknesses, even though the two methods may end up offering the same information. Such questions can engender rich discussions. Sometimes simply asking brings progress because it tells others that you want to hear what they are thinking.
Be prepared for comments that are difficult to hear. Although it's gratifying to know what others see as our strengths, it's critically important that we know what they see as our challenges—even if we don't agree (especially if we don't agree). When feedback hurts, resist the temptation to discount it. Consider what caused that person's perception.

Find a Coach

Once you've learned what areas you're strong in and what areas you could improve in, identify someone who can help you improve. That's not easy given the isolated nature of school leadership, but it can be done.
Surgeon Atul Gawande provides a model for recruiting someone to help improve your practice. In an article for The New Yorker, he noted that for some time he'd been reflecting on his performance and wondering if he would benefit from working with a coach: "Like most work, medical practice is largely unseen by anyone who might raise one's sights. I'd had no outside ears and eyes." Gawande pointed out that professional tennis players and singers retain coaches throughout their careers, noting that "Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They're not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy."
Gawande, who had performed more than 2,000 operations, invited a retired surgeon to observe him in the operating room and give him feedback on his surgical techniques. Although he felt vulnerable being observed by another person, he received helpful feedback from this fellow professional.
This kind of coaching could be enormously helpful to principals because we also have "no outside ears and eyes." Consider how you might try it. Could you ask someone to join you in a meeting you're leading and give you feedback afterwards, including things you might have done differently? Or have a colleague observe you observing a teacher and give their take on the feedback you offered? Perhaps you and another principal might visit one another in action and offer mutual feedback, or you might invite a nearby professor to observe you for a few hours several times during the year. Trust is important in such a relationship, so a coach who isn't a supervisor, like a retired principal or trusted colleague, will be less threatening and may encourage more risk taking.
An affirmative answer to the question "Have I improved?" will come through seeking feedback and identifying someone with whom you can work one-on-one. Who could be your coach?
End Notes

1 Gawande, A. (2011, October 3). Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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