5 Strategies to provide effective feedback for teachers
As a school leader, ensuring that I’m providing feedback for teachers that is effective and supportive is crucial. It’s a typical Tuesday morning for kindergarten teacher Mrs. Fletcher. She has her eighteen students sitting nicely on the large carpet at the front of the room with their iPads as she begins her daily math routine. As she sends out a Nearpod “Time to Climb” game to her students, her principal, Mrs. Maddox, unexpectedly walks in. She hadn’t been in her room all year. Mrs. Fletcher peeks up and sees her administrator slowly walk towards the side of the room, where she quietly sits at a small kindergarten sized chair. The teacher feels an uneasy wrenching in her stomach and she begins to stumble over her words as she talks to her students about the instructions for the game. The principal could be seen out of the corner of the teacher’s eye writing notes as she sat there. In what seemed like an hour, though was only three minutes, Mrs. Maddox leaves the room while putting a sticky note on Mrs. Fletcher’s table.
As a teacher, it can be intimidating to have your administrator walk into your classroom, especially if it is not a common practice. Anxiety can be driven even higher when they begin to write notes. Thoughts can go racing through a teacher’s mind and can turn into losing focus on the most important task in front of you, teaching your students. As a veteran teacher and now school administrator, my message is clear: Teachers should not have to fear you coming into their room.
This, of course, is easier said than done. Being watched or evaluated is certainly something that can drive nerves, especially for teachers that have had previously negative experiences, are new to the profession, or experience anxiety or stress. But as a school leader, it is our responsibility to create an atmosphere that supports growth and learning from one another, no matter who is in the room. This often comes in the form of coaching, but is rooted in a culture of trust and credibility.
I have worked hard across the schools I have been a leader in to build this trust and credibility with my teachers, so that my presence in the classroom is not seen as punitive or a distraction, but rather an opportunity to receive feedback and ideas for their classroom. The following are suggestions for school leaders and aspiring school leaders to build into their teacher coaching models:
1. Be Visible
It can be downright hard sometimes to get out of your office as an administrator. Phone calls, emails, meetings, and paperwork fill your agenda and before you know it, it’s almost time for dismissal. Visibility matters. Being present inside of classrooms and in the hallways helps inform you about what is happening across the school. To combat the difficulty of breaking free of the office, I used to block off between 30-90 minutes each day in my calendar that was solely dedicated to classrooms. That does not mean I could not spend more time with them, but I knew that if it was scheduled into my calendar, nothing else was going to get put on my schedule at that time. When I went into classrooms, I didn’t necessarily have an agenda. I sought out ways I could help a struggling student, or sometimes I would just enjoy the lesson and participate. The kids especially loved it when I would join them in a round of Time to Climb or Nearpod trivia slide. As a new administrator in a building, it’s a great way to get to know the students and teachers. The key was doing this daily. It was not a once a month or quarter surprise. Students and teachers became accustomed to seeing me and I made it clear that if I’m in the room, feel free to use me to help with whatever is going on.
2. Model, Model, Model
Credibility matters. People want to know that you’re not asking them to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself. One of the most important tenets of my leadership philosophy is never forgetting where the magic happens – in the classroom. The best way I can support that is to model the ways in which I want to have magic created. As a principal, I taught at least one lesson every week in a classroom. Sometimes it was a full lesson, other times it was just a quick read aloud. But the idea was that I wanted to model the engagement, rigor, questioning, and instructional strategies that I was asking my teachers to perform.
If I am being honest, though, I am not an expert in every grade level across every subject. This is where having something like Nearpod can be helpful. If the classroom teacher creates a Nearpod lesson and it’s not an area I am comfortable with, I can facilitate the learning through Nearpod and model classroom management and strategies versus trying to master the content. A question I often get asked when I discuss modeling lessons is “How did you get your teachers to let you teach?” For me, I started by offering it up to anyone interested. I had a few takers. From there, word got around that it was fun and a chance to watch someone else teach. After a while, I had more requests roll in, and then there were some classrooms where I made the call that they were going to have a model lesson in their room so a specific strategy could be demonstrated. Eventually, it simply became part of the school’s culture.
3. Coaching F.A.C.T.S.
Building credibility and visibility across the building gave me a leg up on eventually offering feedback for teachers on instruction I observed. When coaching is specific, actionable, fair, consistent, and timely (or rearranged as Fair, Actionable, Consistent, Timely, Specific = F.A.C.T.S), teachers see this feedback as opportunities for growth. Teachers were accustomed to having me in the classroom and many had seen me teach at this point. As a school leader, I needed to make sure that I was providing feedback for teachers now to improve the instruction across the building.
Here are five pillars towards providing your coaching feedback:
- When providing feedback for teachers, it needs to be specific. Vague comments like “More engagement is needed” or “Stronger classroom management” is unproductive towards improvement. Adjusting those comments to “Moving out from behind your desk will help allow you to move about the classroom” or “Let’s work together with coming up with a pencil sharpening routine so everyone is not standing in line” are more specific attempts at improvement.
- Effective feedback for teachers should be actionable. Putting timelines or expectations behind those comments will lead to quicker action. For example, “Please see me before school tomorrow so we can come up with the plan for sharpening pencils so you can introduce it at the start of the day” gives specific times and expectations for making the change. Obviously, some things will require longer, but actionable items help people make the task attainable.
- Of course, the actionable items and feedback need to be fair. Unreasonable goals or timelines set people up for failure, frustration, and pushes culture back steps. Again, using the previous example, if a statement like “You need to get rid of your desk and chair by lunchtime” was stated in response to better engagement, there would likely be resentment in that type of demand.
- Going back to previous commentary on credibility, feedback for teachers should be consistent. Popping in once a quarter or twice a year for mandatory observations does not give an adequate look at what is truly happening in the building. If you are going to give principal feedback to teachers about instruction, you need several data points to make an objective evaluation. Consistency in your feedback will show trends and opportunities for improvement over time. Using the aforementioned calendar approach is a helpful way to do that.
And finally, feedback should be timely. If you went up to a student and told them that you were disappointed in their behavior from last week, they might act confused or disconnected to the comments since it happened days ago. The same goes for our coaching. Feedback for teachers should be offered ideally within 24 hours, so it is still fresh in the minds of the teacher and administrator.
When coaching is specific, actionable, fair, consistent, and timely teachers see this feedback as opportunities for growth and not “gotcha” moments. Building a culture encompassing these principles allows for transparency and open discourse around best practices, which can yield improved achievement and outcomes.
4. Delivering the Feedback
Providing coaching feedback can come in a number of forms.
For me, I prefer less paper, so I have created walk-through forms using Google Forms, which automatically and immediately send my comments to the teacher upon pressing submit.
Within the form, I always leave a space for open response, so I can narrate my thoughts and observations beyond just a checkbox or radial button. I was always frustrated when I got teacher observation feedback that was marked simply “Exceeds” “Meets” or “Does not meet” on a question. It doesn’t give context around what you actually witnessed, so I aim to be descriptive and qualitative in my feedback in order to provide concrete commentary back to the teacher.
There are occasionally times where a face-to-face meeting is necessary in order to go more into depth with coaching. In those situations, I utilize a few strategies to make the meetings productive and positive for both parties. Sorry, no acronym for this one!
- First, when the situation calls for a face-to-face meeting, I typically hold it in their classroom. This allows the teacher to feel more comfortable since it is “their turf”. It also allows me to do the next thing: model and recreate situations. If I am referencing a specific moment in the class from my observation, it is easier to point to a desk or stand in a certain spot in the place where it actually happened. Materials are also more readily available inside the teacher’s classroom, which will help when you want to plan for a future lesson or go over what was done that day.
- When it comes to the conversation about giving feedback for teachers, my goal is to ask more questions than give answers. This reflective practice is what leads to self-discovery, which is far more powerful than me simply telling a teacher what needs to be fixed. For example, if during a remediation lesson I saw a teacher give every student in the class the same worksheet to practice, I would be concerned because there’s a chance that there were students in the class who were already proficient on the content based on the assessment results. Instead of simply explaining this, I may ask questions like “What trends did you notice based on the summative assessment?” or “Based on your data, what led you to use this worksheet for a review for all students?” Perhaps there was a good reason. Maybe the teacher did think this through, and questioning instead of telling opens the door for the teacher to explain their thinking. From there, we can have a conversation that stems from the teacher’s response.
- Before finishing any coaching meeting, I have two important practices that I employ. First, I work with the teacher on a realistic plan of action. Going back to the F.A.C.T.S. model for feedback for teachers, actionable items help facilitate progress. Establishing an agreed upon action, along with a timeline, provides accountability and focus moving forward. From the example above, if the teacher reflected and believed that their worksheet was not differentiated based upon the data, we might come up with an action item that said that tomorrow’s remediation materials would be differentiated based upon the specific needs of the student. It gives a specific action (differentiated materials) and a timeline (tomorrow’s lesson).
The second practice I end any coaching meeting with is with one simple phrase: What can I do to help you? I have found this phrase to be impactful because it shows that we are in this together. If we want our students to be successful, I need to make sure my teachers are fully supported. In asking this question over the years, I have had answers ranging from “I’m good” to supply requests to follow up meetings to help from specialists in the building. Who knows what you need better than you? Now, am I one hundred percent of the time able to fulfill the requests? No. But if I am not, I will work with my teacher on finding alternative ways to get what they need to be successful.
5. Follow up and check in
Finally, no coaching just “ends”. Just because a meeting is complete, it does not mean sudden change. Just because you come up with a plan of action, it does not mean it will be implemented. That is why following up and checking in with the teacher is so important. This can be part of the actionable steps before a meeting is complete. Establishing a follow-up meeting date, a scheduled observation, peer observation, or model lesson are good ways to put accountability on all parties to do the things they said they were going to do.
Mrs. Fletcher, our kindergarten teacher from the start of this piece, may forever be anxious when someone walks into her room, even with an outstanding principal. You may relate to her. As an administrator, my goal is to build relationships and trust with my staff so that even if my teacher does get a faster heartbeat when I walk in, it is not a fear of consequence or punishment that overcomes them. My hope is that coaching in my teachers’ eyes is seen as an opportunity for reflection, conversation, and growth.
Interested in reading more about this topic? Check out this blog post: 5 Steps to Building a Positive School Culture
Adam Dovico has served as a teacher, curriculum facilitator, principal, and college professor. He has traveled around the world conducting professional development for tens of thousands of educators. He is the author of three books: Inside the Trenches, The Limitless School, and When Kids Lead.