Monday, November 21, 2016

Six tips for providing constructive feedback to teachers

 
If you're a new instructional coach, and you're reading this in real time, it's November. Even if you're not a new coach, but you're reading this in real time, it's still November.

It's been a couple months since school started, and there's still a very long way to go. This can be a good thing: you have time to make a difference in the teachers and students on your campus. This can be a scary thing: you have months and months of work left to do. 

Half glass full or half empty? You choose.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I have 900 million things on my to-do list, that's when I start to get a tiny bit crabby. Just a teeny weensy bit snotty. A teensy eensy bit (imagine me holding two fingers verrrrrrry close together) irritable. Sometimes the things that float around in my head when I'm extra crabby threaten to pop out of my mouth when I'm extra crabby and underwater with work to boot.

But we can't have that. 

Because if you say snotty, crabby, irritable things, you will not be able to make an impact on your campus. No one wants to listen to someone who makes them feel bad. That's pretty much human nature, and I think we can all agree that you can't blame people who just want to be treated decently.

Even if they don't treat you decently. Yes, even then. Especially then, maybe, it's important to ensure that you are in charge of the words that leave your mouth.

When it comes to working with teachers, you are building a bridge from you to them, and every act you do, gesture you make, and words you utter can either add a plank to that bridge, or it can rip pieces of your bridge right off and toss them down the river. 

Which is where you'll be if nobody wants to listen to the support you have to offer.

This isn't meant to be threatening! However, it is meant to be serious: you must speak carefully to teachers. Teachers, like kids, are people. And Relationships (with a capital R) come first.

However, part of your job as a coach is to provide feedback to teachers about their teaching and push the envelope a little. This might be in several different contexts, including when you facilitate planning sessions, RtI recommendations, as part of the coaching cycle, or little hallway conversations where teachers are either seeking help or avoiding it.

In our position, we must always consider the teacher's point of view. You are asking them to question, reflect, and adjust their teaching. You don't work with the teacher's group of kids day in and day out, and you're not facing the same obstacles that he or she is. So it's important to value the teacher's input and reasoning about why things are working a certain way in his or her classroom. And before you have any coaching conversation, ensure that it's a good time for the teacher. Don't just pop up in her doorway when she's on her way to run to the bathroom before wolfing down a frozen lasagne in thirteen minutes.

These are a few of the tips that have helped me provide feedback in a respectful, kind, yet firm way to help guide teachers into deeper reflection and response to situations in their classrooms. 


1. Be a good listener.
If you're not listening - and I mean really listening, you won't be very helpful. Good listeners pay attention not only to the words that are used but to the intent behind the words. So think about the words and the context of the words. Look at the teacher. Nod when appropriate. Control your facial expressions. If you think, "I'd never do that!" and it shows up on your face as incredulity, you are not being a good listener. Model respect before you expect to be treated with respect.



2. Try a noticing:
If I've seen something in action during a lesson that I think needs to be addressed in order to help the teacher, I'll say, "I'm noticing that..." For example, if kids continue talking while a teacher is trying to give directions or instruction, I'll say, "I'm noticing that some students listen to your instructions, but there are a few who keep talking during that time."


3. Ask a question.
Ask, "Have you noticed that before?" or "Does that often happen?" to see what the teacher can tell you about the situation.
Dig a little deeper into the problem by asking, "Why do you think that's happening?" "Have you noticed a pattern?" "Is this something you're currently working on with kids?"



4. Don't let the conversation be sidetracked.
If it's important enough to bring it up, it's important enough to ensure that it gets addressed. If the conversation is moving into, "The kids just don't want to," or, "Let me tell you about all the other stuff I've got to do," you'll have to steer it back to the important topic at hand. You might say, "Ok, I can see you've got a lot going on. So, about that question I asked you earlier..." and restate your question. 
Be confident and firm, while being reasonable and understanding. You're doing this to support teachers, and to support kids through their work in the classroom. 

5. Dig down to next steps.
If the whole conversation floats around the idea that the kids are the problem and that there's really nothing that can be done, then what have you accomplished? Absolutely nothing. One of the things I used to say to teachers (and remind myself of when I was a classroom teacher) is, "The only person I can control in this classroom is myself."

And guess what? It's still true! Teachers can't control kids. But they can adjust their methods to make sure they are doing whatever they can to reach kids. So the constructive feedback you're providing to teachers needs to end with a next step, or else nothing came out of a very uncomfortable conversation. I often say, to get to that point, "So what can we do in order to..." or "Do you have any ideas on what we can do to help kids..." or "What might you try to support students in..." These kinds of questions serve to help teachers stop and think about the actions they can take to meet students' needs. 

6. Provide suggestions when the teacher is stumped.
Sometimes the teacher is dealing with a situation that they've already tried to solve to no avail. I know that there were times when I went to my own coach to say, "I'm not sure what to do. Am I doing the right thing?"

If that's where the teacher is, don't be afraid to suggest something that could help him or her. Say, "One thing you might try is..." or "I recently read about..." to be non-threatening while pushing the envelope a little. You can refer back to a training that you've given by saying, "Remember when we learned about ... Do you think that might work in your class?"

You can also offer help. "What can I do to help you with this initiative?" or "Is there something I can do to help?"
Rehearsing your communication in the car on your way to work can help! Think about the sensitive messages you have to send and plan a supportive approach to share them with the teacher.
Being a coach isn't always the most comfortable place to be. Sometimes it requires us to say things we'd rather not say. By cultivating a supportive, kind, yet firm approach when communicating with teachers, especially about the sensitive issues they're dealing with on a daily basis, you can make a positive impact on your teachers, students, and your campus as a whole.

And it'll keep you from being just an eensy weensy bit snotty.
 
 Looking for more? Check out my new ebook: The Start-Up Guide to Instructional Coaching on TPT!

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