When I began teaching, I didn’t have the confidence I have today. Wanting to do a good job, I was always eager to receive feedback, and I sought it from supervisors and colleagues I worked with closely. Unfortunately, some of the feedback I received then didn’t come from a good place or at all other than my annual evaluation.
Other times, feedback I received was just praise that affirmed something done well but did very little to help me improve my practice and teaching confidence. I needed understandable and actionable feedback. As a result, my early teaching experience was plagued with uncertainty about my abilities. Since then, my coaching work has shown me that many other teachers also struggle to get reliable feedback that addresses their most significant concerns from their building administrators.
Recently, I presented at a conference for Virginia school superintendents on ways to improve teacher retention and job satisfaction—effective feedback strategies for teachers were at the top of the list. With many contemplating leaving teaching, the organizers wanted to promote awareness of possible intrinsic motivations that administrators could leverage for improving teaching conditions in their schools. I thought it essential to uplift how teachers’ beliefs about their abilities can determine if they stay in the profession, which many in attendance found fascinating.
According to the Why Teach Survey compiled by LKMco and Pearson, the top reasons for people becoming teachers were the desire to make a difference in the lives of students and the belief that they could be good at it (it was a tie). Believing they were good at teaching was the top reason for staying.
Therefore, administrators should look for ways to provide empowering feedback to teachers that strengthens their confidence and self-efficacy for teaching at their best. More specifically, recent research by Thomas Guskey and Laura Link tells us that teachers want school leaders to focus on feedback that improves student learning, is trusted, and is offered in meaningful and nonthreatening ways.
6 Ways to Give Intentional Feedback
For example, school leaders can raise confidence for teachers by being more intentional about when and how to provide feedback by structuring conversations around what they observe in learning walks or formal observations rather than in passing or in response to hearsay, using these simple universal guidelines:
1. Feedback is variable and should not be one-size-fits-all. Instead, tailor discussions to someone who’s doing an excellent job, someone who’s doing well but could be better, or someone who’s not working up to par. (See below for more elaboration.)
2. Engage in dialogue, not monologue. By sharing and using airtime to learn from teachers while constantly engaging them collegially, even during difficult conversations, you build trust.
3. Don’t bombard teachers with unclear information. That can convey weak leadership. It’s also confusing to newbies and offputting to those who know better.
4. Focus on impact on student learning while respecting what teachers know about their students. I find that teachers are the most prominent experts on the needs of their learners. So listen to what they have to say even when examining measures of student achievement from assessments or student outcomes gleaned from surveys about their attitudes, confidence, and self-efficacy for learning.
5. Make feedback quick when implementing a new initiative. For example, if using a new strategy or approach doesn’t work in specific spaces, this should become known to the teaching staff as soon as it’s discovered. Most likely, they will already know and resent being made to adhere needlessly.
6. Critique work, not people. By keeping the discussions to ways of improving teachers’ abilities instead of things about them that they may not be able to change, you get more buy-in.
Using the abovementioned recommendations, here’s how administrators can instill confidence in their teaching staff by differentiating feedback.
Feedback for Exemplary Performers
Feedback to teachers doing an excellent job should be positive and convey appreciation for work well done. Get to know your staff to learn how they wish to receive good feedback. For some, a well-thought-out thank-you note may make them feel valued and confident. Others may want recognition in front of colleagues or more autonomy in teaching content they’re passionate about.
Excellent teachers have high value and should be treated as such. School leaders can leverage positive feedback opportunities to create an interchange of ideas to learn what works and what doesn’t at the school or for particular students.
Feedback for Those Who Just Need a Nudge
Someone knowing that they’re doing well may not be aware of the areas in which they need to improve. To affirm them but still inform them of an area of need, here are some adaptable speaking points for a fictitious scenario.
“It’s clear that you’re very passionate about teaching this unit, but I noticed that sometimes your passion doesn’t allow room for students to ask clarifying questions during your mini-lesson. In particular, I saw that two kids raised their hands, and you didn’t call on them. Did you see their hands raised? How can student questions help clarify what they need to do during work time?”
Feedback for Those Who Are Struggling
Struggling teachers need to feel their supervisors have their back along with the belief that they have the potential to improve. Therefore, don’t hold them accountable for what they don’t know yet—instead, help them build confidence by setting clear pathways to success and keep feedback kind, honest, and ongoing.
Clear pathways to success may include norms and protocols outlining steps to completing deliverables, working well with others, contacting parents, and increasing capacity in their teaching abilities. Also, keep feedback a two-way street by asking questions like these:
- “What can I do to best support you?”
- “Do you have the tools and resources you need to succeed?”
- “Are our timelines respectful of your time and workflow?”
- “Do you have any questions about our expectations?”
Here’s a handy feedback protocol you can adapt to help guide discussions following classroom observations.
My sincerest gratitude to Dr. Marcus Newsome and Andy Stamp for being excellent thought partners.