You’re shit, and you know you are!
For those who are beginning to worry about just what sort of ship I run, the title is a football chant, not how I go about giving feedback to teachers. And this is what I thought I’d write about today – how to give feedback…more specifically, how to give negative feedback…constructive feedback.
Following the last post about observations, there was an interesting exchange of opinions both here and on Twitter. The comments here seem to be centred around whether or not observations serve any real purpose (and the evidence seems to suggest that they don’t serve very much). The debate on Twitter was more about my apparent hardline stance on not sugar-coating the pill.
In no small measure down to my own shortcomings as a writer, I had left people aghast. They thought I was “angry” and “need[ed] to chill.” If I was like this, I was warned, I “would end up getting hated [by teachers]”. I was advocating a position where “feelings come second.” I should be careful not to become the worst kind of back seat driver…reminding me of my grandmother who used to sit behind me and helpfully point in the direction I needed to be going…
Let us move on…
Ten things worth bearing in mind when giving feedback…
I’m suspicious of the need to soften the blow. If something isn’t good, sez I, there is very little point in muddying the waters by hedging and doing a feedback sandwich: “You look great, your lesson sucked. I love what you’ve done with your nails.”
Teachers can react defensively (as can managers, students, checkout workers and doctors), but you can help to manage this. I signpost any critical comments by recognising that they might not like what I have to say next; or that they might not agree with it. I also emphasise that this is based purely on what I thought I saw.
Just because you think you saw a stinker, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you did. You have an opinion, but there is an aphorism that says that opinions are like arseholes: everyone’s got one and they’re usually full of shit. For your opinion to weather the storm, evidence is required.
Note also that evidence does not prove anything. It only ever requires somebody to account for it. If you are suggesting that the teacher’s lesson didn’t seem to have much direction, you might ask what the direction of the lesson was intended to be. You might ask if they felt that the students knew this. If they say “yes”, you might ask them to explain why they feel this way.
There is little to be gained in producing an array of evidence and not shifting from the conclusion that it leads you to. Present the evidence to the teacher and ask them to account for it. You may not necessarily agree with how they account for it, but I think it better to accept what you can from their version and use the whole discussion to make it clear what you would prefer them to do.
For example, there is a belief that teachers should nail up their intended aims and outcomes at the start of the lesson. The teacher tells you that they didn’t do this because they didn’t feel that it was necessary to dictate the flow of events from the outset. Fine, you concede, but might it not be an idea to have some sort of sense-making reflection post-facto? At least that way, the students’ attention is being directed to opportunities for learning that they can follow up on?
Remember that you might be wrong
Well…it’s theoretically possible, isn’t it? If managerial observations have any developmental value, I think it might be in the cut and thrust of the post-observation discussion. If a teacher feels the need to explain their actions (or inactions) during a lesson and these explanations are being tested and tested again by the cynical eye of the bitter manager, the explanations will either get stronger and stronger, or will wither and die. As long as you don’t throw salt on the soil and prevent anything from ever growing there again, the chances are that the new crop will grow back stronger and more perfectly-formed. Don’t pull this metaphor to bits – I know the square root of nada about gardening.
But…be wary of too much of a debate. Remember that everything that comes out of the teacher’s mouth is (usually) what they regard to be the absolute truth, just as what (usually) comes out of your mouth is also equally true. Aristotelian logic says that you can’t have two mutually opposite truths, but Aristotle hadn’t reckoned on Graham Priest. If that buzzes your head too much, perhaps you’ll settle for the simpler sounding argument that truth is relative.
The key here is to listen to what the teacher has to say and to avoid being instantly dismissive. When all is said and done, they probably know their class better than you do; they most definitely know how they were feeling better than you do; if they are particularly enlightened, they will be more conscious of their limitations than you can ever be. In fact, the only thing that you can be certain of at all is what you think about the lesson you saw.
Standards make the whole thing a lot easier.
And standards that the teachers have helped to compile make it easier still. When I started being an observer, I was given a sheet of criteria and told to go and find evidence that they were being met. Teachers were as oblivious to these criteria as I was. They may have been in harsh disagreement with some of these criteria. Some of the them were objectively pointless, but were there with an eye on the expectations of bigger predators such as the Schools Inspectorate.
The criteria only ever appeared when observations were under way. There was never any discussion about what good teaching might be. Good teaching, the inference was, was teaching that meant that most -if not all- of those criteria could be ticked by a person in authority.
In other places, managers look for evidence of what they believe to be good teaching. I can’t be the only person on this planet who dreads being asked to come up with a list of everything that…I know that my list is going to be incomplete and I know that the things that I forget to include are going to be a) blindingly obvious to everyone else and b) really, really important.
Having some negotiated and widely-publicised standards that everyone agrees upon makes things much easier. Now you have something concrete to look for. We have fewer than 10 of these standards where I work. If we could make it any better, I’d like to have more discussion with teachers about what might constitute reliable evidence for these standards.
It’s not just “OK” to fuck up, it’s to be expected.
I think that it is important to remember -well, first of all, to believe and remember- that it is the human condition to fuxk up constantly. In the cut and thrust of discussion online and in journals, the tendency is to seize on somebody’s mistake and to flout it as evidence that they just don’t cut the mustard, that they should be ostracised, that they are not as good as the rest of us. But everybody fucks up, to paraphrase R.E.M. If somebody that I am observing teaches the most godawful lesson, perhaps I find it less threatening to take the lesson to pieces because I am rooted in my understanding that from time to time, everybody does the same. Or has done the same. Or will do the same.
Prioritise what went wrong.
Sometimes you watch a lesson and struggle to find anything positive to say…ummm, the break seemed to come around quickly… At times like this, there may be a shopping list of several volumes that sets out what needs to be improved. Experience has taught me that running through the list from top to bottom is not to be recommended (I know, I know…but everybody fucks up, remember?). The secret, then, is to isolate one or two more overarching failures and to hone in on them. I remember one set of observations in which nobody seemed to have thought their lessons through, nobody was doing any sort of meaningful formative assessment, nobody was addressing what they claimed to be the main aims of the lesson. Pairwork was there because…well, pairwork should be there. Groupwork was there for the same reasons. At one point, a video was put on three minutes before the end of the lesson, supposedly because the focus was on listening. Only there was no speaking…just subtitles! Had the teachers concerned really given a little thought to planning, possibly just by setting out a purpose for each activity and sharing it with the class, they could have gone back to these aims time and time again in the lesson and things may have been clearer to them, if not to anyone else.
Remove the beam from your own eye
One of the most useful things about lesson observations is that they highlight to me just how rotten my own teaching is. As a manager who is expected to balance some teaching alongside the bureaucracy and the other elements of being a boss, I stink at both. I used to devote a lot of time to my lessons whereas these days I scrape together a lesson in the blink of an eye and rarely end up doing what I’d planned. On these occasions, I walk out of the classroom and comment to the ADOS, “Thank Christ nobody was observing me in there!” Knowing that I am capable of regularly churning out such abominations means that I have plenty of scope for empathy when I see a teacher who sucks and that I have a wealth of examples from my own practice that I can use to illustrate this empathy.
Illuminate the exit signs
This is a potentially controversial one as it is frowned upon by HR departments for managers to point to the way out for people who are clearly in the wrong job. But, working on the principle that if you do things only with the best intentions then nothing ill can befall you, I would pooh pooh this caution.
I have taught and worked alongside people who were clearly and wholly uninterested in the teaching profession. One was an aspiring dancer; another a yoga devotee; another a football fanatic. Their teaching could only ever have been called teaching because the job that they had accepted was that of a teacher. They were absolutely awful with absolutely no redeeming graces.
We went through the process of sympathetic, empathetic, supportive feedback, and it made absolutely no difference at all. They simply weren’t interested. Now, where I work is not very clear about the next step to take. It might take a year or so before you are left with the realisation that these people really don’t give a shit. At that point, I am assuming (because I have no guidance), you can embark upon the process of querying whether or not the case is that they don’t want to improve (a potential disciplinary case) or that they can’t improve (a potential capability hearing). This might add another year to the process. All the time, they are irritating students, frustrating managers, provoking colleagues and, perhaps more importantly, being given feedback both from students and managers (colleagues are usually too timorous to be critical of each other) that they just don’t have what it takes.
In such cases, isn’t it better to skirt the question of whether or not they wouldn’t be better taking the plunge and going for whatever their preferred line of work is? You don’t seem to be having much luck with this – what is it that actually stops you from leaving and doing what you are more interested in? The answer is usually inertia and a fear of the unknown. Once that is out there, the bleedin’ obvious can now be stated: Well, it’s just that if things don’t improve, the decision of whether to stay or go may very well be taken out of your hands.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
This above all. When giving feedback, be very, very clear in your mind that you are giving feedback upon the teacher’s performance, not the teacher themselves. It does no harm to be sure that the teacher is also very, very clear in their mind that this is the case. Sure, sure! Teachers are sensitive souls who often can’t differentiate between one and t’other. But you are unlikely to change that if you go along with it and wrap all your words up in cotton wool.
The reason for being up front and frank with teachers is precisely because you have enough faith in their commitment and their capability to assume that they want to know where things need to improve.
SO…to wrap all of this up, the idea is not to present you with a checklist of things that you must do when you want to say something hurtful. These are ways of thinking that underlie my practice as a manager. I genuinely try to be honest and upfront in working with teachers; I genuinely believe that they are not only capable of doing better, but they actually want to do better; I genuinely believe that we all get it wrong and I genuinely believe that this applies more so to me than to many of the people I work with. I genuinely believe that we need to have reasonably objective measures of value and I genuinely believe that how I interpret these measures is only one particular way of understanding them. That said, more weight may be given to my interpretation and I need to keep things in check by looking to triangulate my own opinions with those of others.