How do we give feedback so that it’s seen as positive, constructive and helpful? How can we ensure that it leads to improved performance in the future?
Whether you’re observing a lesson, conducting a learning walk, examining pupils’ written work to assess progress or looking more broadly at progress data, at some stage it will be necessary to talk to teachers about where they are now and how they can continue to develop from this point.
Yet receiving feedback can be tricky. Particularly if it’s critical – even constructively critical – it can be tempting for those hearing it to feel defensive, hurt and under attack. If that’s the emotional response, then the individual’s receptivity to any advice offered, and their willingness to act on it, may be minimal.
Education is all about relationships of different kinds: with colleagues (both peers and those in leadership roles), with parents, with students. We must work to establish the most positive relationships with those with whom we interact. There needs to be consideration and mutual respect. We have to recognise that we are all, in fact, on the same side – the learners’ side – and that we have a common goal, which is to ensure that the standards of teaching and learning, and care, are as high as they possibly can be.
If we use up time and energy fighting each other, we’re wasting precious resources which could be used in the fulfilment of our common aim. So if you want the feedback you offer to generate a positive response, make sure you’ve invested in these positive relationships from the outset.
Ultimately, there needs to be trust between the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it. There should be a recognition that this is not primarily about judgement, (and certainly not condemnation), but about development. Observation, work scrutiny and data analysis should have as their focus opening a dialogue,, encouraging reflection and supporting growth. This isn’t about exerting power.
Trust can take time to build, and it can be easily damaged. Where there’s a lack of trust (on either side) the likeliness of feedback being welcomed and utilised for good will be significantly undermined. If you have leadership responsibility, think about how you earn trust by being open and honest, having integrity and humanity and demonstrating a strong moral purpose.
The purpose of the observation/scrutiny/ analysis and ensuing reflective conversation has to be clear and well-understood by those involved. There needs to be an acceptance that none of us has ever ‘cracked it’ – we’re all a work in progress and are constantly learning, which is one of the things which makes our profession energising. We can always get better, but we need to see that as a positive opportunity, rather than something that’s overwhelming and draining.
There also has to be clarity around the role of the person offering the feedback; they don’t have all the answers and shouldn’t simply be directing what ought to be done. Their responsibility is to facilitate the conversation and offer a judicious balance of support and constructive challenge, so that you can plot the next steps together.
Empathy and sensitivity
It’s important that the person delivering feedback can empathise with the situation, and appreciate the perspective of the person they’re talking to. Messages should be sympathetically and sensitively delivered. If this is a lesson observation, for example, the advantage the observer has is that they can help the teacher see more clearly what exactly happened in the lesson – they can be the ’fly on the wall’ who helps the teacher appreciate what they may have missed as the lesson was in progress.
They can also help the teacher tune into the learners’ perspective. Ideally, if we’re considering the opportunities for learning within the lesson, we need to focus on the learners’ experience rather than the teacher’s ‘performance’. However, being attuned to the teacher’s point of view, and recognising that teaching is about who we are and not simply what we do, can help us frame our comments about what we saw and heard positively and supportively.
Messages mustn’t be vague and unclear, however. In our efforts to be supportive and to make the most of the positives (which we should always do – what are the strengths here, and how do we build on them for further success?) we mustn’t dodge confronting less palatable messages. Again, this isn’t predominantly about judgement, but about future development.
Can we make it clear that we’re invested in supporting the recipient of the feedback to fulfil their professional potential? We’re there to lift them, not grind them down and make them feel even more pressured. We’re on their side – we’re not the enemy.
It’s possible to communicate this directly, and we need to check there’s clear understanding about the main points discussed and the next steps.
There needs to be appropriate follow-up. There should be a structure to the process, so that feedback isn’t seen as a one-off event, but rather as part of a sequence where the direction of travel is forward, and the relationship between the two parties continues to strengthen over time.
Never underestimate the power of asking, ‘What more can I do to help?’ Be prepared to listen and act on what you hear, but be clear that the responsibility lies with the teacher. You’re there to help them find and use strategies, and resolve any issues, rather than take these issues from them.
Finally, think about your own response to feedback. Can you model receptivity and responsiveness? If you feel hurt, disappointed and defensive when receiving criticism, you can use this constructively to build your empathy and understanding.
However, you do need to be able to rise above it, absorb and process the information, and recognise how it can help you to clearly reflect on your own professional journey and continue developing, so that you become the teacher and the leader you hope to be.
In my opinion, every good teacher wants to be a better teacher, and every good leader wants to be a better leader. Feedback, judiciously offered and graciously accepted, can help us get there.
Jill Berry is a leadership consultant, author and former headteacher; follow her at @jillberry102.