Teacher feedback…Is it really about you?

Ah yes, it’s that time of year again. When we hang the mistletoe, finalize our well-deserved vacation plans, and pray that our supervisors aren’t going to have that “difficult conversation” before the holiday.

What better time to talk about feedback?

For teachers, take a place where people work independently 90% of the time, add supervisors whom you seldom see (or move on every other year), and you have what? All the makings of bad feedback soup.

In the most personal of professions, in which people put so much of themselves, and yet work so much in isolation, the whole concept of effective feedback is fraught with danger. As a supervisor, I used to think this was the most important part of my job, to demonstrate that I was a good leader. I’d arrange pre-observation conferences, come in for observation, spend hours writing up a narrative, and have what I thought was impactful dialogue. And then what? Two things: Teachers would flip instantly to the last page and either smile or stop listening and get defensive. It didn’t work.

There’s been so much written about everything from effective feedback and coaching models to walk throughs, etc. that I’m not looking to introduce a new system. (Sorry). However, I had an epiphany yesterday while listening to a podcast called The Good Life Project when a guest said that “feedback tells you more about the giver than the receiver.” I thought it was fascinating and shed so much light for me on that strange process that entails so many dynamics. Is it really about the mechanics of teaching IB Chem? Of course not. It’s about human relationships, perception, and unfortunately, power.

At my last job, we shifted this focus away from “the giver” of feedback and put the teacher in the driver seat, asking them to do everything from video themselves, to develop their own reflective goals around which they’d meet with peers, and have dialogue with supervisors who would ask inquiry-based questions as opposed to power-laden ones. Yes, it was a sea change but you could feel the air lift in the room when the dynamic was shifted from the “giver” to the “receiver.” When I think about all the appraisal meetings I’ve had over the years, there is a lot to be said for what the process revealed about me much more than whether or not the person delivered a good math lesson. My expectations, my style, my interpretation of good teaching, my power. And in a rapidly shifting environment where teachers and supervisors rarely have time to get to know one another very well, is that healthy?

This doesn’t necessarily help those of you still working in the ‘traditional’ framework of teacher feedback. But hopefully what it does when you are sitting in one of those dreadful feedback sessions, is that it opens your eyes and ears to what it says about the person giving you that information, rather than anything you’re doing “bad” as a teacher.

Hang in there. And I had to reach back for one of my old favorites if you ever feel like you don’t want to talk about it.

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie and children Zoe and Ian in the Singapore. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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One Response to Teacher feedback…Is it really about you?

  1. Patricia Harvey says:

    Great article because it is time for teachers to be in the driver’s seat of their careers. The more professional and collaborative administrators are, the more teachers can get involved. Administrators who have great teachers, are like teachers who have great students–they are passionate, supportive, and believe in the power of the individual to be responsible. Administrators are not necessarily good judges of the content aspect of instruction but they can see and engaged, dynamic classroom happening. Teachers who see themselves as “cogs” in the wheel of the school system and work to patronize and please administrators and parents have nothing to offer their students. That said, teachers who work for administrators who do nothing to challenge and stimulate their staff and reject teacher-driven policy making are not creating a dynamic and engaging school. Your evaluation system sounds hopeful for developing a more professional atmosphere for teachers.

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