Think about all the tasks and responsibilities you have as a school leader. It can be overwhelming when you really stop to think about everything you are tasked with.

How to give effective feedback

Now, considering this huge list of responsibilities, which do you think has the potential to make the greatest impact on the student learning in your school? Revising curriculum, ensuring the selection and purchase of instructional materials, and reviewing student academic data are all good answers and all are important activities to address the learning needs of your students.  However, all of these activities are likely not as effective at influencing the learning in your school as the process of classroom observation and feedback.

Observing teachers in their classroom and providing interactive feedback provides administrators a unique opportunity to discuss with teachers what was observed in their classroom lesson and to pose questions to collaboratively work with teachers on how to fine-tune their instruction to better meet the needs of their students. The strength of the observation process comes from feedback conversations and the next steps that can impact student learning.

When the teacher leaves the feedback conference thinking about what was discussed and considering the effectiveness of the next steps, the administrator has likely positively affected what will happen in the teacher’s classroom in the future. As effective as other tasks may be, none has the potential to impact student learning more than this process of classroom observations and feedback when the teacher leaves the conference with confidence in the feedback they received.

Administrators usually have a lot of information from their observation. They will have scored each indicator and have many notes based on what they saw during the lesson. Especially in conferences where the administrator noted several concerns, it might be tempting to address each point. However, this is like turning a fire hose on a small plant. The plant may need water but overwhelming it with too much water too fast might cause more harm than good.

Our goal is to have the teacher leave the post-observation conference with confidence in what was discussed. Instead of overwhelming the teacher with too many suggestions and too much information, it is better to provide a brief discussion of what was observed and then move to focus on one area of one indicator where the most good can come from change. In recent conversations with administrators, two points were often mentioned as considerations when determining the focus of the post-observation conversation:

  1. What area of focus is revealed through the classroom observation? First, it is important to notice what is revealed through classroom observation as a topic that needs to be addressed or an area where the teacher would benefit from collaborative feedback. It is important to consider what the teacher needs that would lead to their growth and greater and more in-depth student learning.
  2. What is the building or district focus? Buildings and districts often have identified areas of focus. These areas can be seen in the focus indicators used in classroom observations, building improvement plans, comprehensive school improvement plans (CSIP), and other documents that include the focus of the district and building. It is important to consider what the district and/or building has identified as a strategy or strategies that could make a significant difference in student learning.

Once the focus is determined, administrators will likely work with teachers over an extended period to offer many opportunities for professional development, observation of other teachers’ use of the focus skill, and additional principal observations and feedback sessions.

Principals  continue to work with the teacher on the focus area to build the teacher’s confidence and celebrate the teacher’s growth as they progress along the way. It is important to elicit teacher input and to make the improvement a cooperative effort between the teacher and the administrator.

However, as this work continues, a time will come when the focus of the feedback conference needs to change. It is important that the administrator monitor the progress of the teacher to determine when a change might be necessary. Below are several indicators that a change should be considered.

  1. The teacher has made progress with the focus area. Teachers often begin to grow in how they grasp a particular concept or strategy. The steps the administrator has taken with the teacher are designed to help the teacher use the focus strategy more independently in their instruction. At some point, the administrator may observe that the teacher does not need the same type of assistance with the focus area and there are other areas that the administrator and teacher may focus on to help the teacher grow.
  2. The teacher has stopped progressing with the focus area. If the teacher is no longer making progress with the focus area, it is possible that they need either a different feedback path or a different focus area. For instance, sometimes the teacher lacks some knowledge necessary for them to grasp the original focus. It is better to revise the focus to another area the teacher needs for growth until the teacher is ready to return to the original focus.

There are also times that the teacher may progress on a focus area for a period of time and then find their progress stalled or stopped altogether. It is quite easy to become frustrated at this point. Sometimes it is easier if the administrator focuses on a different strategy to give the teacher a break for a while to be able to eventually look at the original focus area with a fresh perspective later.

  • The focus of the school or district has changed. As districts and buildings review their data and reports, they may revise their planning to identify an overall area of focus for the building or district. This focus may affect the priorities of the building and may necessitate a change in the feedback conference focus for a particular teacher or teachers. For example, some districts have identified social emotional learning, culturally responsive teaching, or other overarching district priorities.

When this occurs, it is important for the administrator to consider the new priority in conjunction with the classroom observation to determine whether a change in focus is appropriate. It is always important to keep the needs of the students as the top concern and to use this metric to determine the most effective feedback conference focus. 

  • It is the beginning of a new school year.  A new school year is a good time to revise goals and try new practices.  When a post-observation conference focus is determined, it’s often better to continue the focus through the year and address teacher growth through a change in feedback paths as needed.

It would be good for administrators to review the current focus goals for their teachers and revise as appropriate after the first classroom observation of the new school year.  Often teachers are motivated at the beginning of the school year to reexamine their teaching practices and are more open to feedback conversations. 

There is no recipe for choosing the focus of the feedback conference or deciding when to make a change. Instead, the administrator must carefully consider what they see from their observations and determine what focus will make the most impact on the learning of the students.

Talking with the teacher and listening to the teacher, how they feel about their progress, and asking key questions in feedback conferences are all tools to determine when to stay with the current focus and when to make a change.

Sometimes it is overwhelming to consider all the various tasks and responsibilities that are part of administrators’ and teachers’ jobs today. It is easy to get lost in task management and to forget that one of our highest priorities must be student learning. Among the greatest tools an administrator has for impacting learning are classroom observations and post-observation conferences. These tools guide administrators to an understanding of the learning that is occurring in their schools and to help their teachers to continue to grow and improve their practices.

Chuck Mayes is a NEE trainer and field support representative. He retired in 2020 after 30 years in K-12 public education where he served as a teacher, elementary principal, middle school principal, and for eight years as the Sikeston Chief Academic Officer/Assistant Superintendent working with curriculum, assessment, gifted education, and virtual learning.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.