How to give effective feedback

How do you feel when you know you need to have a tough conversation about performance with a teacher? Anxious? Tense? Even if you’re feeling confident and comfortable, these conversations are not often thought of as enjoyable.

In fact, the March 2019 issue of Educational Leadership framed addressing a teacher’s performance concerns as The Instructional Leader’s Most Difficult Job.

Having conversations about unmet expectations is tough for many managers, no matter the industry. But in education, performance conversations are especially crucial. Research indicates the greatest impact on student achievement comes from the decisions made and the learning opportunities created by the classroom teacher. Ignoring poor teaching performance means student achievement suffers.

Therefore, principals and building leaders must be active evaluators of effective teaching practices and must provide objective feedback and coaching to teachers. It is up to district and building administrators to nurture professional growth and create learning opportunities for teachers.

To help administrators navigate performance concerns, we put together a Guide to Effective Feedback Conversations.

Let’s start with the three “golden rules” of feedback. Feedback should be:

  1. Timely. Feedback should occur within 24 hours of a classroom observation. Providing timely feedback is essential for developing a relationship based on trust that will lead to instructional improvement. Coaching conversations are best had face to face.
  2. Ongoing. Utilize a feedback loop that follows this pattern: classroom observation, feedback, practice. After allowing a teacher the chance to learn new strategies and practice them, administrators should conduct another (unannounced) classroom observation. This feedback loop (observation-feedback-practice) repeats throughout the course of the school year to create an environment of ongoing coaching and support.
  3. Consistent. It is essential that administrators strive for consistency in their evaluations. Follow an agreed-upon rubric that outlines excellent teaching practices and communicates what is expected. Both administrators and teachers should understand the reasons specific instructional practices were selected for evaluation, the instructional goal of each selected practice, and the rubric descriptions of effective teaching for that practice. The NEE rubrics and look-fors were developed to help ensure consistency and reduce bias across observations, teachers, and buildings.

The three golden rules lay the foundation for effective feedback. Next, NEE recommends administrators conduct feedback in five steps, which begin immediately after a classroom observation.

  1. Prepare. Immediately after a classroom observation, prepare for the feedback conversation with careful reflection of what was observed. Use specific language from the rubric to make notes about the observation and the score that a teacher was given. Although you have provided feedback for all indicators that are being evaluated, it is appropriate to narrow the focus of more detailed feedback on the specific instructional practice(s) targeted for improvement. The planned comments should focus on evidence rather than judgments. Get specific. For example, it would be better to say something like “11 of the 23 students appeared engaged” than to say “students appeared bored.”

  2. Present data. Meet face to face with the teacher. To get the conversation under way, introduce and review your observation notes and discuss the evidence with the teacher. Conduct this step quickly to avoid dwelling on scores, and use specific language from the rubric. Focus your conversation around the notes you entered immediately after the observation. No opinions or advice should be offered at this point.

  3. Discuss focus. After the evidence and scores have been presented, it’s time to discuss the focus for improvement efforts. Ask the teacher for input to create a collaborative approach and increase buy-in for the growth plan.

    Several techniques can be helpful at this stage:

    • Presume positive intentions. You are both on the same side and share the same goal: to improve student learning. Acknowledge the teacher’s strengths and understand he or she is interested in being successful.
    • Pay attention to self and others. Notice not only what is said but how it is said. Be aware of body language and inflection.
    • Pose questions. Ask questions to either expand or specify thinking. For example, you might ask, “What strategies for formative assessment might you try?” to think beyond what has already been done. Questions can also specify thinking when the teacher makes a general statement such as, “None of the students are prepared for class.” In this situation, you might ask, “Which students specifically do you find are coming to class unprepared?”
    • Pause. Provide adequate wait time before responding to the teacher or ask a question that allows the teacher to completely address their thoughts. Watch the teacher’s body language to determine when all of their thoughts have been expressed.
    • Paraphrase. After the pause, paraphrasing can ensure the teacher feels understood and gives the teacher a chance to clarify if your understanding is incomplete or incorrect. Current research advises against using statements that start with “I hear that you…” and instead recommends “you” statements. An example would be: “You are frustrated because you feel you don’t have time to…”
  4. Make a plan. At this point, the administrator and teacher have agreed on the focus for improvement or change, and it’s time to make a plan. Start by asking the teacher for ideas, then offer to put ideas on the table. Rather than imposing a strategy of prescribing a solution, ask whether the teacher would like to hear some strategies that have proven successful in other classrooms, without naming specific teachers. It is important to express confidence in the teacher to make the change. It’s also important for you to model a growth mindset and offer access to support and resources. NEE administrators might suggest teachers access professional learning materials in EdHub. Administrators might also suggest teachers observe other teachers who use the desired strategy. After considering the possibilities, administrators and teachers identify the actionable steps to achieve the goal and identify the specific measures of success.

  5. Follow up. Let the teacher know you will be conducting another classroom observation after the teacher has had time to put the action plan into place. No specific date or time should be promised, but the administrator can ask when the teacher will feel ready to demonstrate the changes. Offer the teacher some choices within an acceptable window of time: 3 weeks, 1 month, etc. Be sure to conduct the follow-up observation within the timeframe that was discussed. End the feedback conversation on a positive note by reviewing the process that was followed and providing the opportunity to ask questions or clarify expectations.

The intent of the feedback conversation is to inject a coaching aspect into evaluation to ensure the focus of the process is on professional growth, not on a score. Although scores are a necessary component of teacher evaluation, it is important to recognize that the goal of evaluation is improvement, not perfection.

The cycle of observation-feedback-practice should be undertaken as a collegial effort between administrators and teachers to find instructional strategies that achieve higher levels of student learning and to incorporate the strategies into the teacher’s instructional routine.

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.