I welcomed Laura into my office and offered her a seat at the small conference table across from my desk.
I sat down next to her and opened my observation notes. Smiling, I thanked her for coming in and handed her a written summary of the main points I wanted to discuss.
One-by-one, I reviewed those points, providing my assessment of what worked and did not work during her lesson, gave examples from her classroom to bolster my assessment, and offered suggestions for how she could improve her practice.
When I finished, I asked her if she had any questions. Laura looked thoughtfully at my bulleted list for a moment and then asked my advice on how she might implement some of my suggestions.
I showed her a few exercises she could try – things that I had used myself as a teacher then I promised to get a full write up of my observation to her by the end of the day.
Laura thanked me profusely and said that she looked forward to reading it.
As we stood and shook hands, she told me how much she learned from our meeting and how she couldn’t wait to try the strategies I suggested.
“Oh my,” I smiled, slightly embarrassed at her heart-felt declaration, “I’m just doing my job.”
At least that is how it went in my head.
So, I wasn’t nervous when I ushered Laura into my office that morning for her post-observation conference. I had already rehearsed what I was going to say, the notes were all prepared, the resources organized and within arms’ reach, ready for her whenever she asked for them.
How was I, a brand new administrator, to know that the conversation wouldn’t be quite that easy?
After all, I had been
- trained on how to do observations,
- trained on how to conduct post-observation conferences,
- and I had done my research.
Besides, I was a likable person who was once considered a really good teacher. Why wouldn’t the conversation go exactly as I had planned?
But three minutes into the conversation, I knew something had gone terribly wrong.
Laura wasn’t eagerly accepting my assessment of her classroom.
She wasn’t asking for my advice on how she could improve.
She wasn’t nodding her head in agreement to my prescription for her teaching.
She just sat across from me arms crossed, lips tight, turning redder by the second.
When I finished talking, she didn’t ask any questions. Instead, she launched into a defense of what had happened in her classroom and told me that it was really hard for me to get an accurate assessment of her teaching after having only been in her classroom once.
I was too shocked to say much after that so I thanked her for her input, mumbled something about having her observation to her by the end of the day, and stood.
She grabbed her papers and stormed out.
Like I said, that went differently in my head.
After that early experience, I learned to dread having post-observation conferences with teachers. I would wake up the morning of one of these conferences sick to my stomach.
I compensated for my nervousness by over-preparing and by structuring the conferences so much that the teacher had little opportunity to contribute.
They sat across from me nodding while pretending to understand what I was talking about or they would tersely answer my questions with thinly veiled hostility counting the minutes until they could get out of my office.
I plowed on sharing my comments and suggestions and providing resources that were neither asked for nor used.
What I didn’t know then that I know now was that all that work was leading to nothing. I was playing my part in the Feedback Dance that goes on between teachers and administrators in schools all over the world every day.
Something had to give
At the time, I didn’t realize that I was actually getting in my own way. The more I tried to implement what I was taught to do during feedback conversations, the more I was destroying any real exchange with the teacher.
Here I was doing everything “right” and things were going horribly wrong.
One day, months later, I happened to stop by Laura’s classroom on a walk-through. I stuck around until the end because I was really interested in her lesson that day.
After class, we chatted for a few minutes about the lesson. I shared with her my genuine reaction and made a quick suggestion about how to improve the lesson.
“That’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that,” Laura responded.
I pinched myself.
Nope, I wasn’t dreaming. This was really happening.
But it was what Laura said next that really shocked me.
“I wish you talked to me like this all the time. This was really helpful.”
I asked her, “What do you mean?”
“Well, when we’re in your office, you’re all formal and it’s like you’re reading from a checklist. It feels fake. Now, you seem really interested in what I’m doing in the classroom and interested in helping me.”
Giving Feedback #LikeABuilder
I thought about that for a long time. I too felt that the feedback conversations I was having where I followed a strict script didn’t feel real to me. What would happen, I wondered, if I threw out the script and had a real conversation with teachers?
So I tried it.
It was amazing. I mean it was really, really amazing.
So, I tried it again.
That time was okay, but not amazing. Still, it was better than the conversations I’d been having with teachers.
So I tried it again . . .
And again . . .
And again . . .
And each time I got better at it. In fact, I started noticing a pattern that made some conversations amazing.
Over time, I developed a way to make every conversation a good one. I had to shed a lot of what I was taught to do, but it made such a huge difference in how teachers responded to me that I’ll never go back to doing it the way I did it before.
Wanna know what I learned? I’m teaching it on an upcoming free webinar called “How to Give Meaningful Feedback to Teachers Without Pushback, Hurt Feelings, and Blank Stares,” and I would love for you to join me. I’m even giving away a webinar-only bonus for those who show up live. You can find a time that works best for you here.
I sure hope I “see” you on the webinar!