The Power of Feedback

This week as I’ve been visiting classrooms, I’ve been focusing on finding great examples of ways teachers are providing feedback to students.  I saw everything from peer editing, QR codes, small group direct-instruction, and computer programs used to provide immediate and frequent feedback to our students.  It was exciting to see!  Feedback is a powerful and effective tool in moving students’ learning forward.

As a district we use Mike Rutherford’s Artisan themes for teaching as the basis for the language for which we provide feedback to teachers. One of the themes is performance feedback, which is feedback that increases students’ persistence at a task by providing knowledge of results regarding students’ work.  Performance feedback names the response teachers give to the work students are doing, with an expected response within students (persistence).  The development of persistence is a key element to performance feedback.

The idea of performance feedback developing persistence was not something I had previously given much thought to.  I typically think of the results of feedback in terms of mastery of content, not in development of a particular disposition, but when you  consider performance feedback in terms of assessment for learning, it makes sense.  Stiggins writes, “as students become increasingly proficient, they learn to generate their own descriptive feedback and set goals for what comes next on their journey.”  When students become comfortable with the assessment for learning process, they know where they are headed and can see that success is within reach if they will keep on trying.  This will keep them going and help them to develop persistence.

As principals we are the lead learners for our buildings.  We give feedback as part of coaching and evaluating our staff and receive feedback from a variety of sources and stakeholders.  As a new principal, I am finding that I have to develop a thick skin and sort through the feedback I receive.  Some of it is warranted and helpful, directed at decisions and actions that I need to adjust or improve, and some of it is not so helpful.

First I have to sift through whether the feedback is accurate, also taking into account where it is coming from, decide the value I need to place on it, then act accordingly. Even when feedback is warranted and valuable, if it is based on a mistake I have made, or is directed at me instead of the work, it is hard to take.  I find that I can easily handle feedback based on my growth areas I have already identified because I have already been much harder on myself than anyone else will, but when I have made a bad call and feel I should have known better, it’s a much harder pill to swallow.  I can shift to self-beratement pretty quickly.  Teachers have to go through the same processes as they often receive feedback from multiple sources.

In his leadership podcast, Craig Groeschel discusses giving and receiving feedback as a leader.  He tells us that as leaders we should crave feedback.  He quotes Ken Blanchard who says, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.”  Many successful people will echo those sentiments when it comes to mistakes.  You hear statements such as “fail forward,” or “an expert is the person who has made all of the mistakes in a given area.” Much of our success is tied to how we give receive feedback.  How we internalize the feedback and how it moves us forward (or not) determines our future actions.  So how can we move to a place where we, the leaders, and our students crave feedback?

When thinking about feedback with staff, I shared this equation:

Engaging Work + Feedback = Learning

We focused on the equals side of the equation when considering student learning.  We looked at what needs to happen with feedback so that learning can occur (Timely and frequent).  Another way to look at the equals sign is to think about  what needs to happen within the learner for learning to occur.

Considering ourselves as the learners how can we learn from the valuable feedback we receive and the mistakes we make?  Craig Groeschel gives us 3 keys:

  1.  Separate the “Do” from the “Who.”
    It’s about the action, not the identity.  We have to remember when we receive feedback not to take it personally.  It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about something we have done or am doing that’s not effective.  The action needs to be fixed, not our person. Groeschel even goes as far to say that the more we want to push back against that feedback, the more it indicates that it is a significant area of growth for us.
  2. Ask Clarifying questions.
    When given a general statement of feedback we can ask questions that help us to get to the heart of feedback and use it to improve.  Questions include:
    What did you mean by that?
    Can you give me an example?
  3. When possible, get feedback before an event.
    Run it by people you trust. Be open and vulnerable so you can grow.

Giving and receiving feedback is not easy.  For me, when I receive critical feedback, I have to remember the first key–feedback that tells me how to improve is not about who I am, it’s about “performance and actions.”  I have to stop myself from being defensive or going down a path of self-loathing and tell myself to stop, be mindful of where my thoughts are headed, and learn from the experience.  I need to chew on the feedback, reflect, and make a plan to move forward.  Then I need to see the entire experience not as a negative one, but as one that is helping me to improve my skills.  It’s not easy, but it’s critical both in my personal growth and in modeling that disposition for others.  If I am mindful with what I do in context of the “equals sign” in the equation, this performance feedback will not only contine to grow me in “leadership content,”  but will also develop my persistence.

Baby Steps

When I began my blog, I was hesitant.  I didn’t feel that as a new principal I would have much to offer readers in terms of advice or learning.  In my first post, I wrote how I decided to press on anyway because of the value found in documenting one’s progression in thought, ideas, and learning.  I thought if nothing else, I knew I would be able to look back on where I began if I documented my steps along the way.

Recently, this reasoning has been confirmed by a podcast I listened to.  In The Productivity Show, Brooks and Mike discuss how to avoid the 6 “Deadly Sins of Productivity.”  One of the sins they discuss is how to avoid is comparing oneself to some ideal that doesn’t exist.  I’ve heard this advice before, but they take it a step further.  They say that this thinking is based on a gap between where you are and where you want to be and that it breeds discontentment.  On the other hand, a more productive way to measure is from where you were to where you are now.  This is measuring the gain.

As I measure the gain I’ve had from where I started with my electronic communication with staff and where I am now, I feel satisfied with my progress.  I know I have more to accomplish, but It’s helpful for me to see where I began to where I am now.  In addition, if I share with others the steps I took from the beginning of the year until now,  they might know where they can start.

I wish I could say that I did these steps purposefully and intentionally, but that is not the case.   I just did what I could when I could.  It’s been all about taking baby steps but keeping my vision in mind so that I could take advantage of any opportunities I get (like a snow day or a 4 ½ hour plane ride) to advance that vision.

First I started with sending out two emails a week to my staff.  I started with an informational email on Fridays to let staff members know what upcoming events and important information for the week ahead.   On Sundays, I sent out an instructional email where I shared instructional thoughts based on what I was seeing in classrooms or what I felt was important in relation to our school initiatives.

Progression of the Friday Informational Email
It started with a linear structure with these subheadings:
Important Information
Things to Turn in
Calendar for the Week

Eventually, I was able to create a living calendar for the remainder of the month and then the remainder year.  I attached a Google Slide to the email with a link to the living calendar so I don’t have to type the Week’s Upcoming events each week in the body of the email.  In the body of the email, I am now including just a few sentences of the “Important Information.”  The Google Slide includes the “Things to Turn in” and “Big Events” for the week.  I also embedded links for anything teachers need to access. Of course, I stole all these ideas from Andrew, the Middle School principal who got them from someone else too.

Progression of the Sunday “Advancing the Vision” email
When I began, the content I sent out each week was in no particular progressive order and the structure of the email varied.  The content was more random because I really hadn’t had time to plan ahead at that point. Then I made the content based on classroom instruction I want to see or saw that week based on my district’s lesson essentials.  As that progressed, the format of emails changed from a random to a predictable structure  with these subheadings:

This month’s Teambuilder: (From Kagan Cooperative Learning)
This month’s Classbuilder:  (From Kagan Cooperative Learning)
Review from Last Week
What’s Next:
So…now what?
What to Expect When You Are a Teacher at Paint Lick:
You should be able to
You probably will be able to…
You may possibly be able to

I started making the content progress from concrete structures that should be present in all classrooms to digging deeper into the art and science of teaching.

This week I will only send out one email.  Within the body of the Friday email there will only be “Important Information.”  The Google Slide that has been changed to a pdf with live links will include links to a school blog with weekly posts containing instructional content previously sent out on Sundays structured with the above subheadings.  The slide contains the following  links/information:

  • Living Calendar
  • This month’s teambuilder and classbuilder
  • Tech tip
  • Big Events this week
  • What to prepare for
My communication evolution was a case where I didn’t begin with the end in mind. I thought my 2-email-a-week plan was good. I also received feedback from staff that it was. I didn’t know the Google Slide/Living Calendar/school blog options even existed until I went to a principal ed camp at the beginning of the first semester.
In this case, I wasn’t satisfied with good. Once I saw the possibilities I wanted more. I’m glad I didn’t know about those possibilities in August because I might have put undue pressure on myself to meet those expectations right then. From this progression, I learned a valuable lesson that I can use in the future and pass on to others.   Instead of measuring oneself against an ideal, use the ideal as your vision and map out baby steps to get there. Then keep moving. Take those steps slowly then all along measure yourself against the gain instead of the gap.