Posted by: principalsintraining | September 2, 2013

Getting Feedback: The Terrifying, Combustive, Wondrous Frontier


Something that began quite innocently one day a few years back has turned into an important ritual of mine at the start of each school year: writing a list of simple “rules to live by” in the quiet of my office after returning from summer break.  It’s nothing complicated, mostly basic behaviors and habits that I think will help me stay centered, alert, and mindful throughout the ebb and flow of my work.  Some might be repeats from one year to the next; in the spirit of a new year’s resolution, they represent the chance to recommit to behaviors I know from experience will make me happier and more productive.

My list from this year includes:

  • Sit less, and when you do, sit up straight
  • Be on time to all meetings; don’t be in a rush
  • Phone away; be present
  • Keep your desk clean (for me a perpetual challenge, despite the saying that connects messy desks to creative minds!)
  • Visit classes and see the learning going on EVERY day
  • Rise above the tangle (in other words, attend to the tensions, concerns, and crises that will surely arise this year without drowning in them – easier said than done!)

Something different slid quietly onto my list this year – a simple question that came to mind suddenly on an early morning walk with my dog: “Whom do we permit to give us raw, unfiltered feedback?”  I would love to know the provenance of thoughts like this one – the clear voice speaking a confident, easy truth (I was probably around the same spot on the same trail when I decided to start this blog back in March). This question feels right – both a meditation and a challenge.  My work as an educator – teacher, site leader, etc. – has been a gradual process of looking more closely at my own behaviors and mindset and finding ways to invite more feedback on the job I’m doing (in fact, the goal of keeping my phone put away is the result of feedback from a survey I gave).

Since writing that question down over a month ago, I have been thinking about a post on feedback – the act, and art, of receiving it, as opposed to giving it (although that is an art unto itself!).  I got definitive proof that ALL is connected in the universe when my WordPress Reader suggested Sam Boswell’s blog; I opened it up to this riveting post on the topic of feedback.  Something that rang true to me was her vision of feedback as an act of self-awareness, self-monitoring, and self-mastery.  (How did she know that Daniel Goleman is my equivalent of a fantasy sports league first-round pick – someone who might get his own life-sized poster in my office?  Answer: all is connected…)

One thing often unsaid (or unconsidered) about receiving feedback is that much of it comes from ourselves, from our own internal voice (the one that poses those clearly worded questions on early morning walks…).  The items on my list above come from that voice delivering raw, unfiltered feedback; despite the source, and despite my willingness to listen, it is still a long process to change a behavior.  Better study my Goleman with even greater conviction!

As the work I do has comes to occupy more of a public stage (in front of staff, student body, parent community, Web 2.0), my own comfort level with critical feedback has grown exponentially (from others, from myself).  I also understand very clearly how personal feedback feels – for instance, when I am having an evaluation conference with a teacher where we discuss student input and my own recommendations for improvement.  The teacher in question may very well agree intellectually with everything said, but they still must contend with the conflicting emotions that can surface when their job performance is analyzed and critiqued.

It is human nature to feel defensive when being critiqued; it is our work as leaders (of districts, schools, classrooms) to move beyond defensiveness and embrace feedback as sustenance for our own ongoing learning, growth, and improvement.  Yes – we can get better at what we do!

I have a few thoughts on how school leaders can encourage a school culture that is feedback tolerant – one that, over time, comes to actively seeks it out as a part of its cultural and structural DNA.

1) Make your own professional goals and performance benchmarks public knowledge.

It is tremendously important for leaders to make their own goals, growth targets, and areas of need public.  If we expect teachers to feel comfortable turning their four walls into glass and openly sharing student performance data, leaders must demonstrate the willingness, and resilience, to having their job performance analyzed and critiqued.  This requires moving beyond the institutional norm of receiving formal, performance-related feedback only from people above you in the organizational hierarchy.

2) Get people practicing feedback with a friend they trust.

Decades of departmentalized and compartmentalized school culture will not disappear overnight.  Leaders can implement a buddy system where staff pair up with someone of their choice to engage in feedback protocols that connect with school and district goals (e.g., literacy strategies).  I’d recommend reading Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece on coaching as an “entry document” for fomenting a culture of continual improvement – even if, as is the case with Mr. Gawande, you (or your school) are already amongst the best at what you do.  Especially if.

3) Introduce protocols for large-scale, de-personalized, organization-wide feedback.

Fountain Valley High School in Huntington Beach, California, practices instructional rounds (IR) to encourage teachers to learn from – and inspire – one another, as well as participate in a formalized approach to identifying school-wide “problems of practice.”  I recommend that you and your staff watch their promotional trailer now.  Having been a part of two failed efforts to bring a form of IR to my own schoolI sense that this video is aimed in large part at their own school staff as a means to encourage reluctant colleagues to take a risk and join the cohort.

(The basic tenets of IR hold that visiting teams do not discuss individual teacher “data:” they focus on trends that they see related to the “problem” they are looking to address at scale – be it student engagement, poor writing skills, boy/girl performance gap, etc.  It is indeed scary to get individual feedback from a group of your peers; it feels safer to know you are a small (but important) part of a large scale effort to identify and address problematic trends.)

Being open and receptive to feedback is like tolerating a 7:00 minute per mile pace in a 10 kilometer running race – at first, very challenging to do!  Amazingly, with repetition (and hydration, nutrition, rest, recovery…) this pace becomes possible for a half marathon.  I don’t mean to say you suffer no discomfort (a race without discomfort would be unsatisfying, somehow) – simply that you are physiologically and psychologically prepared to maintain that pace for the distance you require.  Your heart will not explode.  You will not pass out.  You will not crawl across the finish line (this would make for memorable photos, however!).  You will cross the finish line, eat a bagel, gulp some bright purple energy drink, and start thinking about a 7 minute/mile pace for your first marathon next spring.

I think that we in education do a terrible job overall of receiving feedback; it has become our unused, atrophied muscle.  This is painfully ironic in a profession that delivers feedback of all sorts (some of it very dubious in quality) to young people with the full expectation that they will listen to, absorb, and implement it!  All of us need practice together in flexing this muscle so that, after a while, it doesn’t hurt as much – that, like exercise, it becomes something we look forward to because it feels good.

Educational leaders must acknowledge with compassion that fear abounds when it comes to receiving feedback; their greatest weapon in defeating that fear is their ability to make their own performance, and their own learning, visible for their public to see and reflect upon.


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