I have received more constructive criticism as an educational consultant in the last month than in the entire ten years I was a classroom teacher.
Oh sure, I used to receive feedback on my classroom performance every day. Most comments were along the lines of “Mrs. Watson, you’re my favorite teacher!”, and the accompanying documentation would consist of a hastily drawn picture of me smiling with the words BESTEST TECHER EVER underneath. This obviously did more for my ego than for my professional practice.
I was fortunate to get the occasional encouraging word and compliment from my administrators in passing, but years would pass between formal observations and walk-throughs were rarely accompanied by feedback. Suggestions for improvement were typically announced in faculty meetings under the guise of general observations (“As I’ve been around to your classrooms, I’m seeing that some of you are not doing x,y, and z”), and we’d all hold our breath hoping we weren’t guilty of (or at least not caught doing) the infraction du jour.
In most schools, the unspoken rule amongst teachers is to maintain the status quo: stay under your principal’s radar, and assume that no news is good news. If they’re not saying anything to you, shut up and don’t draw attention to yourself. And so I would hole up in my classroom, trying to think of ways to improve my practice, or sometimes just settling for what I’d always done…the response from my littlest supporters would be the same either way. Mrs. Watson, you rock!
If teachers receive suggestions for improvement, it’s typically from someone far removed from the classroom context who walks in for 5 minutes, tells her everything she’s doing wrong, and tosses out a list of new mandates that must be in place by the next unscheduled visit. Or, perhaps worse, doesn’t give feedback at all. These scenarios produce no positive or sustainable change (and are why I believe so strongly in the ongoing, job-embedded instructional coaching work I do).
In my current role, I am regularly asked for input on how to improve our current methods, and I feel comfortable enough to submit unsolicited ideas, as well. My opinion is clearly valued and I frequently see my suggestions implemented and used to create immediate positive change. And the flip side is that I get regular input on my own performance from several different sources, all of whom work hard to help me produce the best possible product or practice. Angela, could you try this? I think it would be better if you did this. Maybe you could tweak this part? What do you think about reworking this? There’s a steady stream of praise, as well, but there are always suggestions for improvement which take me completely out of my comfort zone. It’s certainly harder on the ego than receiving crayon drawings that testify to my awesomeness, but the end result? My professional practice is improving ten times faster than it would have without the constructive expert feedback.
This video is called the empty classroom and was posted by Rabi W on her blog. I am fascinated by how poignantly Rabi captures the experience of working in a classroom on an endless number of tasks, all completed in total isolation.
That expert feedback is exactly what most educators are lacking. American teachers typically develop lesson plans in private and plan their management systems independently; without shared accountability, the possibility of fallout (real or perceived) is heightened and the opportunity for improvement is squandered. Teachers often sustain ineffective and just plain lousy procedures and lesson formats and don’t even realize it. They also create groundbreaking activities and units of study and don’t recognize that, either…and even worse, other educators don’t benefit because the ideas aren’t regularly shared.
Among many educators, there is a staggering fear of drawing attention to yourself, of putting your work out there for feedback, of exposing your practices to scrutiny. This produces a culture of mediocrity which cripples professional growth and prevents teachers from innovating and being recognized for their accomplishments.
I’ve always envisioned a school climate that encourages a continuous exchange of ideas and feedback, where teachers are given the opportunity to co-plan and observe one another as they implement. I had always assumed that my practice and that of my colleagues would have improved greatly if getting and giving constructive feedback was a routine part of our work. Now I know for sure. The biggest shame is that I didn’t experience that until I left the classroom.
Do you find similar limitations on collaboration and feedback in your school? Is there anything that you or others do to address these issues? What are your suggestions or ideas?
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