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Education Trends, Uncategorized   |   Apr 26, 2010

Collaboration, feedback, and the fear of scrutiny

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

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?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I find that feedback and professional growth was not encouraged or given during my first two years of teaching. After moving to a new school I have definitely started to slink back into the shadows in my willingness to put myself out there. I think that is why, many times, I find some of my best professional development and creative outlets in my writing and amongst other teachers online. There is less fear of criticism (probably the anonymity of it all) and the educators here are clearly committed enough to write about their craft in the first place. In any case I'm glad to hear that you've chosen to do something that helps you grow (even if it brings you way out of your comfort zone…the most worthwhile things often do!).

  2. Angela, you said EXACTLY how I feel about feedback. At times, I crave some type of feedback from other teachers or administration, but it's limited. I find that I get the most feedback during RTI meetings, and it often comes out sounding negative as I'm told to implement 10 more strategies for a particular child. I find myself looking online frequently, almost to an obsessive point, to find out what methods and resources other teachers are using to see if I am "measuring up". I would love time to collaborate more, but the time just isn't there during the school day.

  3. I loved the video. I have wondered what it looks like when we are alone in our rooms. One of the most power things for me about being a teacher is the ability to collaborate with other educators. It does not matter their level of experience, it is the give and take; the united, team effort to give our students a better experience. Fortunately for me, I work in a room with 6 other teachers. If I or another of us needs feed back on a lesson already planned, or another intervention to try, we only need to give a shout out. What makes it work, is that each of us in that room has the child's best interest at our center. Having worked in a more traditional setting, this did not take place and I found myself becoming more and more complacent. My students suffered for that.

  4. When I came to my new school I was under the impression we would be given more feedback and find ways to improve our practice greatly. We are observed about every 2 weeks, and we do get notes after each observation. My most recent one was during small group time, in which I was doing (mandated) test prep. The note read, in part, "Are you also doing test prep whole class?" Why, yes, I am, and if you had happened to stay in my classroom longer you would know that.

    In short, the feedback we receive is neither constructive or helpful. We are asked to turn in lesson plans and other planning-type paperwork periodically, and feedback is never, ever given on it. I have wondered if I wrote that my objective was to teach all of the Pokemons if anyone would even notice.

    I would have loved to have had an experience where I got meaningful feedback- in that it felt like the person had actually thought about it before writing it down. I also would like more feedback that is bigger picture. So, instead of asking about test prep based on that one instance, comment more on how my small groups have evolved over the year. I've felt that administrators tend to forget that they're seeing isolated incidents in classrooms, and they underestimate the possibility of having a particularly good or particularly bad day. Most feedback is taken out of context and it tends to not be all that helpful.

  5. @TeachEnEspanol: You are so right about the benefits of anonymity when sharing ideas with other teachers online. Blogs and web resources are such an important outlet for teachers who don't have many opportunities for collaboration in their schools. I wasn't really thinking about that as I wrote the post, but now that you bring it up…wow…what an important component, and a great way to get your feet wet when you're apprehensive.

    @Anon: Feedback during RTI meetings does not count, in my experience. I always felt like I was on trial and having to prove that I was doing everything possible to meet a child's needs. Now that I think about it, RTI meetings were pretty much the opposite of what would have been helpful for both myself and the students. I hope other people have different experiences because the principles behind RTI are solid. The fact that you seek out other resources to see how you're doing in comparison to other teachers is a good thing, I think, as long as you don't become hypercritical of yourself. If you're checking out their ideas to make sure you're providing the optimal learning environment for your students, I think that's great!

    @Smarticles: Wow, what an amazing teaching situation you have! I love the way you described yourself as becoming 'complacent' when you worked in a traditional setting. I think complacency is the perfect word to describe the effect of teaching in isolation, and it's the direct opposite of innovation.

    @Exhibit A: Hey! Thanks for the "feedback"! 🙂

    @Chris Bennett: The ubiquity of out-of-context and 'little picture' feedback…good points. I can relate. I'm amazed that you're observed every two weeks. It seems like that's a pretty big burden on your admin, since they're just writing perfunctory notes and not really thinking deeply about your teaching practice. That's such a shame.

  6. Can you hear me shouting AMEN! all the way from Texas?? This whole post really resonated with me. Too many of us teachers would rather teach with our classroom door closed (literally and figuratively). I would love to be more collaborative and be able to give and to receive thoughtful feedback!

    I once heard of a school who threw a beginning of the school year potluck party (for teachers and by teachers) where everyone had to bring a dish to pass and a tip/trick/technique/idea that has worked in their classroom. I think that kind of thing could be a great start to making a commitment to having a more collaborative year 🙂

    1. Sarah, I like the idea of the potluck party. It’s a small step, but it’s a good one to get things rolling. I think admin needs to set the tone of “we expect you to share and collaborate, and we’re giving you the time and resources to do so”. Seeing that collaboration is valued by school leaders goes a long way.

  7. I just must respond to the video.

    Like so many other teachers, I have spent hours and hours outside of student time working in my room. I have come to realize that this wasn't always the smartest thing I could have done. I thought I was "preparing" or "catching up". Silly me!

    However, the video became bittersweet when it was obvious that it had gotten dark outside, but yet the teacher was still inside working, working away.

    I am not critical of her at all. I just would like to tell her, though, please…don't work so much. Your students will get a great education even if you don't do so much.

    1. Anon, I thought the EXACT same thing about the video–like, oh how cute! Oh wait, it’s dark out and she’s still working. Wow. Bittersweet is right. The video was obviously taken in the winter months and she teaches in NY…let’s hope it got dark at 4:30 that day. 😉

      Sadly, I think almost every teacher can relate to the feeling of just “catching up” around the classroom and noticing the sun has set. Some days when that happened to me, it was nice–I was so involved in what I was doing that nothing else mattered. But many days, I was exhausted, and seeing that it was super late just made me depressed.

  8. Constructive feedback is what I praise the most. That and asking lots of questions because there is never a silly question. Asking questions means your understanding content.
    A lot of corporate business profession always have performance reviews every 6mths to see how your going and what you can improve. They also give a lot of constructive feedback and don’t see it as a negative thing, but as growing more as a person because you are of course, forever learning. New things are happening everyday! Feedback should improve the person, not direct them on mistakes they have done!

  9. Angela,

    I had the benefit of team teaching for 2 years and I can say that improved my teaching immensely. Team teaching allowed me to bounce ideas off my partner. It also made me have to think about and prove each lesson. We were able to plan together and create even better lessons and then critique them without fear.

  10. I’ve taught adults software programs for over 20 years. I also come from family of public school teachers (grandma, father, sister, aunt). I agree with this article and will be sharing it with others.

    In private teaching when times were good, our companies invested in team meetings. They spent the money to have us attend each other’s classes to learn how to teach from each other. My best bosses attended portions of our classes and acted as mentors, giving us feedback. With the poor economy plus the fact the physical classroom is rapidly disappearing in the business world, we are left to the cheapest method. We are left alone. Thank you for reminding us to reach out to others!

    P.S. The video was so moving, I wanted to both laugh and cry! Thanks again.

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