Giving and receiving feedback is part and parcel of school life – but it is complicated. Here are some thoughts based on my own recent experience with it.
Recently I’ve run a couple of courses for commercial training providers where, as a matter of routine, they ask for feedback from delegates. I’m assuming the purpose of this is to help them plan their training provision to meet people’s needs and it all makes good business sense. But, both times, I realised that, when offered the feedback, I didn’t want it. I declined. In one case they sent it to me anyway but I deleted the email before I could read it – even thought they said most of it was really good.
My response to this has made me reflect on the whole business of leaders giving teachers feedback. Why don’t I want the delegates’ feedback? Here’s a few reasons:
In these reports, I can’t filter out the good from the bad and I know that I’m only interested in the positive feedback – that’s what motivates me. I may be unnecessarily defensive but, like a lot of people, it’s a just a fact that I respond to affirmation and the direction that goes in – and not too well to criticism. I need a good reason to open myself up to it. I have a reasonably objective sense that what I’m doing is generally working and each time I run a session I generate my own list of things that didn’t work as well as I’d like – so why add to that list? If I was just sent a list of the positive comments I’d be happy – but that’s not the deal!
If anyone there was unhappy – I guess I don’t really want or need to know. To some extent I see this as being outside my control because I am who I am, I do what I do and there’s only so much I can change or am willing to change. Since you can’t please everyone in a diverse group, the fact that a course isn’t 100% what some people want is inevitable. If the majority of people were happy – and they seemed to be enjoying it – then I’m not likely to make changes in future just because some people weren’t.
The feedback is anonymous – to protect the people giving it. I don’t know the people on the courses in most cases and may not meet them again – so I can’t really trust what they say. If I’m going to respond to negative feedback, I’d need to know and trust the person and respect their opinion. If I don’t know them enough to respect their opinion, then I’d rather not hear it. And it’s really unhelpful knowing that 83% or 62% or 95% of responses said X – because you can’t know who said what and why and it’s unactionable. It might mean ‘try to do better’ but I know that already.
Each course is a one-off event where my input is partly dependent on the response from the delegates. I’m never doing the course with those people again. There’s no use telling me they’d rather have had X or Y or that I’d done more A instead of B – because it’s never going to happen differently. That was it. In the past. Done. Feedback that’s useful would, in theory, help me do it better next time – but there would need to be a next time. Where I’m working with the same people again and again, I might be more open to the feedback.
CPD input is just an input. The true value of it is only demonstrated in the long term. To a great extent, the impact of a course depends on the delegates evaluating ideas, dismissing or adapting them and then implementing them on a sustained basis. This then has to translate to improved student outcomes in the long term. None of this is about how good people felt on the day or how lush the catering was – it’s a long-term process. So, in some senses, I should only listen to feedback that follows from the outcomes in the longer term, not what happens on the day.
It’s actually very instructive being on the end of a feedback process when you are also someone who is asked to give it to others. In fact, I’ve had a similar responses to lots of professional feedback over the years: lesson observation feedback I didn’t trust; feedback from leaders or governors I didn’t respect; feedback from parents who had issues that seemed like un-actionable gripes; even twitter people who only ever engage with me to criticise – so I mute them. That’s me!
This doesn’t mean I never listen to feedback – I do. But only when certain conditions apply: I trust the person giving it and the process that generated their comments; they’re saying something I recognise already and feel is true; they’re talking about something I can work on in future; they couch it in terms that makes me feel positive even when giving a hard message. I’ve had plenty of people over the years who’ve known how to do this and done it well: bosses, Chairs of Governors (except one), friends…
So, if I’m involved in a feedback exchange with a teacher, these things seem to be important considerations:
- Is there any point in me giving this person feedback at all – or is just a case of getting them to generate their own a) because they seem capable of doing that and b) it will be more effective that way? If they already have a good sense of their own effectiveness and their improvement agenda, that negates the need for anything more from me beyond some encouragement.
- Do I have enough information from the range of interactions I’ve had to be able to generate meaningful feedback in the first place – or am I placing a lot of weight on scant knowledge of a person’s performance and the impact they have on student learning?
- Do the things I might offer as feedback seem to be things that the person might realistically act on – or am I risking describing behaviours of a person they can’t or won’t ever be? Even if I see things I consider to be very poor practice – I still need to help that person to change and that might not be within my power if they don’t want to. Their sense of themselves is the key – and if they’re happy as they are, I need to think hard about how to address that. Just telling them to change won’t cut it.
- Do they know and trust me enough to value what I’m saying? Have I invested enough in making my feedback carry some credibility before foisting it on them? (Recently I met a teacher who disagreed with me vehemently on principle – so I’d have zero impact by offering her feedback until we found some common ground.)
- Would they respond better to just receiving selective affirmation – ie suggesting they do more of certain positive aspects of their work – rather than offering critical commentary that might demotivate or simply be rejected? I’ve seen that work – and it’s largely how I function myself.
I’m a firm believer that teachers (and schools) need to be known before they are judged -hence the abject folly of grading schools and lessons. It’s only valid to generate feedback from a lesson observation if it is one of many – where you know how a teach operates in the round and can triangulate to outcomes and the quality of student work. Ideally, the role is one of an instructional coach – where you bring your expertise into a conversation based on some shared, objective view of what effective behaviours look like – but where the goal is for the teacher to drive the process, generating their own feedback based on your exchange. That requires trust, some objectivity and an investment in feedback-and-improvement cycles – rather than one-off fly-by reviews.