Providing Meaningful and Constructive Teacher Feedback

Effective feedback is an on-going conversation

By Dianna Whitlock

Over the past decade, educators have grappled with overhauling teacher evaluation systems, spurring plenty of studies on performance and student outcomes. While most of us agree positive reinforcement is key to steering performance, constructive feedback was limited during the 1990s and early 2000s, when evaluations were primarily used to dismiss teachers.

It’s not surprising, then, that some hiccups and missteps still linger as schools and districts reconsider their teacher evaluation strategy—particularly in regard to giving feedback that’s meaningful, actionable, and effective in advancing goals and outcomes.

Reality check & common mistakes

Ask any teacher evaluator, and chances are they could list the attributes of meaningful feedback. Yet, somehow common practice hasn’t quite caught up to common knowledge.

Kevin Ochsner, a researcher at Columbia University, says study findings show people only apply feedback they’ve received about 30% of the time. Can you imagine if only three out of 10 of your teachers apply and benefit from the feedback you’re providing today?

Yosie Saint-Cyr, managing editor at HRinfodesk, points out seven common mistakes that render feedback ineffective:

  1. Providing feedback only when something is wrong or performance is subpar
  2. Providing unsubstantiated praise just to be polite or liked
  3. Providing feedback (whether positive or negative) long after the event, incident or project has occurred
  4. Providing feedback solely via email, phone, or notes
  5. Criticizing in public
  6. Providing negative feedback without clarity, suggestions, training or tools for improvement
  7. No follow-up

What’s the antidote, then? Those foundational practices you may consider common sense may be the very things slipping through the cracks and weakening your feedback.

Clarity, consistency, frequency

The best feedback is fully expected, simply because success metrics and expectations are so clear, no one is surprised to learn where they stand.

While the SMART model for goal-setting is ideal — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound — it must be communicated clearly and frequently so misunderstandings don’t creep in and cloud expectations. Just as important, teachers must understand how those goals actually help them improve student outcomes, versus serving as empty compliance exercises.

Effective feedback is also consistent, both in terms of frequency, and free of conflicting messages. It’s an ongoing conversation; not a formal event that takes place just once every few months.

Help yourself and your teachers by setting aside time to meet on a regular basis. If you don’t, chances are those meetings won’t happen, or they’ll come across as rushed and thoughtless. Plus, late feedback may be too late to make a difference.

Positive exchanges, even when constructive

Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, writes that “people generally respond more strongly to negative events than positive ones.” In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Pozen cites a workplace study that found employees react six times more strongly to negative interactions with their boss, and nearly half of employees on the receiving end of harsh criticism intentionally reduce their productivity.

At the same time, 57 percent of employees surveyed by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership consultancy firm, prefer corrective feedback over praise, and 92 percent agreed with the statement, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” Note the emphasis on “if delivered appropriately.”

At a minimum, deliver negative or corrective feedback in private, and keep your tone collaborative, says Pozen. Also, avoid giving criticism that’s not really helpful, or based on personal preferences: “If an error is so inconsequential that the corrective value of the criticism is low,” Pozen explains, “it might make sense to keep that feedback to yourself.”

Focus on the behavior, not the person, and be sure to equip the recipient with the tools, training or resources needed to make changes.

Pozen also points to advice by John Gottman, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington: Make sure positive interactions outnumber negative ones by at least five to one.

Make it a two-way road

Want a meaningful feedback culture? Then model it by accepting feedback yourself.

Enable teachers to voice what could have gone better, or how you could provide better direction in the future. Then actually apply that feedback, unless doing so would hurt teacher performance or students.

Finally, ensure your evaluation process is an ethical one by training both evaluators and teachers, and ensuring evaluations are reliable and consistent by including multiple observations by multiple evaluators.

All things considered, feedback that’s meaningful is feedback that values the individual. Value your teachers by setting clear expectations, interacting often, and equipping them to do what you’ve asked them to do.

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