- School Leadership ReimaginedHow to Give Difficult Feedback to a Struggling Teacher

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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number ​eleven.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson. ​

Hey Builders, welcome back to another episode of the School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and today, we’re talking about how to give difficult feedback to a struggling teacher.

Have you ever worked with a teacher who was really struggling? I’m talking REALLY struggling as in there were more things wrong happening in the classroom than there were things right. You know those classrooms where you go in to do an observation or provide coaching and there were so many things not working that you are not sure where to start?

If you have, then you know how hard it is to give a really struggling teacher good feedback.

What most of us do is we go in and we give teachers a laundry list of all the things that they need to work on. You need to have routines and procedures in place, you need to start and finish the warm up on time, you need to have more student engagement, you need to make sure that the assignment connects to the learning objective, you need to HAVE a learning objective, and on and on and on.

The problem is that first, this type of feedback is really overwhelming. Each one of these things would take a lot to correct.

Second, if the teacher is really struggling then will the teacher even be able to make the corrections you’re asking for? After all, if they could make those corrections, wouldn’t they have done it already?

So when you give this type of feedback, one of three things usually happens. Either the teacher tries to correct everything at once and it’s a disaster. Or the teacher picks and chooses what to correct -- and they usually focus on the easiest thing to correct and even then, they often don’t fix that and it’s a disaster. Or, the teacher gets overwhelmed and ignores your feedback altogether and the class stays a disaster.

There has to be a better way.

The problem isn’t the teacher. The problem is that you are giving the teacher the wrong feedback.

I’ll tell you what I mean by that in just a second

But first,  I want to take a moment to thank today’s sponsor.

Today’s episode is sponsored by my online training program called the Feedback Fast-track Formula. If you are struggling to get into classrooms and give teachers meaningful feedback or if you are overwhelmed with sheer pile of observation write ups you have to complete. If you are frustrated because teachers are not actually ACTING on your feedback and keep making the same mistakes in the classroom over and over again. Or, if you just want to learn how to give better feedback to teachers, then you need this course. It’s a 4-week online training program where you will learn how to streamline your entire feedback process so that you can get into more classrooms, give more meaningful feedback that teachers will actually act on, and complete your post-observation write ups more quickly. Plus you’ll get access to a Vault of templates, exemplars, and tools you can use to fast-track your feedback and see results from your feedback MUCH more quickly. Most students actually cut the time they spend doing their observations and completing their post-observation write ups by between 25 and 50%. What’s more, they get teachers moving in the right direction MUCH more quickly and even get most of their teachers moving UP at least one level on their observation instrument each school year. If you want to learn more about the Feedback Fast-Track Formula online training program, just go to mindstepsinc.com/feedback. I’ll also link to it in the show notes.

Okay, let’s dive in.

A couple of months ago, I was working with a group of administrators and instructional coaches and I was showing them how to give teachers more meaningful feedback.

I had showed them how to do something I call micro-slicing which is a strategy for getting to the root cause of a teacher’s practice during a brief observation.

We had worked on microslicing all day and everyone felt really confident that they were ready.

Until they got back to their schools and started observing their own teachers.

About a week after the workshop, I got a call from one of the principals and this is what he said:

What do you do about a classroom where EVERYTHING was wrong?

I could tell he was really frustrated so I asked him what he meant.

He was like: I don’t even know where to start? I just came from a classroom where everything was wrong. I mean nothing was right. Nothing!

We talked for a few minutes and he shared with me the details of the class. It sounded like it was really a mess. When he finished describing what he’d just observed, he said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

Have you ever felt like that? I mean have you ever gone in to observe a class and so many things were just not working that you didn’t even know where to start?

It happens more than we want to admit. And usually, our first response is to list all the things that aren’t working in the classroom and roll up our sleeves and get to work starting to fix them.

So we craft all this feedback and create this plan to help the teacher get back on track. We feel this sense of urgency around everything because after all children are suffering in that classroom and not learning. So we swoop in and get to action right away.

I get the impulse. I understand your sense of urgency. I even understand your frustration. It’s really hard to sit there and see a classroom that’s a complete disaster and not do something.

But that’s exactly what I want you to do. I want you to resist the urge to go in a FIX everything. Here’s why:

You see, if a teacher is really struggling, if their classroom is really a mess, and you go in and give them a TON of feedback, do you really think that the teacher has the ability or capacity to take in that feedback, act on it and make significant improvement by the time you come back for your next visit?

Probably not. If they did, they wouldn’t be struggling so much in the first place.

So you can go in and give them a ton of feedback and a ton of suggestions for how they can fix their classroom, but I promise you, it’s not going to make that much of a difference.

I mean on some level you know this don’t you? You know they aren’t going to be able to act on all that feedback but you feel duty bound to give it anyway if for no other reason than it allows you to create a paper trail and cover yourself if and when you move for dismissal.

But there is a better way. You see, as you’ve probably noticed by now, Builders do things differently. They zig when everyone else is zagging. Builders realize that giving struggling teachers a laundry list of things to fix does not solve the problem. In fact, it can actually make the situation worse.

So Builders use a special kind of feedback when they are working with struggling teachers. This feedback is given in a way that the teachers can not only understand, but they can immediately act on that feedback and use it to improve.

The feedback that Builders use with struggling teachers is something I call Diagnostic Feedback and here’s how it works.

You see, if you look at most observation or evaluation rubrics, the lowest level a teacher can achieve on most of those instruments is usually called something like unsatisfactory, or ineffective or something like that. And usually, the ONLY thing that distinguishes the lowest level from the next lowest level is that there is something major MISSING from a teacher’s practice. That something missing might be routines and procedures, or it might be a lesson objective, or the teacher might be missing an understanding of how students learn. Whenever a teacher’s class is a disaster, it is usually because something really important is missing from a teacher’s practice. And, if you want to move that teacher’s practice forward, they need to ACQIURE whatever is missing from their practice.

Now here’s the problem. A lot of times struggling teachers will hear that something is missing from their practice and they will run out and try to add it to their teaching by the time you come back to observe their classroom again. So for instance, if you tell them that they are missing routines and procedures, they might go out and try to add a bunch of random routines and procedures without really thinking through what routines and procedures they actually need. Or suppose you tell them that they need a learning objective. They may go and slap a learning objective on the board but continue to teach in the same directionless way that they’ve always taught.

So it isn’t enough that they just ADD what’s missing to their teaching and everything is all better.

Instead, you want them to incorporate what’s missing into their practice in a way that makes everything in the classroom better. And it also means that they may need to STOP doing a few things that are undermining their effectiveness as well.

Well if you want them to do that, you have to do more than just tell them what’s missing from their practice. You need to help them understand why it’s important to add what’s missing, what to STOP doing, and how to do it all in a way that’s judicious and in a way that makes a difference in their overall practice.

In short, you don’t want them to add what’s missing to meet the demands of an observation instrument. You want them to add what’s missing in a way that makes them a better teacher.

That’s why Builders don’t give struggling teachers laundry lists of what’s missing. Instead, they use diagnostic feedback to help struggling teachers understand why what’s missing is so critical first before they show them how to fix the holes in their practice. That way, struggling teachers actually understand why they need to add something to their practice and then thoughtfully learn how to incorporate the missing skills into their teaching.

So the way diagnostic feedback works is that first, you need to figure out what is the root cause of why a teacher is struggling.

Now this can be hard especially if the teacher has several things that aren’t working in his or her practice. So to figure out the root cause, list EVERYTHING that isn’t working and then go through each thing and ask yourself, If the teacher fixed this ONE thing and ONLY this one thing, would the class and her teaching get significantly better?

Keep narrowing down until you arrive at the ONE thing. That’s where you’re going to start.

Now there’s a reason why you are only going to work on ONE thing at a time. You see, if a teacher is struggling there are usually several major things that are not working in his practice.

You can’t fix every major thing at once. That’s just too overwhelming. So you work on one thing at a time. But, because you are focusing on the root cause, the thing that will make the biggest difference in a teacher’s practice, if you fix THAT thing you will not only see major momentum in moving the teacher’s practice forward, if that ONE thing is truly the root cause, when you fix that ONE thing, you are also going to be fixing a lot of related problems as well.

So the first thing Builders do is figure out the root cause.

The next step is to use the Diagnostic Feedback Framework to share the root cause with the teacher. That doesn’t mean that they don’t also share everything else that isn’t working but when they do go through the list, they give the list context by sharing the root cause.

Here’s what sharing the root cause in a diagnostic way sounds like.

At the beginning of the lesson, you started with a warm up where you had the students meditate to prepare their minds for learning. You turned out the lights and told the students to close their eyes so that they could go through a guided meditation. However, many students had their eyes open, several were looking at their phones, and others were sleeping. What’s more, I couldn’t see how the guided meditation exercise you played for them related to learning. After the exercise, you collected students’ homework student by student taking time to stop and confer with several students individually about why he or she did not have the homework completed. While you were speaking to students individually, the rest of the class began talking among themselves and soon the talking escalated to the point where you had to say to the class several times, “You are talking too loud. Please be quiet until I reach your desk!”

The actual lesson began about 18 minutes after the beginning of class. At that point, you asked students to take out their world studies books and turn to chapter 12. For the next 23 minutes, you went through a powerpoint presentation of an outline of the chapter and told the students to take notes. You read each slide to them but did not elaborate any further, check for understanding or give students an opportunity to reflect on their learning. Throughout the lecture, the majority of the students were off task, on their cell phones, whispering to classmates, doodling, or asleep. I noticed that only 3 of the 25 students consistently took notes throughout the lecture. When the bell rang, you stood at the door and gave students a homework packet with no direction as to how to complete the homework and told them that it was due the following day.

While I have several concerns about the lesson, the most pressing concern is that students were largely disengaged throughout the lesson. And the reason that students were so disengaged is that there didn’t seem to be a clear learning purpose for any lesson activity.

Okay, let’s dissect that a little bit. If you noticed, I started out by describing what I observed in the classroom. I didn’t list all the things that were wrong with what I described. I just described it. Then I summarized my description by explaining the root cause -- students are disengaged because there is no clear learning purpose for any lesson activity.

That’s the root cause.That’s the ONE thing the teacher needs to work on first if they are going to turn their classroom around. Once you identify the root cause,

​The next step in diagnostic feedback is ...

to explain why the root cause is the root cause. You see if you just throw the root cause out there, there is no guarantee that the struggling teacher understands why it’s such a concern. You can’t assume that they know why a lack of purpose leads to a lack of student engagement. You can’t even assume that they understand why a lack of student engagement is such a problem.

So you need to explain it. You need to make sure that the struggling teacher understands why the root cause if a problem BEFORE you fix it. If you just rush in and tell them you need to do this, this, and this before they understand WHY you are asking them to adjust their instruction, then the best you can expect out of them is compliance.

But have you ever told a struggling teacher to change something in their instruction and they did EXACTLY what you told them to do and their teaching was still awful or worse, it got even MORE awful?

The reason that happens is because if you tell a struggling teacher to fix something but they don’t understand WHY they need to fix it, then they CAN’T really fix it.

Wait. What’s that? Do I hear someone out there saying, “But they are an adult and a professional. They went to school. They should know why.”

Well you’re right. They should know. But they don’t. So you can either sit there and complain about it or you can roll up your sleeves and actually make a difference. Your Choice.

Builders choose to make a difference. And sometimes that means helping a struggling teacher understand why they need to make a significant change in their teaching before they go in and show them a technique or strategy.

And this is what makes diagnostic feedback so hard. You have to resist FIXING the problems you see until the teacher understands why they are problems to begin with.

That means that during the first conversation, your focus is on helping the struggling teacher see the problems for him or herself and understanding why it’s a problem. That’s it.

Now before you click the stop button on this episode hear me out. You see, most leaders skip this part and this is why a lot of struggling teachers never get better from our feedback.

I get it. Remember, a large part of my job as an education consultant is to work with struggling teachers so I have probably seen some of the worst classrooms you can ever imagine. I know what it’s like to sit there and fight the urge to just tell the teacher sit down, I’ll teach. I know how frustrating it can be to see students suffer through really terrible instruction.

But I am telling you, if you go in and you try to fix the teacher before the teacher even understands what’s not working and why it isn’t working, you are going to set yourself up for frustration.

If you swoop in and fix the problem, who is doing the work, you or the teacher?

You are.

If you tell the teacher exactly what you want the teacher to do, even if they do it exactly like you tell them to, who is doing the thinking?

You are.

And even if the teacher shows some improvement on their next observation and does exactly what you told them to do, because YOU are doing the work and YOU are doing the thinking, has the teacher really gotten any better?

If you really want a struggling teacher to improve, then you have to help that teacher learn how to think differently about instruction. You have to help that teacher make better instructional decisions.

THAT’s the goal of working with a struggling teacher. That’s the point. In order to do that, you have to actually hold back from fixing things until you first help them understand why things need fixing.

Does that mean that you will never offer suggestions or recommendations or share strategies and techniques?

No. But it does mean that you will hold off on doing those things until you are sure that the teacher first understands why he or she needs them. Otherwise, trust me, you are wasting your time.

The final step in giving diagnostic feedback...

to a struggling teacher is the follow up. See, one conversation may not be enough for the struggling teacher to truly get it. So you need to find a way to help them see for themselves what you are telling them about their practice.

You may also need to give them some time to digest what you are telling them and reflect on their own practice. If you really want it to sink in, if you really want to help them turn their practice around, it’s gonna take time.

But what you don’t want to do is to just say “Take some time to think about this and get back to me.” No, no, no. Remember, struggling teachers are usually not that reflective about their own practice so you can’t leave them to their own devices. You need to structure that reflection so that it includes a level of accountability.

So what you do is after you tell them the root cause and after you explain to them WHY the root cause is the root cause, you need to give them something specific to reflect on.

For example, you in the observation I just described earlier where the root cause was a lack of engagement because the purpose of the activities and assignments was unclear, one way that I might have that teacher reflect on my feedback would be to go through their upcoming lesson plans for the week and ask them to identify the purpose for each activity. Then you could coach them on how to make the purpose align with the objective and thus much more clear and engaging to students.

Or, you could have the teacher pay attention to the level of student engagement for the remainder of the week and then come back and talk about what she noticed.

You get the point right? The idea is to have the teacher see what you observed for herself. Once she can recognize the issue herself, she will be a lot better fixing it.

So what happens if you tell the struggling teacher to reflect and they don’t do it. Maybe when you check back in on Friday, they give you an excuse about how they didn’t have time or they forgot or they tell you that they didn’t notice anything.

No problem. It just means that you need to provide them with a bit more structure. So if I told the teacher to reflect and the teacher didn’t for some reason, I might say, “Okay. This is really important and I really want you to get it. So, here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to come in and film a lesson with my ipad. Then, after school, you and I can sit down together and watch the video of your lesson and I show you exactly what I mean.”

No punishment. No writing people up. Just a steady and supportive call to accountability that helps the teacher understand and own the problem.

​That's what Builders do, because until the teacher understands and owns the problem the teacher is not going to be able to fix the problem for good.And if you don't take the time to help them do that first, then a lot of your feedback is really going to be a waste of time. Okay? So that's the big thing for today.

And before we go, I just want to recap everything that we learned.

So the first thing that we talked about today is that if a teacher is really struggling, if their classroom is just really a mess, then they usually don't have the ability or the capacity to take in a ton of feedback and they certainly don't have the capacity to act on a ton of feedback.

So if you really want to make teachers have significant improvement, if you really want to help teachers acting your feedback, then you need to change the way that you give them feedback. And builders understand this.

So what builders use is they use a special kind of feedback called diagnostic feedback. And this feedback is given in a way that teachers can not only understand it, but they can immediately act on it and they can use it to improve. And the reason that diagnostic feedback works so well is that it allows struggling teachers to really understand why their teaching practice is not working before it offers solutions. So that way struggling teachers have this opportunity to reflect on and take ownership over their own practice first. And then they can be truly engaged and looking for solutions and in fixing their practice. Now I can feel the vibrations through the podcast ways right now.

Somebody somewhere right now is saying all that trouble for a struggling teacher. You've got to be kidding me. That teacher just needs to go. I hope that wasn't you, because that's not how builders thing. Builders believe that if we're going to hold teachers accountable to the idea that all children can learn, then as builders we have to walk the talk ourselves. If I won't let a teacher come into my office and say, that child needs to be out of my classroom. If I would say to that teacher, it doesn't matter what that child's issues are. Once he or she is in your classroom, that's your student and I expect you to do your best to help him. Then I have to do the same for the teachers in my building. I have to walk the talk. You know, other people may discount or throw struggling teachers away, but builder is believed that if they have a struggling teacher in their school, their job is to build that teacher's capacity to get that teacher on the road to mastery period.

Here's what happens when you do that. Either the teacher will improve or the teacher will leave, but what will not happen is that teacher will not remain where he or she is stagnating. Day after day, while children suffer, they will either improve or they will leave. Now, that's what happens when you give struggling teachers diagnostic feedback. You say diagnostic feedback doesn't let those teachers off the hook. Instead, it holds those features with very accountable for not just making surface improvements on their practice, but for making significant deep improvements on their practice, and it helps teachers get better, not just passing observation. It helps struggling teachers actually get better.

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today's freebie, which is an infographic that outlines the entire diagnostic feedback framework from start to finish and what you can do is you can use that infographic to help you map out your next feedback conversation with a struggling teacher, so go to school leadership reimagined.com/episode 11 and download the infographic and then once you've taken it and downloaded it and started using it, if you have any questions about it or if you've had some success with it, I'd love for you to let me know and

​There are two ways that we can connect...

The first way is on linkedin. That's where I'm spending a lot of my time lately and I'm fielding a lot of questions about the podcast, so if we are not connected on linkedin, you can find me at robin jackson on linkedin. I Would love for us to be connected. The second way is to just send us an email and you can send an email to info@schoolleadershipreimagined.com. That's info@schoolleadershipreimagined.com. All right, now, one last thing I need to ask you a favor. You see, if you're enjoying this podcast and you find it valuable, it would really help me a lot if you would take a moment to leave a five star review on itunes. In fact, if you did that, how it counted as a personal favor to me and it really helped me get the word out about this podcast to more and more people. So if you're not sure how to leave a review, I have a link on today's show notes that can walk you step by step through the process. Just go to school leadership reimagined.com/episode 11. Or you can go straight to itunes and leave your five star review. And if you do that, really, really be grateful. So that's it for today.

Next time...

I want to continue this conversation about working with struggling teachers because it is such an important and very frustrating topic. So that's why next time I'm going to talk about the five crucial mistakes that we often make when we're trying to support a struggling teacher. And I'm also going to talk about what you should be doing instead. So in that episode you're going to discover the crucial mistakes that many of us make when we're coaching or when we're leading or when we're trying to support a struggling teacher. Plus I'm gonna show you exactly how you can help a struggling teacher make significant improvements and get them on the pathway to mastery. So make sure you tune in next time. For that, we're, we're going to learn how to support struggling teachers like a builder. That's it for today. Bye for now. And I'll see you next time.

Thank you for listening to the ​School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit​ ​https://schoolleadershipreimagined.com/ ​+

​School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build a master teachers.