5 Crucial Mistakes We Often Make When Trying to Support A Struggling Teacher (And what you should be doing instead)


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

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 5 of the BIGGEST mistakes we often make when trying to support a struggling teacher.

Most of these mistakes I’ve made myself and I’ve also observed people making time and time again. The challenge is that all of these mistakes seem like very logical responses to a teacher who is struggling.

What’s more, many of these mistakes are things that we were taught to do. We were told that this is the way that you support a struggling teacher.

Problem is, whenever we make these mistakes with struggling teachers, we actually end up making the teachers WORSE instead of better and we often destroy our relationships with struggling teachers in the process.

And we know this intuitively. So although I am going to talk about 5 crucial mistakes today, I’m not really sharing anything that earth shattering and new. If you committed these mistakes before then you already know that they don’t work and actually make things worse.

But because you’ve been told in the past that THIS is the way to do things, you’ve blame yourself or you’ve thought “well if I just tweak how I am doing this things will be better.” But you can’t tweak these mistakes. They are mistakes. You shouldn’t be doing them at all.

So today, we’re going to finally call out these mistakes for what they are and I’m going to show you what you should be doing instead. By the time you’re done, you’re going to know how to support a struggling teacher like a Builder.

But, before we dive in, let’s take a moment to thank today’s sponsor The Feedback Fast-Track Formula. If you’ve struggled to get into classrooms or you struggle to give teachers meaningful feedback that actually changes their practice, then I want you to know, it’s not your fault. It’s your training. You see the way that most of us were trained to give feedback to teachers is totally wrong. We were told that we had to get into classrooms and write down everything that’s happening and then fill out all these forms or create a formulaic write up and then hand it to the teacher and then magically the teacher’s practice will get better.


That’s not feedback, that’s documentation and documentation doesn’t change practice.

No wonder we dread getting into classrooms and having feedback conversations.

What feedback fasttrack formula does is that it shows you a better way to get into classrooms and get to the root cause of a teacher’s practice and then give that teacher real feedback that they can immediately act on and that will make the biggest difference to their practice.

So if you know that the way you currently get into classrooms and give feedback is NOT working and you’re looking for a better way, then I invite you to check out the Feedback Fast-track Formula at mindstepsinc.com/feedback. I’ll also put the link in the show notes.

Okay, let’s dive into the 5 crucial mistakes we make when supporting struggling teachers.

Mistake #1: Leading with a question

I see this all the time. We start the feedback conversation with a question, So how do you think the class went?

This is how we were trained. We were all taught that we should ask reflective questions in order to get teachers to reflect on their practice.

So we ask teachers, so how do you think the lesson went and we HOPE that the teacher will offer a thoughtful assessment of her class, noting the things that worked and those that didn’t and then we can have an engaging conversation about what improvements we can make.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But when you’re working with a struggling teacher, our training on asking reflective questions fails us.

Because when you ask a struggling teacher “so how do you think the class went?” one of three things is going to happen.

What’s most likely to happen is the teacher will shrug and say, “Ok I guess,” and the whole time the teacher is just bracing herself for your criticism. It’s almost like a test. Say the right thing and you get points for being reflective. Say the wrong thing and you get penalized for not being reflective. So, many struggling teaches try to sidestep this question for fear that they will say the wrong thing.

Or the teacher might try to pre-empt your criticism by admitting that the class didn’t go well. It doesn’t happen often but if the teacher is even a little savvy then they might try to criticize their lesson before you do so that they can at least get points for being “reflective.” The problem is that most struggling teachers don’t know what’s not working or why it isn’t working. Sure, they may be able to voice their frustrations about things not working, but if a struggling teacher could actually diagnose what did not work in his/her classroom and why it didn’t work, would they really be struggling all that much in the first place?

Or worse, the teacher might say, “I thought it went okay” and then you have to spend the rest of the conversation telling them why the lesson you observed was NOT okay and now you have an argument.

The point is this. If you are asking struggling teachers to reflect on their practice and self-diagnose their problems you are setting them up for failure from the start of the conversation and your’e doing it when you already have ample evidence that they are NOT successfully thinking strategically about their instruction or being self-reflective because if they were, their classrooms would reflect that.

I get it. You want to help teachers be reflective so you ask reflective questions. But, if you ask struggling teachers to be reflective in a vacuum, you are setting that teacher up for failure.

A better approach is to start by giving the struggling teacher diagnostic feedback first. Then, offer them an opportunity to reflect on the feedback you’ve given them. This does 3 things. First, it gives them a focus for their reflection. Second, it takes the pressure off. They don’t have to worry about performing reflection and getting the answer right by guessing what’s on your mind. They can genuinely reflect on your feedback because it’s out there already. And third, it keeps the reflection focused on the root cause rather than random reflections about aspects of their practice that won’t make the biggest difference in their effectiveness.

Now a lot of people worry that by offering their feedback first, won’t it actually cut off reflection?

Honestly, it could if you are offering an evaluation of their practice. If you make your feedback evaluative, you will cut off reflection because it feels as if everything is already decided.

But when you offer your feedback as feedback, it’s pretty easy to engage the teacher in reflecting on that feedback, especially when you solicit their thoughts around your feedback and then allow their thoughts to round out or refine your feedback. And, if you give them an opportunity to go back and see it for themselves in their classrooms, the discussion gets even richer. So yes, done wrong, sharing your feedback first before reflection can stifle true reflection. But done correctly, sharing your feedback first before reflection can open up the conversation and make struggling teachers true partners in the conversation rather than passive recipients of your evaluation.

Mistake #2: Giving Too Much Feedback

I talked a little about this one last time but it bears repeating. Giving struggling teachers too much feedback is not only overwhelming, it’s counter-productive.

Now I get it. You go into a struggling teacher’s classroom and so many things aren’t working and you’re worried that if you don’t document everything, you will let that teacher off the hook.

But, there’s a difference between documentation and feedback. Documenting is simply listing all that you see. Feedback is interpreting the laundry list of things that went well and those that didn’t so that people can adjust their performance and improve.

The mistake I see happening all the time is that we spend a lot of time documenting struggling teachers’ classrooms and very little time giving them high quality feedback pitched at their level and designed to help them improve.

Mistake #3: Doing the Thinking for the Teacher

When we see a class not working, we want to go in and fix things right away. So we pull out our old lesson plans or we bombard them with tools and strategies and we tell them exactly what they need to do to fix their class.

Basically we swoop in and say, “Look, you’re doing a terrible job here. So, just do everything exactly as I tell you and you’ll be okay.”

But what happens when you leave and they have to stand on their own? If you’re doing all the thinking how will they ever learn how to think for themselves?

If you want a struggling teacher to improve, you can’t focus on just changing their behavior. You have to also change the way that they THINK.

And that can only happen if you actually allow them to do the thinking for themselves.

So how do you do that especially since I won’t let you ask them all those thought-provoking questions you were taught to write?

Well, the answer is pretty simple. The way that you help struggling teachers think for themselves is to use Diagnostic Feedback. Now if you aren’t familiar with Diagnostic feedback, then I encourage you to listen to episode 11 where I take you through the entire process. But the reason that diagnostic feedback works, is that you help struggling teachers understand why what they are doing isn’t working BEFORE you swoop in and try to fix it. The idea is that the better they understand the problem, the more empowered they will be to become active participants in finding the right solution.

When you help struggling teachers understand the problem and be a part of the solution, not only are you helping them learn how to think like master teachers, you are helping them take more and more ownership over their own practice and become more and more responsible for solving their issues.

Mistake #4: Using Educator-ese

Educator-ese is a term that I’ve coined for all of the specialized language we have in our profession. Terms like rigor, engagement, differentiated instruction, student ownership.

These are terms that we all use, but the problem is that often, we all have different understandings of what those terms actually mean.

Take rigor for example. For some people, rigor means harder. For others it means more challenging. For still others it means more work. And for some it might mean more thinking.

See how all different all those interpretations are?

Or take student engagement. For some that means that the students are having a good time. For others it means that students are doing exactly what the teacher tells them to do. For others it means students are actively participating in class. For others it means that students are meaningfully involved in the learning. And for others it could mean that students are co-creators of their learning.

Again, very different interpretations of the term.

So when you work with a struggling teacher, well any teacher really, you have to be careful not to assume that they have the same definition of terms as you do.

For instance, when you work with a struggling teacher and you say that he needs to increase the rigor of his lessons, what exactly do you mean?

Or when you tell a teacher that there needs to be more student engagement, what would that look like?

You have to be specific. Otherwise, you may tell them you need more rigor or you need more student engagement and they actually make adjustments to their instruction based on your feedback. But, when you go back into the classroom you don’t notice the changes because they weren’t the changes you envisioned when you gave the feedback. Now you’re frustrated and they’re frustrated and it never works.

So, the antidote is that when you find yourself using educator-ese, and by the way, we ALL do it, there is a simple 6 word phrase you can use to immediately clarify what you mean.

It goes like this: What I mean by that is…

So when you tell a struggling teacher that he needs more rigor in his classroom, you would say, You need more rigor in your lessons and what I mean by that is that during your lessons you ask a lot of yes/no questions that require little thinking from the students. Instead, I want you to focus on asking questions that require students to come up with answers on their own and elaborate on their answers in a way that shows evidence of their thinking.

Or instead of saying, You need more student engagement. You would say, You need more student engagement and what I mean by that is that you need to include activities where students probe problems and come up with solutions on their own. So instead of simply telling students the answers, you create an environment where students discover the answers on their own with your guidance and support.

You get the idea. Don’t assume that struggling teachers share your same understanding of the terms we use in this field. Instead, elaborate and tell them exactly what you mean so that they can act on your feedback effectively.

Mistake #5: Expecting them to go from struggling to highly effective in just one conversation

I hate to tell you this but there are no magical words or feedback formulas that will immediately turn a struggling teacher into a high performing teacher. Improving teacher practice is a developmental process and it will take time.

But most of us go in and we expect a struggling teacher to make improvements that will immediately turn them into a master teacher. So for instance, if they are struggling with routines and procedures, we go in and we give them all these routines and procedures to implement right away when they haven’t developed the skill sets they need to maintain them. Or if they are struggling with creating a coherent learning plan for students, we go in and give them a model of an effective lesson plan and expect them to reproduce it right away.

That’s not only unfair, it isn’t even feasible.

Instead focus on incremental improvement. Your ONLY goal for a struggling teacher is to move them up ONE category at a time. That means that if a teacher is ineffective, your only goal is to get them to needs improvement. Once they are in needs improvement, your ONLY goal is to get them to effective. Then from there to highly effective. That’s it.

So instead of going in and giving them a bunch of high-level routines and procedures, go in and have them focus on the one routine or the one procedure that will make the biggest impact on their classroom immediately. Or, instead of having them create a perfect lesson plan, have them work on clear, standards aligned learning objectives first. Once they get those things dialed in, THEN you can go back and build on those to add the next thing. 

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

The 5 Crucial mistakes we make when trying to support a struggling teacher are:

  1. Leading with a question
  2. Giving Too Much Feedback
  3. Doing the thinking for the teacher
  4. Using Educator-ese
  5. Expecting them to go from struggling to highly effective in just one conversation

And like I said in the beginning, we’re often taught that we should be doing these things with struggling teachers when in fact, doing these exact things rarely help the teacher improve and can really damage our relationship with the teacher and thus our influence with the teacher. Instead, we need to meet struggling teachers where they are, give them an chance to process information before asking them to reflect on it, give them focused feedback that allows them to think for themselves, be very clear about what we mean and then help them get onto a pathway to continuous improvement rather than expecting them to behave like master teachers after one conversation.

When you do this, when you take this approach, you can not only help a struggling teacher improve, you can put that teacher on a pathway to mastery and help them eventually become a master teacher. That’s how you support struggling teachers like a builder.

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today’s sponder the Feedback Fast-Track Formula which is a 4-part online training program that helps you shave up to half the amount of time you are spending giving feedback to teachers while making your feedback twice as effective. In fact, if you use this process, you can help every teacher you work with score at least one level higer in at least one domain or problem area in one school year. Again, you can sign up for the training at mindstepsinc.com/feedback. 

And as I do almost every week, I want to connect with you on linked in. Would you please find me at Robyn Jackson on Linked In and let’s connect? I’d love for us to be connected.

Next ​week...

Now I’m so excited about next week’s episode. Every year I do a post on the blog with our summer reading list. This year, I’m doing an entire podcast episode on the 5 non-education books every builder should be reading this summer. If you’re looking to up your game, then you don’t want to miss this list. I’ve got some amazing books on the list. So make sure that you tune in next time to find out how to tackle your own personal summer reading list like a builder.

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.