​What to do about Blank Stares


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

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 to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined. I’m your host Robyn Jackson and today we’re talking about the dreaded blank stare.

Let me ask you something. Have you ever been in a post-observation conference and you’re sitting there going over your feedback with a teacher and you see a blank look cross that teacher’s face and you know that she is no longer hearing you?

Or maybe you’re sharing feedback with a teacher and he is nodding and acting like he’s listening but you know that he is not really hearing anything you say?

Or have you ever been in a faculty meeting and you’re doing an amazing presentation about your school vision and you look out into the audience and you know that they are not really listening to you and are just being polite?

It’s so frustrating isn’t it when you are sharing really important information with someone, information that is critical to their success, and they don’t react at all. They just sit there and take it and you know they aren’t listening to you, they’re just going through the motions.

Drives me bananas.

But recently, I read something that explained exactly why we’re sometimes faced with blank stares when we share feedback and it surprised me.

You see, I thought those blank stares were people who were trying to tune me out. I interpreted their blank stares as a subtle form of resistance and I would respond by getting more and more directive just to try to get SOME reaction out of them.

Can you relate? I mean have you ever found yourself doing that in a post-observation conference? Hellooooo? Is there anybody there???

But I’ve learned that’s the wrong approach.

So today, we’re going to talk about what’s behind those blank stares and how we can get through to people even when it seems as if they are shutting us out. By the end of this episode, you’ll know exactly how to overcome blank stares #likeabuilder.

But before I dive in,

I need to ask you a question. Think about the last education conference you went to and tell me if this sounds familiar. The conference is great. Inspiring speakers and amazing sessions. You leave the conference with notebooks filled with ideas, but with a slight feeling of overwhelm. I mean, the ideas are great but where do you start? So you go home really motivated but you have no idea what to work on first. You don’t have a plan, so while you may implement a few things, soon you’re caught up in the day to day stuff at your school and all those notes you took sit on a shelf somewhere and all those plans you made at the conference never get done.
Well I’ve got good news for you. When you come to Builder’s Lab 2019, that will not be your experience.

In fact, Builder’s Lab 2019 isn’t even really a conference. It’s an intensive. 3 days working with me, my team, and a small committed group of educators from around the world to build your exact blueprint for getting everyone in your school moving towards your goals.

That teacher who always complains but never actually works on fixing things? You’ll have a plan for her. Those awkward feedback conversations that you can’t stand? You’ll have the tools and scripts you need to ensure that you never endure one of those again. That toxic culture that’s keeping you from moving forward? You’ll have the exact plan to overcome it for good. Got people who like to talk about solutions but never DO anything about them. You’re going to learn exactly how to get people to finally take action and DO something.

In fact, in our implementation lab on day 3, you’ll develop your 90-day blueprint with specific goals and specific actions. And, you’ll actually get started on implementing what you learn at Builder’s Lab right there, before you go home, so that when you get back to your school or district, you’ll already have gotten the ball rolling.

That’s why I really want you to come to Builder’s Lab 2019 because my aim for you is to walk out of our 3 days together with a plan and clarity while knowing exactly what your next steps are to achieve your vision for your school THIS year with the people you already have.

Think that’s impossible? Come to Builder’s Lab 2019 and find out exactly how possible it really is.

And if you really want to see results, then I encourage you to bring your team with you. That means your AP’s and your instructional coaches. That way, you can work together while you’re at Builder’s Lab and go back to your school with work already done. Plus, when you and your team are on the same page, that’s when the magic really happens!

Now here’s the bad news. You only have less than a month to get your Builder’s Lab 2019 tickets. So, if you’ve been sitting on the fence and waiting, it’s time to take action. You need to go to www.mindstepsinc.com/Builders-lab and get your tickets today, right now, and then get ready to discover how to get everyone who works in your school or district on board and working together towards your school goals. That’s mindstepsinc.com/Builders-lab and I’ll also put a link in the show notes. 

Remember all season long, we’re looking at how to turn obstacles into opportunities? 

So here’s this week’s obstacle. You’re sitting with a teacher during a post-observation conference and you’ve carefully described what you saw in the classroom and explained as clearly as you can exactly what the teacher needs to do to improve and you look up and the teacher is sitting there staring blankly back at you. No response. No emotion. Nothing.

Or, you get in front of your staff for staff meeting and you share with them some pretty disturbing data about student performance. Then you explain your plan for what you need to do as a school to improve the data and you are met with blank looks and an overall sense of apathy among the group. Hello? Did you just hear anything I just said?

I don’t know about you but I HATE that. It almost feels as if the person I am talking to is being intentionally blank.

But, are they? Maybe sometimes. But in most cases, there’s a very specific reason for the blank stares.

Today, we’re going to talk about 3 reasons for those blank stares and how you can turn each reason into a really good opportunity to not only get your point across, but to actually help someone buy in and take the next step forward toward your goals.

Ok, reason number one for blank stares is a lack of confidence.

Now this one may seem kinda odd, but stick with me. You see, I read a really interesting quote recently. It comes from the book The Art of Explanation by Lee Lefever.

He says, “Black stares oten arise when someone has lost confidence that they can grasp -- or should even care about -- the idea you are communicating. And, once confidence erodes, it is difficult to regain in that session. The audience essentially throws up their hands and focuses solely on “getting through” the explanation rather than fully understanding it. It can be a frustrating situation for all, and one that happens more than you think.”

Think about it. If you’re giving a teacher feedback and that feedback is really beyond their grasp, they don’t understand what you are asking them to do and what’s worse, they don’t currently have the skill set they need to do what you’re asking them to do, it can totally erode their confidence and make them retreat inside. They just withdraw and try to get through the conversation but they can’t actively participate in the solution because they don’t really believe that they CAN improve the way that you want them to.

I see this all the time. In fact, I used to face this obstacle myself. I would be in a post observation conference and because I wanted to do a good job, I would give the teacher ALL the feedback in my heart. I mean ALL of it. Every minute of the class was analyzed. Every domain in my evaluation system covered.

And about halfway through my feedback soliloquy I would often see the teacher check out. I mean it would be like the teacher had closed the blinds behind her eyes. Sure, she was still there looking at me, but she had checked out.

Well now I realize what happened. Whenever you innudate a teacher with too much feedback or you give a teacher feedback that is over their heads, you are not being helpful at all. What you’re doing is wrecking their confidence and as a result, you’re actually making it LESS likely that the teacher will act on your feedback and improve.

Now here’s your opportunity. If you suspect that your feedback is wrecking a teacher’s confidence, or you’re worried about giving a teacher honest feedback because you’re afraid that you’re going to kill her confidence, then here’s what you do.

What we teach the principals we’re coaching or in our feedback workshops is this. Instead of giving a teacher a litany of feedback, you need to give that teacher what we call ONE thing feedback.

ONE thing feedback is where you get to the root cause of why a teacher’s practice is not working and you share the root cause with the teacher and give them only ONE thing to focus on for their next observation.

Now I can already hear someone’s head exploding right now. I can’t just give the teacher ONE thing to work on especially if that teacher is really struggling in the classroom.

I get it. If you’re like a lot of the administrators I work with, you worry that if you give the teacher only ONE thing to work on, you’re failing the students somehow or you’re not creating the proper paper trail or you’re letting that teacher off the hook or dumbing down your feedback or basically not doing your job somehow.

But here’s the thing. Giving them all that feedback isn’t working. Once you encounter a blank stare, you’ve lost the teacher for that moment. Nothing gets addressed. Nothing gets improved.

BUT, If you give teachers ROOT cause feedback focused on the ONE thing they should focus on next in order to give them the biggest improvement, you won’t get a blank stare. They’ll get it. And if they work on that ONE thing that is having the biggest impact on their practice and improve it, they will see the results, gain confidence, and be that much more ready to work on the next thing and the next thing and the thing after that until before long, they’ve addressed everything you wanted them to work on and significantly improved both their practice and their confidence.

The second reason that we encounter blank stares is that we make poor assumptions about what the other person understands or believes.

When we give teachers feedback, we use terms that we assume the teacher understands but in a lot of cases what we think the term means and what the term means to the teacher are two different things.

For instance, we’ll tell a teacher that the lesson lacked rigor. But what do we mean by rigor?

Do we mean more challenging? Do we mean more work? Do we mean more complexity? Do we mean more ambiguity? Do we mean faster pacing? Or do we mean something else altogether?

Or here’s another one. What do you mean when you tell a teacher that there needs to be more student engagement? Do you mean that the teacher should include more student to student talk? Do you mean that the teacher should do a better job of addressing off-task behavior? Do you want the teacher to create more opportunities for class participation? Should the teacher scrap direct instruction and do more centers or groups? Would a Socratic seminar be better?

Can you see how confusing it can be?

This happens all the time when we use terms that we THINK are terms of art, terms that everyone agrees upon. But, you can’t assume that teachers share your same understanding or interpretation of even the most common terms in education.

So if you are giving a teacher feedback, don’t assume that the teacher knows what you mean by rigor or differentiation or student engagement or any of the terms on your evaluation instrument.

Instead, spell it out. Say exactly what you mean. Instead of saying, you need to increase rigor, explain exactly what you mean. In fact, in our workshops at Mindsteps, we spend a lot of time showing you the exact conversational frameworks that you can use to avoid making assumptions and make things crystal clear to teachers. We won’t have time during this episode to go into the specific details about the frameworks but if you want to learn more about them, I’ll put a link to an ebook we have with all four frameworks outlined including examples. We’re also going to do an entire session on how to use these frameworks at Builder’s Lab 2019 so you can learn and practice them.

The point is this: If you want to avoid blank stares, you can’t make assumptions about what teachers understand. Your feedback needs to be very deliberate and clear. You can’t just assume that the teacher knows what you mean by using terms that we think are commonly accepted in education. If you want to talk about rigor, make sure that people understand what YOU mean by “rigor.” If you are concerned about student engagement, spell out what you mean by student engagement. If you want teachers to differentiate, explain exactly what you mean by differentiate. You can’t make assumptions when you are giving teachers feedback if you expect teachers to actually take your feedback and put it into action. Take the time in your feedback to make things clear.

Ok, so far we’ve talked about the first two reasons we encounter blank stares which are a lack of confidence and making assumptions about what people understand.

The last big reason we often encounter blank stares is that we talk about the symptom and not the root. 

Here’s what I mean by that.

One of the things I do is that I coach principals on how to give teachers more effective feedback. I use a technique called micro-slicing where I show principals how to diagnose the root cause of a teacher’s practice in as little as 5 minutes of observation.

Now most people scoff when I tell them that they can get to the root cause of a teacher’s practice and give teachers really meaningful feedback after only observing for 5 minutes. How can you really understand what’s going on in classroom after 5 minutes? They argue that you need much more time to really understand a teacher’s practice.

But the technique of micro slicing works because it helps you quickly cut through the noise and get to the heart of a teacher’s practice.

You see, we spend a LOT of time observing teachers and writing down everything we see and then giving teachers a litany of feedback covering every single thing that happened in the classroom. You did this and then you did that and you need to think about this, but this worked when you did that, but it didn’t work when you did this so keep that in mind and on and on and on.

And we do this because we feel that we need to cover everything.

But what we end up doing is listing a bunch of symptoms and never getting to the heart of the matter.

Is there any wonder why teachers’ eyes glaze over during feedback conversations?

Imagine going to the doctor with a concern and taking a bunch of tests and then the doctor comes back and says, Well your blood work shows that you have elevated calcium levels, but your white blood cell count is normal and your cholesterol is lower than last time but your magnesium levels are also lower than last time and your blood type is O positive and your iron is normal and your potassium levels are higher than normal. Any questions?

Yeah Doc. What do I have?

And yet, we do post observation feedback kinda like that. We list all the symptoms but we don’t give meaning to them. So what it took me 7 minutes to get through the warm up? What does that mean? There were 5 students off task during my lecture? And? I didn’t have the lesson objective posted on the board? So what?

If you just list a bunch of things you observed and you don’t give it meaning, then you leave the meaning open to interpretation. It took me 7 minutes to get through the warm up? Hurray! It took me 8 minutes the day before. Only 5 students were off task during my lecture. Hallelujah. Normally it’s at least 10 students. My lesson wasn’t written on the board? Okay. Who cares?

Or worse, when you just list a bunch of symptoms without giving them meaning, I can easily tune you out. I have no reason to care about what you’re saying. All I’m doing is enduring you as you drone on about how many minutes it took me to do X or how many students were engaged when I was doing Y while I wait for the punchline. Do I still have a job? Did I pass the evaluation enough to get you off my back for the next few months?

How can you expect true engagement during a feedback conversation if you don’t give your feedback meaning? What do all these symptoms mean? What do all those checkmarks on your evaluation instrument indicate is the most important thing I should be working on right now?

If you don’t give your feedback meaning, if you don’t take all those data points and make them make sense, you will continue to be faced with blank stares.

But here’s the opportunity.

If you just take a few minutes to dig a little deeper and discover the root cause of a teacher’s practice, suddenly the feedback conversation means something. Suddenly, the feedback conversation is not just something to be endured, it’s something that teachers can actually use to improve their practice. 

Let me recap...

You see, if you are encountering blank stares during a feedback conversation, it’s not because the teacher is stonewalling you or trying to be deliberately obtuse. If you’re getting blank stares, it means that either the teacher doesn’t have confidence that they can do what you are asking, or the teacher doesn’t truly understand what your asking, or the teacher can’t see through all the symptoms and find the true meaning of what you are asking.

That’s the obstacle. 

But here’s the opportunity.

If you are running into blank stares, you have a real opportunity to adjust your feedback and make it not only more meaningful but more actionable and here’s how.

Before you give the teacher feedback, take time to first get to the root cause and figure out what is the ONE thing, the most important thing that the teacher can do right now to improve his or her practice and then give them that and only that to work on.

When you do that, here’s what happens.

Instead of being overwhelmed by feedback and unsure where to start, the teacher knows exactly what to do next. And, because you are focused on the ROOT cause, the feedback you give them will give the the teacher the clarity about what their exact next step should be and the hope and the confidence that they CAN put it into action.

So the next time you encounter a blank stare during a feedback conversation, take a step back, focus on doing a really good job of explaining the root cause and giving ONE thing feedback, and you’ll quickly get the teacher focused on the right work and moving forward. That’s what happens when you give teachers feedback #LikeABuilder

Speaking of giving teachers feedback like a builder,...

that’s exactly what you’ll discover at Builder’s Lab 2019. We’re going to be doing a session on micro-slicing to show you how to find the root cause, and you’ll also get a session on the 4 feedback frameworks so that you’ll know exactly what to say to a teacher during a feedback conversation that will guarantee that you never have to face a blank stare again. It’s all happening January 29-10, 2019. Just go to www.mindstepsinc.com/builders-lab and get your ticket now.  

Next week...

Okay, next week we’re going to move another big obstacle for Builders. In fact, this is an obstacle I’ve been wrestling with for a while and frankly, it’s something I still wrestle with and it’s quite controversial. I get asked this question all the time: What if a person just needs to be fired?

Well, if you’ve been listening for a while or you’ve read any of my books, then you already know that I believe that any teacher can become a master teacher with the right kind of support and practice, but is that really true? Can ANY TEACHER become a master teacher or there just some teachers who need to be fired?

Find out next week how to deal with someone who really should be fired #likeabuilder.

Bye for now. 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.