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April 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 7

School Leaders: If You Want Feedback, Ask for It

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To create genuine feedback channels for their work, school leaders have to develop attitudes and structures to encourage conversation.

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AssessmentInstructional Strategies
School Leaders: If You Want Feedback, Ask for It
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When we think of what makes for ideal feedback, the well-known article "Seven Keys to Effective Feedback," by the late feedback guru Grant Wiggins (2012) comes to mind. However, the article's cogent criteria assume that you're receiving feedback in the first place. The problem for school leaders is that they are often the ones who get the least feedback in the building. And the feedback they do get isn't always the growth-producing kind. Feedback from district leaders may focus more on compliance issues, while teachers may be too afraid of their job security to tell the boss what they really think. When leaders first step into the role of principal, they think people will just show up at their office door and offer feedback. This almost never happens.
For this reason, I would argue that the most important part of feedback for any principal is to solicit it. However, drumming up feedback isn't as simple as saying, "Hey, would you give me some feedback on that?" Below are a few suggestions for school leaders to develop the structures and attitudes needed to ensure that the feedback they ask for will be regular, genuine, and truly useful.

Creating Structures for Feedback

Hold One-on-One Meetings

We can all agree that waiting in your office and hoping people will meander in to share some comments about your communication style or the PD you led Wednesday afternoon is wishful thinking. That's why thoughtful leaders who want to grow and improve put structures in place to ensure that they actually receive feedback. One such structure is the recurring one-on-one meeting. Whether you meet biweekly or monthly with individual staff members for feedback, coaching, and support (and if you don't, you should), including a regular part of the meeting in which you ask for a "glow" (What is one way I am supporting your teaching?) and a "grow" (What is one way I could do it better?) helps to normalize the process of teachers giving feedback to their supervisor. Teachers will come to expect this part of the meeting and see critical feedback as something the principal wants, and in fact, expects.

Debrief School Events

Asking for "glows" and "grows" is also a useful structure to include as a regular part of school events. After parent-teacher conferences or the first day of school, gather staff to debrief and conduct a brainstorm on what went well and what could be done better next time, and have a notetaker record reactions. When staff members see this protocol pop up after every major event, they will come to see that you are genuinely asking for feedback (assuming you do act on it). Further, because this feedback is done via a brainstorm, no single piece of critical feedback will necessarily be tied to a specific person, so it frees up staff to share more honestly.

Vary Feedback Structures

It can be particularly helpful to mix up the structures you use to ask for feedback because not everyone feels comfortable raising their hand and sharing critical feedback face-to-face. In addition to using the one-on-one meeting and brainstorm structures, you might try a range of formats: holding office hours, using online surveys, asking questions via email, and convening focus groups to ask stakeholders for feedback. Leaders may want to ask for feedback on their leadership style (In what ways might my communication be more effective?), their coaching (When I debrief with you, what is the most and least helpful thing I do to help you improve your teaching?), or their implementation of a new initiative (What did I do well, and what do you wish I had done differently, when we implemented the new phonics program?)
Online options—such as Google Forms and Survey Monkey—are a particularly easy way to ask for feedback quickly and effectively. One leader I know who wasn't having success with the professional learning he was providing used a survey to ask teachers for feedback on how to improve it, and he got plenty of constructive advice. During the pandemic, lots of principals relied almost exclusively on online surveys to determine how effective their supports were during this difficult time.

The most important step you can take to encourage people to keep giving feedback is to actually use that feedback.

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Jenn David-Lang

Use the Consultancy Protocol

One very structured method that produces particularly helpful feedback is the use of a consultancy protocol. A consultancy is a structured process to help someone think through a dilemma, and it can double as a way to give that person feedback. For example, in the mastermind groups of school and district leaders that I run, each leader takes an opportunity to share a dilemma they have, such as handling a staff member who has a toxic influence on others, finding a better way to involve families in their children's academic progress, or looking for ways to get teacher buy-in for professional learning when they are feeling particularly burnt out. For these conversations, we use a modified version of the National School Reform Faculty's Consultancy Protocol (2017). In this structured approach, one leader starts by sharing a dilemma and then remains silent while the rest of the group provides feedback and brainstorms possible solutions to help. This is one of the best structures I know for leadership feedback because the presenter doesn't feel attacked and the participants don't feel uncomfortable giving critical feedback.

Include Student Voice

One feedback structure for principals that brings student voice into the process is a small-group student consultation or panel model. In their 2021 Educational Leadership article, "Students: The Missing Link in Teacher PD," James Nagle and Penny Bishop describe how using a structure like this is useful in giving teachers feedback on their teaching, but these consultations can be useful for school leaders as well. In the student consultation model, the principal meets with a small group of selected students. In the panel model, a group of students sit on a panel, and the leadership team asks questions for feedback. In both cases, the adults might ask for feedback on topics students care about, such as grading, school uniforms, or how best to support LGBTQ students. This feedback structure provides valuable insights on the work that school leaders have done and plan to do and is not something students would otherwise willingly offer up without such a structure. Other ways leaders can regularly solicit student feedback include carving out time during student government meetings or creating a student advisory committee that would regularly meet with and provide feedback to the principal.

Attitude Is Everything

Of course, it's not enough for school leaders to simply put a series of structures in place to solicit feedback. For students, teachers, and supervisors to offer genuine feedback, school leaders need to receive that feedback with the right attitude. The first thing leaders should do when someone offers feedback is to warmly thank the person. This simple step goes a long way in improving the likelihood that the giver will continue to share feedback in the future.
In addition, remember to stay curious (not furious). You don't have to agree with the feedback, but you'll get more out of it if you have an attitude of "What's right or useful about this?" Though feedback may at first seem wildly off base ("I would never drone on about administrivia during a staff meeting …"), in reality, it might not be. If you do a little reading about blind spots, you'll find that fewer than 10 to 15 percent of people are truly self-aware (Eurich, 2018). You will be more prepared to hear surprising things about yourself and to receive feedback gracefully once you see that few people are truly aware of their own flaws.
Finally, the most important step you can take to encourage people to keep giving feedback is to actually use that feedback. Show people that not only is it worth their time, but you are also willing to change behaviors, routines, and policies because of that feedback. That will open the door to those who previously had been unsure about sharing their honest thoughts. And when you do make those changes, be noisy about it: "I wanted staff to know that I changed the policy about only wearing jeans on Fridays because of what John said . . ." "Students, I decided to push back the early start of the high school day because of the Friday student focus group's feedback to me. Thank you for that feedback."
Employing even just a few of these suggestions to solicit feedback—one-on-one meetings, feedback surveys, debriefing school events, or small-group student panels—and demonstrating a true desire to hear and learn from feedback—is a sure-fire way to not only raise your awareness of how you lead, but also to help students and staff feel heard and to move your school in the direction your most valuable stakeholders want it to go.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What methods do you currently use to ask colleagues for feedback?

➛ Which of these feedback tactics can you see incorporating easily into your day-to-day work?

➛ Once you solicit feedback, how will you communicate with staff and students about the ways in which you will incorporate it?

References

Eurich, T. (2018, January). What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it). Harvard Business Review.

Nagle, J. F., & Bishop, P. A. (2021). Students: The missing link in teacher PD. Educational Leadership78(5), 60–65.

National School Reform Faculty. (2017). Consultancy Protocol. The School Reform Network.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership70(1), 10–16.

Jenn David-Lang is an educational consultant who provides monthly education book summaries via The Main Idea and facilitates Masterminds for professional learning with groups of school and district leaders.

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