Why school leaders need the support of specific feedback to improve schools

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Every school has its own set of problems, there’s no denying it. Many school leaders really value feedback from their teachers about areas for improvement. Even when leaders may not be seeking feedback, there is always a strong chance that someone will tell them what they think, or what “a group of people think”, or even what “everybody” thinks. In many schools, processes have been put in place to support the gathering of feedback to assist school improvement. Some ways school leaders may collect and receive teacher feedback in schools may include:

  • Display Boards that are used, such as ‘Parking Lots’ or other structured facilitation tool to visibly group feedback
  • Teacher committees / associations that advocate for teachers by collecting issues of concern and presenting them for discussion with the school leadership team
  • Teacher surveys that target the collection of specific information or monitoring surveys
  • An ‘open-door’ policy where teachers can schedule an interview to discuss an issue with a school leader or where a teacher may be invited to raise concerns

The above processes, to be successful, do require school leaders to be open-minded, willing to listen to the feedback and provide transparent responses and actions that help solve problems and issues; improving the school in the long-term. If teachers see that action is being taken to the suggestions for improvement or to reduce any of the concerns raised, confidence in the process grows and a stronger working partnership between teachers and school leaders develops.

If the process does not work schools can often end up with cynical teachers that have no faith in that they are being listened to or being valued. This makes it difficult to keep the goodwill of teachers in taking the time to volunteer feedback. That said, it is a bit of a catch-22 situation, as their are a lot of school leaders who work long hours to support their teachers and wish to improve schools who are not receiving the type of feedback needed to respond and make any necessary changes.

So, what feedback are school leaders looking for from their teachers? In essence leaders want better evidence that supports the feedback being given by teachers through the following:

  1. Feedback that avoids sweeping generalisations. A comment such as meetings are a waste of time is not helpful. What leaders need to know are which meetings are a wast of time or, even, what components of meetings are a waste of time.
  2. Feedback that quantifies something. A comment such as some teachers feel that the school leaders are not visible enough at break times is not particularly useful. What leaders want to know is how many staff think this? There could be some teachers who indeed do feel that school leaders are visible. Quantifying things sure would help.
  3. Feedback that makes specific reference to a person causing an issue. It is surprising the number of people who do want this type of feedback. Even in school cultures where there is a high degree of trust, when feedback is volunteered by teachers, some do not want to name names. I have often received requests from teachers to send out an email to all teachers, reminding them to do this or not to do that. It got to a point a few years ago where I asked, who exactly? How many people are we talking about here? Why should so many teachers who are doing the right things receive such a reminder email and have me waste their time reading it? School cultures improve when school leaders are able to spend time addressing those people who are not helping create the healthy culture without wasting the time of those doing a great job.
  4. Feedback that brings suggestions to the table but also shows a willingness of teachers to support and take action too. School improvement is a partnership of working together to improve. School leaders are in the same boat as teachers; there are not enough hours in the day to make all the changes that we want to see. A ‘them and us’ mentality in schools does not help in any way to make schools healthy places.

When the above points are not followed, it is very easy for leaders to become very defensive about the feedback that they receive. We all know what it feels like to be working our socks off and receive critical feedback that we do not quite understand. While we try to keep an open mind, the feedback can be cutting, demoralising and, to an extent, even offensive. Of course, as leaders, we need to develop a thick skin to deal with what is thrown at us. Though there comes a point where it is easy to understand why the numbers queuing up for senior leadership positions in schools have dwindled. It can be a tough job; the feedback about what we are not doing well often outweighs the good things. One can feel like they are just waiting of the next rock to hit them.

Teachers need to give school leaders, the same level of care and attention to feedback, as they are required to give students. Simply, put if teachers can give better feedback, which leaders must ask for, and leaders keep an open mind to listening to and acting upon it, then schools will surely become more healthier places for all concerned.

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