One of the obstacles educational leaders face when giving colleagues feedback is deflection. Over the years, through numerous conversations with educators centering on giving and receiving feedback, this issue of deflection often gets in the way of moving forward.
Take the following example. Over several weeks a school leader received numerous complaints about the way in which a teacher was giving feedback to students. Having looked into the matter, the school leader observes, through the comments on student work, that the feedback being given to students was detrimental to their progress rather than supportive of it.
In beginning to discuss the concern with the teacher, it is immediately pointed out to the school leader by the teacher that student feedback is only a small fraction of their job and that the school leader was not giving the teacher any credit for all the other things that they do well. The teacher did indeed work hard and contributed significantly to the life of the school. As a result, the teacher was looking to be affirmed and not particularly keen to discuss areas for improvement.
The conversation then went onto workload and how busy the teacher was and that the school administration does not recognise this. Again, a shifting of blame away from the teacher’s practice to that of something else. Ultimately, the teacher was deflecting the school leader from the issue at hand regardless of how supportive the school leader intended to be.
With the deflector shield going up it became harder and harder for the school leader to move to productive dialogue where the issue could be addressed. As a result, the teacher could not see past all the good things that they did. In fact, the feedback given by the teacher to students was significant in volume but still ineffective. Again deflection occurred, as the teacher would point to the time taken and wanted this acknowledged as a good thing. Still, the issue remained that the feedback given, even after a significant investment of time, was not helping the learning process and in some cases adversely affecting students.
Yes, the teacher did work extremely hard but had mainly received positive infrequent feedback during their time in the school and areas of concern never previously brought up. As a result, it is possible to understand where they are coming from when receiving criticism for the first time.
How would you react to criticism if, over a period of several years, you received little feedback and that feedback was positive?
What had been allowed to occur was for a bad habit to develop over several years and now the school leader was bursting the bubble of where that teacher thought they were. No wonder the deflector shield went up on full strength.
Deflection, unfortunately, will remain a problem with feedback in schools unless the following occur:
- Regular and timely feedback for teachers
- Feedback given over time must affirm what is being done well as well as specifically identifying areas for improvement
- Opportunity for improvement is given to the point where the teacher is given adequate support and head space to make the necessary adjustments to their practice
- A school culture where school leaders openly seek feedback and share their own areas for improvement with colleagues
- A school culture that recognises that while we all work hard at what we do, this is not an excuse for us dismissing feedback. We can always do things better without necessarily doing more
- A school culture where the giving and receiving of feedback is distributed rather than the giving of feedback resting in the hands of a few in positions of authority
The more we work on developing this culture of feedback in schools, the better we get at lowering the deflector shield and genuinely engaging in a process of professional improvement.