Providing Teachers Feedback in the Art and Science of Instruction
Recently I watched a portion of an interview of Nanci Atwell, the teacher who won the Varkey Foundation’s $1 million prize as the Global Teacher of the Year. The teacher was asked what advice she would give young people who wanted to enter the teaching profession. The teacher said she would try to dissuade them from entering the profession. Her reasoning was that Common Core Standards and all the assessments and high stake testing was taking all the creativity and teacher judgment out of the profession. Atwell further explained that teachers were being turned into “technicians,” making it hard for them to teach the best they knew how.
My first reaction was how wrong she was! Standards do not dictate how to teach. Standards describe what we want students to learn. Assessments do not dictate how to teach. Assessments provide information about the manner in which students need to know something in order to achieve the targets. What in the world was this obviously experienced and respected teacher talking about? How was creativity being taken away from teachers?
How could one of us be so wrong?
Then I had an opportunity to work with what I would describe as a strong, caring, and experienced teaching staff at an elementary school. This particular school had been designated Title 1 due to high poverty rates and Program Improvement under the NCLB. The school also has a large number of students designated English Learners.
As a result of those designations the staff had been targeted to receive continuous and varied trainings aimed at improving isolated components of their instructional program. Classroom visitations followed trainings by various “observers/coaches” to provide feedback on how the programs were being implemented.
What was the feedback to teachers regarding English Language Development implementation? “You are doing it wrong!”
What was the feedback regarding the new math program implementation? “You are doing it wrong!”
As I worked with the staff it became obvious many teachers were much more guarded than other teachers I have coached. The staff reminded me of victims of abuse. Many were lacking confidence. Many were defensive. Many were expecting to be told once again, “You are doing it wrong!”
Because of past poor practices by prior ineffective coaches/consultants, both in-house and independent, the teachers had an extra layer of well-placed skepticism about our work together.
I realized that Nanci Atwell, the award-winning teacher was right. Ineffective technical support around a narrow topic can manifest as nonsensical, shortsighted feedback to teachers. Coaches, consultants, and/or administrators who think their job is to judge instruction as right or wrong are making Ms. Atwell’s case.
But, I was also right, it does not have to be that way. There is an established body of science and research that applies to teaching. When blended with the art of teaching, judgments such as right or wrong become nonsensical. The science and art of teaching produces results that are on a continuum of least effective to most effective – not right or wrong.
Every teacher whom I have coached has appreciated feedback that will help him or her become more effective.
That being said there is a wrong way to coach teachers. Coaching that produces guarded, defensive teachers is counterproductive and just plain wrong.
Districts need to make sure that the people who are “supporting” teachers actually have a record of positive results in encouraging greater effectiveness in both the art and science of teaching.
This is why when we work with teachers, our feedback is on the effective things they are already doing and how they could be made even more effective and efficient. Our planning sessions, observations and debrief times are focused and intentional. We strive to honor the work of teachers by lightening their load, not heaping more onto it. We work, for the Ms. Atwells in classrooms everywhere, to support the creativity and teacher judgement that produce results for students.