The definition of “quality” in education is an elusive beast to capture; the sum of quantitative measures? A gut feeling? The results of a metastudy? The indelible memory of a teacher that inspired us, that made us feel like our ideas mattered? Perhaps it’s best this way; the struggle over defining what is “good” in education is a sign that we are willing to challenge long-standing assumptions and practices (grades, homework, length of a class period…). The truest sign of accountability to a public that entrusts us with their children is that we show our willingness to look in the mirror to get better.
There is a website called Rate My Teachers that offers students (and, presumably, parents as well) the opportunity to weigh in on individual teachers anonymously. Students rate teachers out of five stars and give scores in three areas: Easiness, Helpfulness and Clarity. I have some issues with this forum – anonymity is problematic in the sense that there is no opportunity for dialogue, and plenty of opportunities for unloading on someone in ways we would never do face to face. Here are ratings I received from when I was teaching – overall very “nice” comments, however nothing of real substance that gives me specific guidance on targeted ways to improve. (I do appreciate the comment wishing I was back at my old school over a year and a half after I left!)
While the most powerful feedback we could hope for is delivered in person (assuming we are open to it…are we?), it is important to recognize that there are barriers to interactions where one person is critiquing another; power differential (student to teacher, teacher to administrator, principal to superintendent, etc.), lack of practice and lack of opportunity. Let’s focus on that last one – the ONE factor we control, no matter who we are in the organizational hierarchy, yet also one we do so little of in education. What would happen to websites like Rate My Teachers if teachers and administrators offered fellow staff, students and parents chances to give them feedback directly?
My school’s Principal and I have spoken all year at staff meetings about the need for all of us to contribute to a collective space where people feel safe to share their true thoughts and feelings; not, like Dennis Sparks suggests, skate by on a thin veneer of artificial politeness while all the honest conversations are taking place in the parking lot. So we offered up this invitation:
We created an anonymous survey that asked three questions: What should each of us STOP doing, START doing, and CONTINUE doing. This mirrors a feedback protocol we practice – in person – as a district leadership team, including our Superintendent, Dr. Valerie Pitts. Was it challenging to give our “boss” feedback on what she should stop doing? Of course it was – but no more difficult than it was for her, or any of us, to listen without defensiveness or resorting to explanation; “Well, this is why….”.
The facilitator that first led us through this process calls it “Accountable communication technology” – the premise is that we are accountable to each other to say what we truly think and feel and not go through the motions of how one is supposed to behave in traditional hierarchies (respect the boss to their face but criticize behind their back). This lack of openness is the disease that paves the way for more opportunistic infections to spread – lack of trust, lack of efficiency and diminished quality of your product; if no one is brave enough to ask hard questions at the inception of a potentially bad idea, then that bad idea gets put into practice.
Do I agree with all the feedback I received? Absolutely not. But agreement is not the point. If I never ask people for their thoughts on the job I am doing, then what they think of me is entirely based on my own biased perceptions (or fantasies). Some teachers chose to talk to us in person, not liking the indirectness of the online survey. The survey doesn’t allow for the face-to-face “accountability” we are working to develop as a leadership team – that said, many folks might opt for “no comment” if not given the opportunity for anonymity. Perhaps, over time, seeing that receiving critical feedback doesn’t lead to administrative fire-and-brimstone, more staff will feel a sense of true safety in talking to us directly. Time will tell.
If your sixth sense is telling you that the above image is of a Staff Lounge, you are RIGHT! After asking for individual feedback, my principal and I thought about how we could get staff reflecting on us as a school. Luckily we had at our disposal Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert‘s excellent new book, School Culture Rewired; we gave staff the 35-question school culture survey as a part of our ongoing conversation on who we are and where we’re headed, and posted all the results in the Staff Lounge. 11 of those questions pertain to Collaborative Leadership, which you see there sandwiched between the microwave and the Peet’s coffee. Have a closer look at our results below, and consider the questions we’re asking to frame our ongoing conversation.
1 = Strongly disagree. 4 = Strongly agree.
I must pay homage to the bravery I see in many educators who are asking for – and publishing – feedback about their work. Principal Jen Kloczko just wrote about the feedback she sought from her staff – similarly borrowing questions from Whitaker and Gruenert. I’m lucky to have connected with Jen through Voxer, and much of the thinking in this post – essentially a sister post to hers – is a product of those conversations.
Another great educator from the Sacramento area, teacher Larry Ferlazzo, shares his student feedback in no less of a public forum than the Washington Post. “Quality” has for so long been a quiet, private discussion in education – or, more sadly, spoken about loudly and passionately in the parking lot. We need to tip the scales and start seeing the quality conversation as a conversation about us – about a broader collective of people working together to do good things for kids.
When you ask for input and openly reflect on it, something incredible doesn’t happen. The sky doesn’t fall. You aren’t humiliated. You have just done something brave; you have extended a gesture of utmost respect to those whose input you request. By not asking and not reflecting in the open, you accomplish nothing – people feel about you the way they feel about you, and, knowing how most people behave in hierarchies, most will not offer their thoughts as you, the leader, have not granted permission for them to do so (same in the classroom).
As CUE Rockstar instigator Jon Corippo says, we should be asking for feedback frequently enough to ensure that people’s frustrations don’t ever get to that tipping point of rage and/or (even worse) indifference – asking your students how the class is going for the first time in March means you’ve missed the point of gathering feedback. The first survey amounts to a nice gesture; the real evidence that this exercise has actual merit comes from the follow up surveys – and our public reflection on the results of the survey. I will post later this spring after giving the second survey as a part of this reflection, and share the trends I notice and some of the representative comments.