Sunday, November 17, 2013

Receiving AND Giving Feedback is Hard

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend Richland Middle School in the Birdville Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas to introduce a network of educators to Instructional Rounds.  RMS invited a group of 17 teachers, learning coaches, district staff and administrators to to be introduced to the Rounds process, and to co-learn with the school through the lens of the school’s problem of practice.  After studying Rounds and beginning to work with rounds in my own district, I was excited to work with this dynamic group:  the chance for each of us to experience team-based, focused and intentional classroom observation to provide feedback, make predictions, and provide the school with strategies to design and implement in addressing their problem of practice promised to be a rich and authentic opportunity for each of the participants.  
The afternoon session on the first day was a whirlwind--as a group we examined Rounds from a philosophical, practical, and logistical standpoint, including discussions of the instructional core and the seven principles of Instructional Rounds.  After that, we used both high-tech and low-tech solutions to engage as participants in determining what we typically look for in classes, what the research says about factors that influence achievement, descriptive feedback, and ‘learning to see, unlearning to judge’.  Finally, we did some sample classroom video observations to allow us to practice collecting and selecting data through the lens of a problem of practice because ‘you learn the work by doing the work’.  It was a packed afternoon, and the observation network was tired, but excited to get into classes the following morning to learn with the school.  

The day began early, and Principal Dr. Leeann Bartee gave the observational network a concise picture of the school, the structures that the school had to enable learning and support for their students and teachers, and the process that they had gone through leading up to this day in developing their problem of practice.  The network not only had a detailed snapshot of the educational ecosystem that they were working within, but in the true spirit of co-learning, they also had the opportunity to understand and ask questions of Leeann about the model of preparation that RMS had used for the process of rounds so they might be able to apply it to their own learning situations should they do Rounds in the future.  

The observation teams then headed into classrooms, collecting non-judgmental feedback through the lens of the school’s problem of practice, and ninety minutes later, they came back grinning and eager to share their data with eachother.  The groups vetted and re-vetted their data to ensure that it was specific, descriptive, non-judgmental and relevant to the problem of practice.  After squeezing in a few mouthfuls of lunch (which was some of the most delicious Mexican food I have tasted, by the way), each team found patterns, made predictions about student learning, and then used those predictions to design high-leverage strategies for the school to implement to propel RMS forward in addressing their problem of practice.  Gasping for breath as the day rocketed by, the teams finally invited the Instructional Learning Team from RMS in to the meeting area to receive feedback and ask questions so the school could move forward in their next level of work.

In the few minutes prior to bringing the host school back to the room, I noticed the observation network beginning to mentally “fidget”.  Some of the group members suddenly became a bit uneasy, and began to say things such as...

  • “I’m worried that it will sound like we are being too negative”
  • “There are so many great things going on at this school, I really want to tell the internal team about those pieces as well”
  • “It took a lot of courage for them to have us here, I don’t want to seem as though I was just looking at the problems”

In truth, the feedback that the observational team was preparing to give was not negative.  However, in the ‘culture of nice’ in which we so often tend to want to reside, the predictions that they were making in terms of student learning could seem blunt and direct.  Yet the group was right--opening up your school for examination and critique certainly does require courage.  It also requires vulnerability, and a high level of system self-actualization.  But what I assured the team that it required most was an unending desire to GET BETTER.   This school invited the observation team for a reason; having a network-sized set of eyes to examine a ‘stuck point’ demonstrates the school’s belief that “no one of us is smarter than all of us”, and because there could be no one better to trust in helping a school filled with educators than a group of fellow educators--fellow professionals who would be looking at classrooms through the lens the school had provided.  

But at that moment, I realized that I had primarily been thinking about the group RECEIVING the feedback.  Specifically, I had been focused on the high level of vulnerability that the school had shown by inviting this team in to its classrooms, and how critical feedback can sometimes be difficult to hear.  What I had not considered to this point was that the observation group GIVING the feedback was also showing a high level of vulnerability, and the act of providing critical feedback can sometimes be difficult to articulate to the host school.  While I had spent a great deal of time with the observation team on the importance of their conduct in classrooms with teachers and students, and on the importance of ‘learning to see and unlearning to judge’ from the perspective of the host school, I had not spent time with the host school talking about how important their response to the feedback would be to the observation network.

Because both receiving AND giving critical feedback are difficult.

In order for the observation team to feel valued for their thoughtful suggestions for the next level of work, their diligence to the process, for the time they were spending out of their own schools, they needed to be assured their feedback was important to the host school.  Furthermore, Instructional Rounds is a continuous process in which, through the lateral accountability mechanism, observation teams re-visit a few months later to help the school assess their progress in addressing their problem of practice.   We wanted this team to come back and work with the host school in the future!  If the host school were to respond in a visibly unfavorable way, what incentive would there be for any other network to come back to assist the school later during the next set of Rounds?

The internal team entered the meeting area, and the room became quite quiet.   I congratulated the school and the team for their work today, and made sure that before we did anything, we acknowledged that this school was indeed doing great things (to which the observation group vigourously agreed).  However, in the true spirit of improvement and critical feedback, we were invited into the school because they were committed to improvement, and we as an observation team wanted to honour that commitment with our feedback.  And so each group began to present their predictions and next level of work.

So how did the hosts respond to the feedback?  Well, given the high level of preparedness that I had seen from Principal Bartee and her team, I should not have been surprised when the time came for the internal leadership team to hear the feedback.  They were spot on; each team member was leaning forward, listening intently, and nodding.  They were asking questions for clarification.  They encouraged dialogue, and they teased out more details from the observers.  They commented on some of the data.  And the observervation team quickly reciprocated, providing more information and insight as they had seen it in the class.  and I watched a professional synergy grow and blossom right before my eyes.  I can tell you without equivocation that I was incredibly moved when I saw this happen.  It was compelling and inspirational to see two groups of educators from different learning situations come together through a bond based in true collaboration and problem-solving. One member of the group referred to this as a “watershed moment”, and I could not agree more.  Leeann finished the session by saying that she and her school were honored to work with a group that was so dedicated and determined to do a great job for Richland Middle School, and that she and her staff looked forward to working for any of them in the future.  She also provided each member of the observation network with the book “Instructional Rounds In Education”--a very thoughtful and appropriate finish to the day.

In the future, I will make sure that I recognize that feedback is difficult both to receive AND to give, and clearly articulate this to both the hosts and the visitors.  That Principal Bartee and her staff were so open to the information given to them was fortunate, and not something to be taken for granted:  they clearly had done the work that needed to be done in preparing themselves to receive and utilize constructive feedback. As a result of their willing introspection that they demonstrated throughout this Rounds visit and the conversations after, I know that Richland Middle will connect the suggestions for the next level of work to their existing resources and move forward on their problem of practice.  I also know that the observation network experienced positive modeling (in terms of school preparedness, efficient logistics and a willingness to utilize observation-based feedback) that will provide them an excellent framework for using Rounds in their own learning situations in the future.

I would like to thank Leeann, Staci, Ann, Nikki, John, Kecia, Stephanie, Flor, Melinda and the entire RMS staff along with the observational network from Birdville ISD for allowing me to be a part of their learning this past week.  They are eager, committed, and gracious hosts who are rightfully proud of their students, their faculty, their school, their district, and their community.


  1. I was a part of the observation team. I cannot thank you and Principal Bartee enough. I am a hopeful future administrator and the use of instructional rounds totally blew my mind, for lack of better words. I cannot wait until we get to try this at my campus. THANK YOU! THANK YOU!

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Brittany! There was a real connection in the room--I hope that we can learn together in the future!

  3. This is a great post. I agree that feedback can be difficult to give and receive as we do not want to hurt others and because there are always positive aspects to a certain situation. I think that feedback should be taken with "un grain de sel" by seeing the constructive aspects of it. In the classroom I have found myself uneasy giving feedback to my classmates, but at the same time I try to think that if I do not say anything, maybe they will miss out on something and maybe they would like to work on elements mentioned in my feedback. Thank you for this, I will share with my ECS210 class!

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