June 8, 2017

Feedback and Relationships: Helping Teachers Thrive

The Power of Feedback

As an elementary school principal, I worked with amazing educators in some challenging school communities. I saw students rise to success and bring joy to their parents. Every step that I made and action that I took became critical to the success of my school. Along with the important tasks of raising test scores, maintaining a safe campus, and connecting with students and families, I also took on another important mission: building relationships with teachers.

How do you build relationships while ensuring that your teachers are working hard to raise student achievement and maintaining a well-managed classroom? Administrators walk a fine line between supporting teachers and holding them accountable. As principal, I spent hours in classrooms observing and evaluating teachers. There were committed, passionate teachers as well as teachers who struggled. Then it hit me. Many of the teachers I talked with had never received any feedback about their teaching!

As I began having critical conversations with my teachers, I learned that most of them, whether successful or struggling, had little insight as to how they were doing in the classroom. What? Where had their principal been? Why had no one stepped up before now to offer kudos, guidance, support, or mentoring? One thing was clear: I was one of the first principals in their career to actually attempt building a relationship.

Building Relationships

A principal’s role in building relationships with teachers can be challenging, but it’s necessary. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to “stand and deliver.” When this pressure reaches a boiling point, they can easily become discouraged, leave our schools, and sometimes close the door on teaching altogether. When this happens, we all lose — and the biggest loss is felt by our students, whom we’re committed to protecting and nurturing. But where was the nurturing for the teacher?

In the midst of all my responsibilities as a principal, supporting and mentoring my teachers remained at the forefront of my work. Whether it was a new teacher or a seasoned vet, through formal observation or chatting over coffee in the staff room, this daily work of building relationships made a huge difference in the success of my teachers, students, and school community. Exchanging feedback with my teachers built our relationship as a team. Working as partners to lay the groundwork for their professional development mattered to all of us. Thanks to my daily walkthroughs, my teachers and I consistently worked to develop a professional learning community.

Building Supportive Community

Whether new or experienced, teachers need administrative support to feel that they belong to a community. The harsh reality of the classroom sometimes gets to even the most seasoned professional. Between balancing curriculum standards, supporting students’ needs, and answering parent phone calls, the work can be overwhelming. Teachers need to believe that, through the feedback from their principal and colleagues, they have a team to lean on. They need to know that when they’re struggling, there’s a supportive system in place. This system might include time to visit other classrooms to see how their colleagues are handling the same issues. It might look like time built in for new teachers to meet with their mentors for feedback on a lesson plan. It might also look like the principal covering a classroom so that a teacher can meet with a concerned parent who’s unable to come after school. Teachers often work in isolation. When they know that they work in a community and that the community has their back, it makes a big difference.

The research about how teachers continue to leave our schools isn’t new, but it’s still troubling. How do we convince these teachers to stay?

As an educational consultant, too often I hear from teachers about their principal’s lack of support. I know from experience that how a school principal mentors, guides, and supports teachers is critical to their success. How principals offer feedback and build relationships with their teachers can be the tipping point for whether a discouraged new teacher or frustrated veteran chooses to stay or go. I strongly believe that a school principal must work continuously to coach and mentor his or her teachers, even when that work is challenging.

Using feedback as a strategy to build relationships and support teachers isn’t a new idea, but I believe it’s missing in many school systems. In this climate of teacher criticism, more teachers are choosing to leave the profession much too soon. They need to feel respected and have a good working relationship with their principal. They need to be trusted to participate in decisions about curriculum and school-based matters. We need school leaders who always carve out the time to offer meaningful, practical feedback and hands-on support so that their teachers will want to stay, thrive, and be successful. In the end, what we do (or don’t do) in our schools affects not just our teachers, but the community of children and families that we’re here to serve.


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