I welcomed Laura into my office and offered her a seat at the small conference table across from my desk. I sat down next to her and opened my observation notes. Smiling, I thanked her for coming in and handed her a written summary of the main points I wanted to discuss. One-by-one, I reviewed those points, providing my assessment of what worked and did not work during her lesson, giving examples from her classroom to bolster my assessment, and offering suggestions for how she could improve her practice.
When I finished, I asked her if she had any questions. Laura looked thoughtfully at my bulleted list for a moment and then asked my advice on how she might implement some of my suggestions. I reached to the shelf behind me and pulled out a book I had recently read and turned to the page I had dog-eared earlier. I summarized the key points of the chapter and then showed her a few exercises she could try. I handed her the book and promised to get a full write up of my observation to her by the end of the day. Laura thanked me profusely and said that she looked forward to reading it. As we stood and shook hands, she told me how much she learned from our meeting and how she couldn’t wait to try the strategies I suggested.“Oh my,” I smiled, slightly embarrassed at her heartfelt declaration.“I’m just doing my job.”
At least that is how it went in my head.
So, I wasn’t nervous when I ushered Laura into my office the next morning for her post-observation conference. I had already rehearsed what I was going to say, the notes were all prepared, the resources organized and within arms’ reach, ready for her whenever she asked for them. How was I, a brand new administrator, to know that the conversation wouldn’t be quite that easy? I had been trained in how to do observations, trained on how to conduct post-observation conferences, female and I had done my research. Besides, I was a likable person who, when I was teaching, other teachers sought advice. Why wouldn’t the conversation go exactly as I had planned?
But three minutes into the conversation, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. Laura wasn’t eagerly accepting my assessment of her classroom. She wasn’t asking for my advice on how she could improve. She wasn’t nodding her head in agreement to my prescription for her teaching. She sat across from me arms crossed, lips tight, turning redder by the second. When I finished talking, she didn’t ask any questions. Instead, she launched into a defense of what had happened in her classroom and told me that it was really hard for me to get an accurate assessment of her teaching after having only been in her classroom once. I was too shocked to say much after that so I thanked her for her input, mumbled something about having her observation to her by the end of the day, and stood. She grabbed her papers and stormed out.
Like I said, that went differently in my head.
After that early experience, I learned to dread having post-observation conferences with teachers. I would wake up the morning of one of these conferences sick to my stomach. I compensated for my nervousness by over-preparing and by structuring the conferences so much that the teacher had little opportunity to contribute. They sat across from me nodding while pretending to understand what I was talking about or smiling indulgently and gamely playing along or tersely answering my questions with thinly veiled hostility counting the minutes until they could get out of my office. I plowed on sharing my comments and suggestions and providing resources that were neither asked for nor used. Each of us played our parts in the dance between teachers and administrators that goes on in schools all over this country every day and very little changed in the classroom.
Perhaps you too are frustrated with the way your post-observation conferences typically go. Maybe you too dread meeting with teachers because these meetings are usually fraught with tension and yield little results in the classroom. Maybe you are looking for a way to provide better feedback to teachers.
As instructional leaders, our jobs rely on conversations. It is our main tool. We discipline students through conversations. We work with parents through conversations. We respond to district mandates through conversations. We learn through conversations. And, we provide leadership to teachers through conversations. If we don’t get the conversations right, we seriously handicap our ability to lead effectively. If, however, we understand how to harness the power of conversations, we can dramatically improve teaching and learning in our building.
Typically, the feedback we give teachers is supervisory, designed to convey information rather than exchange ideas. These conversations are one-sided – you tell teachers your goals, ideas, and assessment of their teaching. The only reply available to a teacher in this type of conversation is a reaction to your assessment rather than a genuine response to the information.
Strategic conversations are different. While supervisory feedback seems more designed to provide a single and final evaluation of a teacher’s performance and cookie cutter prescriptions for improvement, strategic conversations provide teachers with ongoing direct and honest assessments of their current performance and help them develop the skills and the disposition they need to improve and meet or exceed the standards. The feedback is not a one-shot deal. It is part of a continuous dialogue about effective instruction and student achievement. And, because this feedback is tailored to teachers’ individual needs, it is more likely to make a real difference in their practice.
In strategic conversations you are not the problem solver; you facilitate problem-solving among teachers. It is the teacher’s responsibility to manage their own professional growth and solve their own instructional challenges. Strategic conversations are based on the assumption that teachers are trying to do the best they can. The role of the instructional leader is to help teachers discover the root cause of their instructional challenges and to guide teachers to resolve these challenges themselves.
At the heart of strategic conversations is a relationship. Strategic conversations help you establish trust and maintain it — even when you are sharing really difficult feedback. When teachers feel safe, they are more likely to take the steps they need to improve.
To learn more about strategic conversations, check out my book The Instructional Leader’s Guide to Strategic Conversations with Teachers. It includes step-by-step advice for how to have difficult conversations with teachers, how to share feedback that actually helps teachers improve their performance, and how to choose the right conversational approach given your goals and teachers’ needs. You can also check out resources from the book by visiting here.