Teacher Observation Feedback that S.T.I.C.K.S.

Develop a culture of professional growth in school faculty to transform learning experiences.

Topics: Assessment and Evaluation

Effective instructional leaders work to guide and improve learning in schools through developing an understanding of teachers’ and students’ needs. Observing and coaching teachers is a common and useful way to determine these needs and identify possible areas for growth. However, these efforts are not always translated into improved practice, as teachers do not always make suggested changes to their instruction. Why do teachers sometimes fail to enact feedback they have been given? There might be many reasons, but instructional leaders have the power to encourage improvement in two important ways: by fostering a culture of professional growth and by providing high quality observation feedback.

Foster a Culture of Professional Growth

In many schools, teacher evaluation is a high-stakes process in which teachers are observed once a year and rated on their performance, with possible consequences for their job or their salary. In other schools, observation and evaluation is an afterthought, with overworked or under-engaged school leaders rarely stepping foot inside classrooms. Neither of these cases represents a culture of professional growth.

To ensure teachers are improving, leaders must first compel teacher buy-in for the process of improvement. Engaging teachers in meaningful discussions about the nitty gritty details of planning, teaching, and assessing student learning sends the message that the leader cares about what is happening in these areas and models the need to be reflective about pedagogical decision making. Leaders can make classroom visits more frequent and lower stakes to diminish teacher anxiety or defensiveness related to the evaluation process.

Leaders can also encourage peer observation and collaborative professional development opportunities for teachers to normalize the practice of thinking and talking about ways to improve among the faculty. Veteran teachers should be encouraged to reflect on their strengths and share wisdom with others while also pushing themselves to try innovative approaches and continue to improve. Professional growth is more likely to occur in situations where teachers feel supported and able to take risks and positive relationships are a major contributor to those feelings.

This year, in particular, the need for professional growth is evident for many teachers who are being forced to pivot from their traditional teaching methods to adapt to the realities of teaching with social distancing and supporting online learners. Effective leaders can help teachers see this as an opportunity for growth for everyone and not just a source of stress. Leaders can empathize with teachers’ feelings of anxiety and hardship but then encourage a growth mindset and positive outlook, praising their efforts and recognizing innovative approaches to teaching.

Provide High-Quality Observation Feedback

Once a positive culture of professional growth has been established, teachers should be amenable to receiving feedback on their teaching. Effective leaders can observe their teachers in person in their classrooms or through videos or live streaming into classrooms. To ensure that observation feedback is transformative for teachers’ practice, instructional leaders must give feedback that S.T.I.C.K.S.

Specific: A wealth of research indicates that both praise and constructive feedback should be as specific as possible. This does not mean presenting a laundry list of all detailed positive and negative observations, but rather, offering high-quality feedback focused on one or two specific points of emphasis during the observed lesson. Allowing the teachers to contribute to setting the goal of the observation invites more teacher buy-in and again fosters the culture of professional growth, as teachers feel less like they are being evaluated based on external criteria and more like they are getting feedback to help them grow.

Tied to Evidence: Instructional leaders are usually seasoned experts in teaching and can quickly and easily form impressions of other teachers’ practice within minutes of being in a classroom. These impressions might be accurate, but they are not always communicated to teachers in a way that fosters growth. Instead of, “Your classroom was really noisy today,” feedback tied to evidence might sound like, “I noticed students at the back table were not able to hear your instructions due to the talking on the side, and they lost time during the activity waiting for you to come over to re-explain it to them.”

Includes Identified Action Steps: Together with the teacher, the instructional leader should seek to identify targeted action steps to be enacted following the observation. From the above example, this could be as simple as a direction like, “Next time you are going to give instructions, be sure to pause and wait for all side conversations to stop before speaking.” More complex action plans could involve sharing resources with teachers, encouraging observations of other teachers skilled in particular areas, and co-planning or co-teaching lessons.

Checked for Follow-Up: Instructional leaders need to check back in with teachers on a timely basis to observe improvements and offer additional support. Ideally, the observer and the teacher will agree on a specific time in the near future when the observer can return to see the improvement in action. When this practice is regularly adhered to in schools, teachers know that their leaders will be coming back to check on their progress and feel compelled to enact the identified action steps because they know that is the expectation.

Kindly Delivered: Most teachers truly want to improve and are grateful for feedback. However, sometimes teachers might feel defensive when their practice is called into question. An instructional leader who can deliver constructive feedback gently, while still commanding high standards and continuous improvement, will find that teachers are more receptive to growth.

Student-Centered: Feedback is more likely to be translated into improved practice if the teacher can clearly see the ramifications for student learning. Observations can easily over-emphasize teacher actions by using checklists and rubrics solely focused on what the teacher says and does without analysis of student learning. Focusing on how students experience observed lessons rather than how the instructional leader views the lesson is important.

Instructional improvement is an ongoing process, and changes will not necessarily happen overnight. However, when leaders give feedback according to the S.T.I.C.K.S. method, teachers should be willing and able to incorporate that feedback into their practice in ways that will improve teaching and learning.

Monica Kowalski is an assistant professor of the Practice at the University of Notre Dame, where she also serves as the associate director of Program Evaluation and Research for the Institute for Educational Initiatives.