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Thursday, 19 July 2018

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Three Approaches to Talking with Teachers After Classroom Visits

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

Three Approaches to Talking with Teachers After Classroom Visits
The article: “How Instructional Leaders Change Teacher Practice” by Justin Baeder in The Principal Center, July 6, 2018,; Baeder can be reached at

“I believe changing practice starts with getting into classrooms and having conversations with teachers,” says author/consultant Justin Baeder in this Principal Center article. “Office-based activities like analyzing data and planning professional development are important, but they’re no substitute for actually seeing teachers at work, and talking to them about their work.” He believes school leaders should make short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits every day (aiming to see each teacher about twice a month), and observe with an open mind (no checklists).

However, short classroom visits may not provide enough information for high-quality feedback, which is why it’s important not to jump to evaluative conclusions. Teachers can become resistant to administrators’ comments and suggestions, creating a psychological barrier for both teachers and administrators to future observations. Because of this dynamic, says Baeder, many principals do the absolute minimum of required formal evaluation visits, and consequently are out of touch with the daily realities of classrooms.

The solution is simple: always have an informal face-to-face conversation with teachers after each classroom visit, and use the talks to get the bigger picture of what’s going on in each classroom, build relationships and trust, and improve teaching and learning.

Of course it’s not as simple as popping into classrooms and chatting with teachers. As with the trust a good physician builds with patients, teachers’ trust in their supervisors depends on three leader characteristics:

- Expertise – Knowing curriculum and instruction;

- Firsthand knowledge – Knowing about individual teachers and what’s going on in their classrooms;

- Listening – Post-visit conversations can’t be a one-way street. “Listening is at the heart of strong relationships,” says Baeder.

From his years as a teacher, principal, researcher, and consultant, Baeder has found that post-observation interactions fall into three categories, depending on what was observed in the classroom: boss-oriented directive feedback; coach-oriented reflective feedback; and leader-oriented reflexive feedback:

• Directive feedback – This usually involves telling a teacher who is using an ineffective practice what needs to change – for example, You must not raise your voice or yell at students. Instead, use a consistent signal to get everyone’s attention, then give directions in a normal speaking voice. “Even when we’re working with teachers who are making serious and obvious mistakes,” says Baeder, “– like failing to plan lessons or screaming at students – we need to have expertise, gain firsthand knowledge, and listen.” It’s helpful to give the rationale behind the directive, so the teacher sees it’s a problem common to all teachers and not personal. For example, the principal might say, “In this school, we don't yell at our kids, and I want you to understand what happens when you do. When you're yelling, you can't hear students, so they can talk even more, and they’re also losing respect for you.”

Of course teachers sometimes resist directives, as happened when Baeder told a teacher that it was unacceptable not to plan his math lessons. The teacher insisted that it was fine to wing it every day, and told Baeder to stop coming to his classroom, go back to his office, and do his job. Fortunately Baeder got backup from his boss and from the union representative and the teacher started planning lessons.

• Reflective feedback – This often involves asking questions after a visit – for example, What are some ways you could get students to start asking higher-order questions, so they can take more leadership in directing class discussions? “Because teaching is complex professional work, we can’t make teachers’ decisions for them,” says Baeder. “[B]y asking the right questions at the right time, we can prompt the kinds of thinking that can help teachers improve their practice… The sweet spot for most instructional leaders is helping teachers understand the impact their instruction is having on students. In other words, our greatest opportunity is in helping teachers move from performance-aware to impact-aware.”

Questions are also an opportunity for school leaders to show humility. When he moved from teaching middle-school science to being an elementary principal, Baeder knew very little about literacy and math instruction in the lower grades. Chatting with teachers after classroom visits, he found himself asking softball questions: Tell me more about when you did ---, What were your goals for the lesson? What are you thinking you’ll do next? Baeder realized that post-visit conversations were falling into what he calls the “fake feedback game”:

- The administrator pretends to provide feedback.

- The teacher pretends to appreciate it – “Oh yeah, great point, Justin! I will definitely work on that and let you know how it goes. OK? Bye.”

- Both pretend teacher practice has changed as a result of the conversation.

In addition to the emptiness of these conversations, Baeder wasn’t learning anything about elementary literacy and math or getting insights into what was really going on in teachers’ heads.

“It was through these conversations that I discovered the true reason it’s so hard to change teacher practice,” he says. “Teacher behavior is like the tip of the iceberg, and teacher thinking is what’s beneath the surface.” He learned that asking Why? questions tended to make teachers defensive. How? questions were more likely to get teachers to engage in non-defensive reflection. Over time, he began asking questions that probed context (what happened before and after a visit); different perceptions and interpretations of the same events; the thinking behind decisions teachers made; adjustments they made to deal with unexpected events; alignment with curriculum expectations; and, most important, impact on student learning.

• Reflexive feedback – There are situations where neither the “boss” nor the “coach” approach is appropriate. Here’s an example. At one point in his principalship, Baeder noticed that kindergarten teachers weren’t implementing a schoolwide anti-bullying curriculum. Asked why, the teachers said they were trying but there simply wasn’t enough time in the schedule. This could have been taken as excuse-making and complaining, but Baeder investigated and concluded that the teachers were absolutely right: the timing of recess didn’t allow a big enough block to teach the anti-bullying lessons. He modified the schedule and the problem was solved.

“We must see the whole iceberg of practice,” says Baeder, “– what’s above and below the surface – but the current the iceberg is floating in matters even more.” The system within which teachers and school leaders are working can have an outsize impact on what happens in classrooms. Reflexive conversations are those in which teachers have a voice and know that the principal will take what they say seriously. “As a result,” he says, “they’re much more willing to invest effort in making changes in their practice – because they believe they’ll get the support they need.”

Over time, listening carefully to teachers talking about what was going on in the whole system helped Baeder make better decisions on professional development experiences for the staff; whom to hire for existing and newly created positions; where to allocate funds; and where he could most productively focus his time and attention.

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