A strong feedback culture starts with us

Since emerging from the most significant disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve talked with fellow leaders struggling to foster a culture of positive feedback, especially when it comes to soliciting input from our staff members. During the initial pandemic lockdowns, feedback took a backseat as we shifted into survival mode. Our primary concern centered on the basic needs of students and teachers during virtual and hybrid learning, testing, social distancing, contact tracing and mask mandates.

Now, as educators adapt to a new “normal,” we educators find ourselves in a strange place: We’re back, doing our best and eager for the feedback necessary for our growth. However, we’ve grown out of practice when it comes to cultivating a feedback culture.

It’s time to transition from survival mode to thriving in our leadership, and this transition hinges on feedback. We must establish channels for understanding our school community’s thoughts and needs.

Here are 5 strategies that can help us rebuild a feedback culture:

1. Look for feedback consistently from every staff member.

As leaders, we sometimes fall into the habit of consulting the same coterie of trusted staff members for feedback. While there’s value in cultivating strong advisor relationships with veteran staff members, relying solely on a few voices limits our perspective. When leading a team of dozens of teachers, we need to actively seek input from every team member, both to ensure our staff members know we value them and to develop the fullest possible picture of the impact of our leadership. By establishing predictable, ongoing systems for gathering feedback, evaluating feedback and responding to feedback throughout the year, we weave feedback into our culture.

2. Highlight the positive, even in tough times.

This core piece of my advice grew from some meaningful feedback I received on my own leadership. It came during a really tough moment for our school community. Only 30% of our learners were in-person. The other 70% of learners were at home, engaged in hybrid learning. We were doing the best we could with the resources that we had, and in our quest to pursue the best situation possible for our students, our leadership team lost sight of what was actually working. A team member pointed this out by saying, “Hey, we’re doing a lot of really good stuff here, but we’re always talking about what’s going wrong.” It was a learning moment for me. I knew right away they were right.

Our team responded by implementing staff shoutout emails, capturing amazing things we saw during walk-throughs and opening an anonymous form where team members could celebrate each other. Before I left school on Fridays, I compiled all the shoutouts into a single PowerPoint, attached it to an email and scheduled the email to auto send Monday morning so the staff could start their week off on a positive note. We saw almost a 100% open rate on those emails, and the impacts extended into staff meeting engagement, collaboration between team members and positive staff morale.

3. Utilize technology to make space for anonymous feedback.

Sometimes, teachers don’t feel comfortable raising their hand to offer feedback in a faculty meeting. Other times, they have a thought they don’t feel comfortable delivering themselves. By offering just a simple online form or online polls, you make it possible for folks to share authentic feedback in a safer way, on their own time.

4. Lead by example and implement staff feedback.

As leaders, we expect teachers to respond to the feedback we give them. Teachers also receive feedback every day in the form of student responses to their lessons, and student feedback often requires teachers to pivot and respond on the fly. As leaders, we need to demonstrate that we also value feedback by nimbly responding to the suggestions we receive – even when the feedback is not what we expected.

5. Invest in structures that enable peer feedback.

When we lead by example and visibly respond to teacher feedback, we create a culture in which asking for and giving feedback feels safe and valued – and this can open doors for staff to offer feedback to one another. If your budget or schedule allows it, consider offering time for teachers to observe one another. Or, set aside staff meeting time for sharing, questions and collaboration. As your team learns from each other, the teaching happening in your school community will strengthen – and student outcomes will follow. 

Feedback allows us to push past our assumptions to learn what our staff really needs.

After all the upheaval and chaos of the past several years, the best thing we can do for our teachers is avoid making assumptions about the support they need. We should let them tell us what they need from our leadership. Drawing on the collective expertise in our school community, we can learn how to move learning forward. We can find what might work for us as a school and what’s getting in the way. But we won’t know until we ask.