Teacher Feedback: The Difference Between Praise and Appreciation

I recently wrote about the transformative power of conducting frequent, brief classroom walkthroughs as a school leader. Setting aside 30 minutes per day to visit 10 classrooms can be a gamechanger in your knowledge of what’s happening with teaching and learning in your school, as well as in your ability to build a learning community among your teachers.

I also believe that every classroom walkthrough deserves feedback, no matter how brief. For leaders who are new to their schools, and even more so for leaders who are implementing frequent walkthroughs as a new practice after having spent time in a school community, I believe it’s valuable to begin by leaving only messages of appreciation.

Why start with messages of appreciation?

As leaders, I think we can sometimes get coaching and evaluation mixed up. Regular coaching feedback should be a core piece of your work, without the process feeling punitive or judgemental to the recipient. Feedback conversations are about building partnerships to support students.

If walkthroughs are new for you, teachers can feel fearful when they start to see you in their classrooms. They might only be accustomed to formal, evaluative observations, and they might expect that you’re coming in with a “fix it” mentality, seeking out missteps. By crafting a powerful message of appreciation, you can create a culture of trust. 

Leave messages of appreciation every day for six weeks, and you’ll have had multiple positive engagements with every teacher – and learned a lot about what teaching and learning look like on your campus. From there, you’ll be able to start building on your appreciation messages to grow along with your teachers.

The difference between appreciation and praise

A message of appreciation is not the same as a note of praise. A message of praise might sound like, “Good job,” or “I liked the way you ___.” That might make a teacher feel good, but when I’m developing a culture of learning, I don’t ever want the criteria for whether a practice belongs in instruction to be, “Shelley likes this.” A practice should be included in a teacher’s instruction because it is grounded in researched-back pedagogy and is proven to make a difference in student learning, not because the teacher knows their leader personally approves. 

In a message of appreciation, the rationale is very important. Instead of saying, “I like that you posted your learning target,” you might say, “I saw that you posted a learning target, which increases the chances that students are going to reach that target by 60%.” By giving a message like this, you will convey the same warmth and support as in a message of praise, but you’ll more effectively contribute to a learning culture.

A script for crafting a message of appreciation

A message of appreciation always includes a thank-you. Then, describe something effective you observed and its pedagogical rationale. For example: “Thank you so much for welcoming me into your classroom. When you asked a question and didn’t just call on one kid to answer it, and instead you used the ‘think-ink-pair-share,’ strategy, you gave every student the opportunity to engage with that question, which helps ensure that all students are getting the opportunity to practice the learning.” 

There’s no, “You should do something else or try something different.” It’s just, Thank you for letting me be in your classroom. I appreciated seeing this because of the difference that it makes in learning. Keep doing it.”

Sample Script:

Thank you for welcoming me into your classroom.

I appreciated that you used the strategy _________.

This strategy supports student learning by __________.

Keep it up!

Building on messages of appreciation

It’s amazing how you can calm teachers’ nervous systems by demonstrating that you’re not looking for mistakes. Once teachers trust your belief in them, you can begin to build on these encounters.  

For example, if you’ve been into a classroom several times and seen a teacher use “think-ink-pair-share” four times, you might say to them, “It’s such a great strategy. You know, there are a couple others you might be interested in. Let me send those to you.” By then, the teacher knows you appreciate the work they’re doing, and they’re ready for you to lead them to the next step.

In order to effectively implement messages of appreciation, a leader has to be a student of pedagogy. You don’t have to know everything about every content area in order to appreciate effective teaching strategies. In the final post in this series on instructional leadership, I share ways you can narrow your focus and build your expertise without feeling overwhelmed.

Learn more with Shelley! You can reach her on Twitter, on the web at leadlikeapirate.net, and over email at [email protected]. Plus, check out her book, Lead Like a PIRATE: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff.