Anytime I ask for qualitative feedback about my performance as a school leader, I risk a negative response. This is especially true when I create a space for open comments.
For example, in a recent survey around school climate, a staff member was critical of my practice. One comment: “Our school’s literacy goal keeps changing. Instead of focusing on one thing over time, like reading instruction, it is like we are chasing butterflies.”
Although I have developed a tougher skin over time, it can still sting to hear this. Is any of it valid? What is this person’s ulterior motive, or are they dealing with other challenging issues and using this opportunity to vent their frustrations? I want teachers to communicate their needs and frustrations, but not at the expense of damaging relationships.
Instead of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in my effort to learn and improve, what if we teach faculty and staff how to communicate feedback in a way that others—including leaders—can hear?
Coaching Others on How to Coach Each Other
As leaders we have only so much influence. We alone cannot make an impact on the literacy culture.
Therefore, I have made a concerted effort to embed coaching skills within faculty interactions. Also known as “collaborative norms” in Cognitive Coaching, recommended coaching skills include
- pausing: creating a space to process one’s thinking and to consider what might be said next;
- paraphrasing: summarizing for the other person what you heard them say; and
- posing questions: asking for clarification, or sharing a wondering to extend the conversation.
These three coaching skills all support a primary leadership strategy of engaged listening.
It may seem counterintuitive—why teach listening skills to help colleagues better communicate feedback?
Listening makes all the difference. If I am more knowledgeable about where the person is coming from, what they are thinking and feeling and trying to attain, then my interactions with them will be more responsive to their needs.
Next are three contexts in which a coaching culture is deliberately built and supported in school.
1. Staff Meetings
At the beginning of almost every staff meeting, I play short videos from the Thinking Collaborative website. (Available here: https://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/cc-sb-videos.)
At the beginning of one meeting, I selected two short videos on pausing and how to use paralanguage (body language, nonverbal communication). We were on Zoom, which led to this question:
“When working with students or colleagues online, how might these skills be adapted for that space?”
Teachers went into break-out rooms to share their perspectives around this question. These structured opportunities also gave faculty members the chance to practice coaching skills in a safe environment.
2. Professional Development
At the start of a professional learning session, we review our collaborative norms/coaching skills. I sometimes take a moment to highlight a skill that would be applicable for our time together.
For instance, when we engaged in a schoolwide writing assessment in the fall, I stressed paraphrasing as a key skill while in vertical teams. “It is helpful for colleagues when we summarize for the group what we heard. People can clarify misconceptions. The speaker better understands how they were perceived.”
Then I sat in on one of the groups and participated in the collaboration. As we talked about the kids’ writing, one teacher commented that we might be scaffolding too much for our students. This critical insight created a pause. After I’d allowed time for others to respond and no one did, I acknowledged that it is possible that we are supporting students too much when they are ready for independence.
Modeling these strategies within authentic contexts helps with teacher independence, too.
3. Individual Interactions
A teacher came up to me in the hallway and asked if we had received the reading resources for some of our students with specific needs. I responded that I had sent the request to our superintendent but had not heard back. Her face fell into a frown.
Sensing frustration, I shared that the superintendent was covering for me in the building later that week. I posed a question: “Do you mind if I give you some feedback on how you might approach him on this?” She nodded. “When I make requests, I sometimes put ideas on the table and frame it as a choice. For example: ‘Unless you have other resources in mind, these literacy supports align well with the allowable costs for federal dollars.’” I ended with acknowledging that this approach works well with me too.
Later that month, the superintendent let me know that the teacher’s requests were approved. Did her coaching interactions make the difference? I am not sure, but she likely thinks so. It is a positive reinforcement for using these coaching skills with colleagues in the future.
Engaged Listening Is Empathetic Listening
At the heart of an effective coaching interaction is engaged listening. And engaged listening is empathetic listening. It is taking the perspective of the other person, trying to imagine what they are thinking and experiencing, and responding in a way that meets their needs and may lead to change.
Next are a few questions to consider as you model and reinforce these skills.
- When a person approaches you or you approach them, what is it they want or need? Find out.
- Begin by paraphrasing what they are saying to ensure you understand them.
- If something does not make sense to you, pose questions until it does.
- In a situation where you are not sure what to say, or you believe that the other person has the resourcefulness to resolve their challenge, pause to give them space to process their thinking.