Performance Based Conversations
How to Have Difficult Conversations with Educators
If you had to make a list of tasks administrators dislike the most, this would surely be near the top of the list; having a difficult conversation with a teacher who is underperforming. Most, if not all, administrators go into the job believing that they can make a difference for both teachers and students. They genuinely want to help teachers improve their craft, and strive to create better learning environments for students. Unfortunately, administrators sometimes have to identify and work with teachers who are not creating a classroom that is conducive to learning. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken prior to these difficult conversations that will help effect real and meaningful change.
Envision this scenario; you’re an administrator who is new to a building. You have heard that the teaching staff needs professional development about engaging all learners in a classroom. You decide that during the first week of school you will visit classrooms and give feedback to every teacher in the building about what they are, or are not, doing to engage students by leaving a note in their mailbox. Does this really seem like a situation that will result in any meaningful change from the teachers? Of course not! It is imperative that you actually have conversations with staff members about topics relating to both their professional and personal lives. Building genuine relationships with staff is an essential foundation prior to building staff capacity: staff need to know and trust you before they will let themselves become vulnerable and have real conversations about their practice. The best part about forming relationships is that you don’t need a handbook to teach you how to do it, you just have to make an effort to engage people in conversations, and actively listen to what they say. Lastly, what you do matters: studies have shown that a positive relationship between administrators and staff leads to higher teacher retention rates.
See Teachers Teach…a lot
Have you ever gone to the doctor and received a diagnosis that you knew was wrong? You knew it was wrong because you already went to a previous doctor a year ago who prescribed you a regiment that fixed your illness. This is essentially the same as walking into a classroom one time and diagnosing everything that is right and wrong about that class. If you truly want to know what kind of a teacher someone is, you should be observing their teaching on multiple occasions and times. You need to see their best days, their worst days, and the other days in between. Only then can you truly understand what that particular teacher’s strengths and weaknesses are. It also gives you credibility when you have to give tough feedback because that teacher knows you have seen them teach before, and is not trying to catch you in a “gotcha” moment. There is nothing that teachers detest more than the individual who shows up to their class one day, gives them feedback, and never comes back again.
Sometimes the best part about teaching, be it to adults or children, is that you don’t actually have to give the student any information at all. You can just ask question after question after question until they come up with the answer themselves. When you want to talk to teachers about their pedagogical practices, what’s stopping you from just asking them questions about why they do what they do? Maybe they’ve never thought about it, maybe they have a very good reason that you’ve never thought of, maybe they’re doing it because they thought it was what you wanted them to do. The point is, many teachers feel like no one has ever really asked them about their thoughts. When you ask questions and show that you are actively listening, teachers feel valued and can see that you are just as invested in their improvement as they are. A general rule of thumb is if it’s a good technique in the classroom, it’s a good technique to use with teachers.
When you remove your personal feelings and biases from an observation and focus only on the data, it is hard for a teacher to refute what you’re saying. For example, which would you rather hear from a supervisor? “I think that students just aren’t that engaged in the class” or “While you were teaching, I counted nine out of twenty-six students had their heads down. What about the lesson do you think caused student to become disengaged? By focusing on data, this allows you to give tough feedback to a teacher while minimizing damage to your relationship. Although teachers may have different perspectives on what was observed, objective data about what students were or were not doing cannot be refuted.. Next time you go into a classroom, start taking note of undeniable facts. How long did it take to pass out papers, how many students were participating in their group work, how many students were called on during the course of the period, how many students received no teacher feedback at all? Although this type of data may be challenging to consistently collect, it provides for more meaningful conferences, and a greater degree of professional growth in teachers’ practices.