Pushing Forward with School Culture

Last week I wrote about school culture and how it is, perhaps, the single most important piece to achieving the academic success that we strive for in education.  I’ve continued thinking about the importance of shaping a school’s culture and have had a lot of conversations and feedback based on last week’s post (thank you to everyone for your thoughts!)  As a result of all these conversations I decided to start trying (and modeling) a few strategies that I thought could be beneficial to further engage our student and parent populations.  I’ve found a high level of success at the initial level and I’m excited about some of the feedback I’ve received from parents and students alike.

In the past I’ve written about the importance of feedback and how giving and receiving feedback are things that people need to practice.  Similarly, I read Thanks For the Feedback a while back, upon Dan’s recommendation, and have been thinking a lot about the concept of learning to receive feedback.  There are a lot of factors at play when receiving feedback, which is what we’re asking our students and parents to do as part of the process of further engaging with academics.  One of the most impactful ideas is that people need to be in the right mindset when receiving feedback, otherwise it may fall on deaf ears and be ignored.  

One challenge that exists when sharing feedback with students and parents is that all too often we only make time to share the “negative” feedback, the stuff intended to help our students improve and grow.  This is essential information and must be shared with students and parents, but it’s not the only piece.  Balance is an important part of life, in all aspects, and when it comes to feedback there is no difference.  In order to reach a level of balance in student/parent communication that will act to further engage these stakeholders we have to ensure that we aren’t solely focused on the “negative.”  If we only contact parents about “negative” issues or approach students with “negative” feedback they will begin to block us out and our feedback will be completely lost.  

Which brings me to my idea, one of a few I’ve been trying out lately…and seeing incredible results!  Positive messages home.  I’m not making things up just to have an excuse to contact parents and celebrate their kids.  Rather, I’m looking for the positive and taking the time to share the celebration with students and parents.  Meanwhile, I continue to make my usual parent contacts for less desirable reasons (detentions, missing work, etc.)  What I’ve noticed is that when I copy (CC) parents on these messages to the students (I always do this), I’m receiving a response from the parents 85% of the time when I share a positive message, compared to an approximate 20% response rate for “negative” messages.  One of my (many) theories is that as we engage more parents with positive messages that our response rate on “negative” messages will increase.  It’s only natural, that as parents begin to see that we’re in this together, that they’ll begin to engage further with their students academic pursuits.  When I have kids come up and thank me for sharing a positive message with their parents I know that they’ve had a conversation around this topic.  My hope is that we can find a way to help parents open the lines of communication by starting with the positive, then when the “negative” arises they’ve already established a path for having these conversations.

It takes a village to raise a child and we’re all in this together.  After a few conversations around this topic, some teachers have already jumped on the bandwagon and have begun to share more frequent (both positive and “negative”) messages home, with wonderful results.  If you’re keen to help continue this surge toward a more positive school culture I encourage you to give this a try.  Let me know if you’re thinking about it and I can give you some time-saving tips to help prevent spinning your wheels unnecessarily.  There’s no better time than the present to celebrate the wonderful students we are fortunate enough to work with every day, you never know when that one positive note home is going to change something for a student or parent!  

Surrounded by Feedback

This past week I had the chance to get into a 5th grade classroom and a 7th grade classroom to work with some students on our iLEARN Communities.  Dan and I are working to bring the PLC (professional learning community) structure to the student level.  We want our students working to Lead, Engage, Assess, Reflect, and Network (LEARN).  As part of this process we approached the two grade levels a bit differently to initiate the process.  What was most interesting to note after reflecting on these two sessions were the similarities and differences.  The most important of which, is the fact that both groups identified “feedback” as one of the most important ideas to be successful within this process.  

Our approach with the 7th grade students was to start with a discussion around “How the Brain Works” and getting them to think about collaboration as an important concept for success.  As we introduced this group to the iLEARN Communities concept, they independently brought up the importance of feedback in all aspects of their learning.  This was exciting for a number of reasons.  For students to realize that feedback plays a role in all aspects of their learning was very powerful because it couldn’t be more true.  In fact, we had an article to share with them all about the importance of feedback.  It was exciting that they were already leading themselves down this path before we led them there.  

The 5th grade group also started leading themselves down the path we had hoped they’d follow.  We started with this group using a different strategy.  They’re deep into their Exhibition of Learning (EOL), the culminating piece of their years in the PYP.  Instead of starting with brain research we decided to try to unify the iLEARN Communities work with their EOL.  After discussing with a small group of 5th graders I was excited to hear them using the word feedback so frequently.  I asked them why they thought feedback was so important, or at least why they kept bringing it up.  I’m paraphrasing but essentially they said, “feedback helps us grow and get better.”  Talk about exciting, these kids were begging for feedback and couldn’t get enough!

I guess feedback is on my mind even more than usual because we’re heading toward the end of another school year.  We’ve begun scheduling end of the year conversations with teachers, a process that includes giving and receiving feedback for all parties.  I’ll be seeking feedback from teachers about the supervision process and perhaps more importantly I’ll ask for feedback on my feedback.  As a part of this process I’ll also be drawing together a year’s worth of feedback into one conversation with an aim toward planning for future success.  It’s an exciting time for me, I believe that the process of reflecting and celebrating growth is hugely beneficial to the learning process.  As the lead learners in this (or any) school, it’s imperative for us as educators to go through the same process we want our kids to go through.

Our students are on the way, they’re thirsting for feedback and see it as extremely valuable.  I know that teachers are, literally, begging for more feedback to help them grow and improve.  It is my goal to provide these opportunities for feedback to our teachers as frequently as possible.  I believe that as an admin team we did an acceptable job of providing feedback this year BUT I see a lot of room for improvement.  I’d like to ask a question, and I’ll ask the same question to those teachers I meet with at the end of the year…what can you do to improve the feedback process with your students?  

Answering this question honestly and implementing those changes will, guaranteed, improve the level of success in any classroom.


“Feedforward” not back!

Making the transition to a new teacher feedback tool, while slow and often cumbersome, is an exciting process.  As a new member of this community I have no previous experience with teacher feedback at Academia Cotopaxi.  However, over the last couple years I’ve made the supervision and evaluation process a professional focus of mine.  It’s an incredibly powerful tool for improving student learning and the conversations that come from frequent classroom visits and follow up conversations are, honestly, one of my favorite parts of my job.

As a former Language Arts teacher, I often equate the process of teacher supervision to helping students with the writing process.  Being the outside observer, there is only so much one can do to push the process forward.  Just as I was never the one doing the actual writing, I can’t dictate where the classroom (or story) goes.  The goal of the supervision process is much the same as guiding a writer; through observations and conversations we hope to lead a teacher through a reflective process that allows them to grow and improve as a teacher…leading to an overall better story of success in the classroom.

At the end of the day the process of reflecting and growing as a teacher shouldn’t really be any more work than normal.  Through reflective conversations we hope to help teachers think about their classroom and the teaching process on a deeper level by providing ‘outside’ observations and feedback.  Similar to how you might guide a writer through the reflective process of revising a piece of writing, the aim of teacher supervision is to take something that is already well developed and help move it to the next level.  We’re all working every day to grow and be better at what we do, having someone along to help with the reflective process shouldn’t create more work but rather ensure that the process of reflecting is an even more valuable use of your time.

We’re currently at the beginning stages of the reflective process (as far as our school year is concerned) and have been asked to self-assess and set some goals for professional growth.  I recently read a fantastic blog post about the concept of “feedforward” as opposed to the over-used “feedback”.  The concept is simple, instead of focusing on the past, look forward instead.  The concept of feedforward is rooted in the idea that growth should be driven not by the supervisor looking from the top down but rather from our own goals and desire to improve.  In the context of “feedforward” the goal setting process becomes even more important, as the goal(s) you choose will have a direct correlation to your growth throughout the school year.  Have a look at this fantastic post, it’s not too long and written with educators in mind (it’s from edutopia.com)  As you go through the self-assessment and goal setting process please keep the idea of “feedforward” in your mind; the power of growth comes from within.  

This great quote from the blog post says it all (and sounds very similar to what we hope to see with students in the classrooms):

“Feedforward means that teachers are not simply empty vessels waiting to be filled, but change agents waiting to be launched.”

Good luck and happy reflecting 🙂

What Are You (Not) Saying to Your Students?

By now we are all well aware of the essential role that feedback plays in education.  We create tremendous opportunities for our students to both give and receive feedback which allows them to improve their learning and drive them toward success.  The feedback we give our students is extremely valuable in their development as middle school students and budding academics.  However, this is formal academic feedback I’m talking about.  What about the informal feedback your students are receiving from you throughout the day?

Our students are receiving feedback from you whether you intend it or not.  Maybe you laughed at their joke as they walked into class…feedback (my teacher finds me funny).  Perhaps you compliment their new shoes or haircut…feedback (my teacher notices me AND thinks I have style, yay!)  Consider the other side of the coin.  Feedback (my teacher thinks I’m stupid)…the teacher only calls on a couple kids for the ‘hard’ questions.  Feedback (my teacher doesn’t notice me)…the teacher focuses on the “loud” kids.

What feedback are you sending without even thinking about it?

As I’ve been moving around the school this last week I’ve tried to think about the potential feedback that our students are receiving from the (un)intentional messages we are sending.  Some are AMAZING, some leave room for growth.

Some of the positive feedback kids are receiving that may or may not be intentional includes:

  • My teacher really likes this class and group of kids.
  • My teacher has high expectations for all students.
  • My teacher knows me and cares about who I am outside of school.
  • My teacher values SSR and enjoys reading!
  • My teacher enjoys working at SCIS.
  • My teacher is happy 🙂

All of these things are impressions that can be implied from the way that we engage with their students.  I’d like you to think about how a teacher may be sending the above messages.

Take a few minutes to think about the feedback your students are receiving from you.  What are the positive messages?  Is it possible that you are unintentionally sending any negative feedback?

I think you’re all amazing educators and wonderful people.  We all work very hard and as I’ve mentioned before, we’re all at least 90% awesome 🙂  I believe strongly in looking in the mirror and working to grow each and every day.  Thank you for all that you do for our students and our community.  We have an amazing middle school and we get better each day!!