Teacher Observations: A Culture of Feedback


Education First’s report, Giving Teachers the Feedback and Support They Deserve, describes how five leading districts (Aldine, TX; Fulton County, GA; Greene County, TN; Salem-Keizer, OR; and St. Bernard Parish, LA) are working to provide high-quality feedback and support for their teachers in order to improve student outcomes and evaluation systems. The districts do this work through five essential practices: promote a culture of feedback, develop your team, give them the right tools, offer teacher options, and use technology well. 

This blog highlights how Aldine Independent School District began to put in place the first essential practice: promote a culture of feedback. Christi Van Wassenhove, principal at Stehlik Intermediate School, shares her perspective on beginning the implementation of the district’s observation protocol, INVEST.


The Mission

In the fall of 2011, the Aldine Independent School District embarked on a journey to change the way teacher observations are conducted and utilized. Our goal was to enact a new observation protocol called INVEST.

At first, the task seemed very daunting and fraught with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps the biggest question was: Would we be able to garner teacher support and involvement in the process?

Despite the initial uncertainty, it was evident that a change was needed if, in fact, we were ever going to change the way we grow our teachers. We had to have a growth mindset and attack each obstacle with tenacity and a positive attitude.

I had a personal challenge to face. My first year as principal at Stehlik Intermediate School coincided with the first official year in which INVEST was in effect. I knew that in order to have a successful year, I had to work with my team to create a new culture where feedback was not only expected, but welcomed—one where all teachers walk away from pre- and post-observation conferences feeling empowered to change and grow. We had to change the teachers’ perception from that of being “called in” to the principal’s office, to one where feedback existed in the form of dialogue between educators.

The Reality

My fellow administrators and I were eager to begin the new process. We began conducting observations and taking detailed notes of what was heard and seen during the classroom visits. One by one, we began to schedule post-observations conferences. My second conference was with a high-spirited, veteran teacher who had been with the district for 14 years. I greeted her warmly as she entered my office and barely had a word out before she plopped down,  leaned comfortably back in her chair and said, “Well, go ahead and tell me everything I’m doing wrong, so I can get back to my room and do my lesson plans.”

As you can imagine, this could have taken a nasty turn, but this single event was a reminder that it was my mission to change the way teachers viewed feedback. I sat there for a moment, silently collecting my thoughts, and decided on a way to put the power back in her hands. I told her that I would like to start again and asked her to take a moment to share with me her experiences “in the principal’s office.” She had no problem rattling off negative experiences during which she sat silently listening to administrators tell her what she did wrong, what she should have done, and why she should have done it differently.

I explained to her that I had had very similar experiences when I was a teacher, and asked her if she would help me discover a way to change the way administrators provide feedback and to change the way teachers perceive it. She smiled and said, “I suppose I can give it a shot.” We engaged in dialogue about the events that occurred in her classroom, and I asked a variety of open-ended questions to encourage reflection on her part. At the end of the conference, I asked her for feedback regarding our conversation. I wanted her to know that we are all in this together, and in order for me to grow as an administrator, I would need her help.

The Feedback

I will forever be grateful to this teacher because she challenged me. She made me cognizant of the reality my fellow administrators and I would be facing as we set off on this journey to change teacher perception regarding observation feedback. However, I am most thankful for the feedback I received from her. I dutifully took notes as she detailed the positives and provided advice in moving forward:

  • Asking her questions helped her discover the areas in which she needed to grow. She felt less threatened.
  • Stay positive and maintain a growth mindset. She enjoyed the fact that there was a focus on the positive. It made her feel empowered.
  • Stay focused on one or two areas of growth. She walked away feeling that the goals she set during our conference were attainable.

The Result

Although the experience was different with each teacher, I found that most teachers were very receptive to feedback. In fact, many craved it. In maintaining positive attitudes, celebrating successes, and creating dialogue, a positive teacher perception emerged. I am happy to report that in less than two years, we were able to create a positive culture of feedback on our campus. We have even taken feedback a step further. Teachers now observe each other and provide feedback to one another.

The biggest reward is witnessing feedback come to life when I walk into classrooms and see the changes teachers have made. Teachers now smile proudly when administrators walk in the room and invite conversation. INVEST has changed the way teachers teach and the way administrators lead…and our students are reaping the benefits.

Read the full report from Education First for more information about how Aldine Independent School District implemented INVEST—including their professional development and funding strategies.