How school leaders can build a strong culture of feedback

Do it right and feedback can boost CPD, ensuring your staff are happy and productive. But do it wrong and negativity can create an arid, toxic environment. Principal Jo Facer offers tips for implementing ‘radical candour’
31st January 2020, 12:03am
How To Build A Strong Culture Of Feedback

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How school leaders can build a strong culture of feedback

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-school-leaders-can-build-strong-culture-feedback

At the end of a job interview years ago, the headteacher asked if I had any questions. I replied: “How open are you to debate and changing the school based on feedback?”

“Very! Did you have anything in mind?” the headteacher asked.

I made a suggestion on the spot, which was informed by the worries and complaints of the teachers I’d met that day. The head immediately refuted it, saying I was totally wrong and this was the one part of the school that “definitely didn’t need to change”.

And there you have a perfect example of what appeared to be a poor feedback culture.

Feedback is important in a school. If we want a productive and happy staff, two things always need to be held true: the first is that everybody can always get better; the second is that mistakes will be made.

Without this, you can slip into a toxic culture. Signs of problems include teachers not buying into decisions, perhaps referring to “stupid choices” made by senior leaders. Often, people talk about others rather than to them. There can be a feeling that teachers are “done to” rather than “done with”. Finally, teachers are left to sink or swim alone - nobody seems to care what you do, unless you make a colossal mistake, in which case everyone cares deeply and it’s all your fault.

So, how can you build a strong culture of feedback? Too often, we fail to give feedback when it is desperately needed, watching helplessly as mediocrity spirals and then wondering where it went wrong. What we should adopt is what business leader and author Kim Scott terms “radical candour”.

Used properly, this is a powerful inoculation against toxicity, although the author admits that the term has been misappropriated. Radical candour does not mean being rude to everybody in the name of “honesty”. Here’s what it could look like in a school.

1. Start positive

Begin with what is going well - and with almost all staff, lots will be going well. Give praise generously and thank everyone relentlessly. This signposts what is being done well and should be done more. It highlights the bar and shows where an individual has reached it. It reassures people that they are doing a good job, and when someone feels secure, they are more willing to take on feedback and improve.

2. Say thank you

Connected with praise is gratitude: thank your colleagues. One school in South London has a weekly staff meeting where the first 10 minutes are given over to staff writing gratitude postcards and then reading them out. In a culture of gratitude, helping each other becomes the norm.

3. Collaborate

With this groundwork laid, ask if the individual wants feedback - get their permission to help them do better. If they say “No”, that’s a very important issue to dig into more deeply and understand, which may form the building blocks of a more trusting relationship where feedback can happen.

4. Don’t hide behind email

Give negative feedback in person. No one needs to fear their inbox more than they already do. Think about who is best placed to give feedback. It should almost always be the person who saw the incident (there’s nothing worse than having to say to a colleague: “The head noticed this and asked me to tell you … ” ), but it is equally important to have a trusting relationship with the individual, and it can sometimes work better to feed concerns through one channel, particularly if someone is under emotional strain.

5. Be self-aware

If you’re the person who is never on time to meetings, don’t pull someone else up for being late to one. Instead, own it: “Something I’m really working on is my timekeeping. I think you and I could both improve on this. What can we do to tackle it together?” Delivering feedback shouldn’t be one-way - ask questions and listen to the answers.

6. Welcome feedback yourself

For feedback to be a success, it takes two - so we all need to be open to receiving it.

When you are given feedback, try to keep it in perspective: too many people beat themselves up over little things. Remember that the feedback is about one small part of your job, and your job is only a small part of your life.

How you react to feedback will directly determine how much feedback you will receive in the future. So, if you want to improve, you will need to remain open to it. Ultimately, leaders set the culture of a school. As a leader, you should ask for feedback frequently.

At Ark Soane Academy, we build this into fortnightly line-management meetings, so leaders have to ask those they lead: “What do you wish I did more of? What do you wish I did less of? What do you wish I’d do differently?”

Jo Facer is principal of Ark Soane Academy in West London

This article originally appeared in the 31 January 2020 issue under the headline “How to build a strong culture of feedback”

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