Friday was the first PD Day that I ran as principal and I think that is went pretty well. The day was not without anxiety and pressure. This was not a good week as our family had to deal with the loss of my mother-in-law and I was scheduled to be out at principal commitments for 3 days of the shortened week. Add to that the fact that I forgot my new directory password the morning of our PD day so was locked out of my computer (where my presentation sat: add for cloud computing inserted here!), and I was feeling the pressure of getting it right for my staff. I make that last statement without levity as I know the all too common approach to PD Days as many staff roll their eyes at the prospect of being talked to for any amount of time, so I wanted to make it useful and a building experience for my staff.
With that we proceeded with the school theme of HOPE and the way that we were defining the term for the sake of our school. We have defined Hope this way:
HOPE: DIRECTION, gained through REFLECTION and achieved through ACTION.
With this as our premise we were looking to give a direction to the school year and at the requests of our department heads, a direction of my vision as principal. My main concern for a large staff so involved with so many initiatives and activities was focus. We had to find something that could be a hub for all out efforts to rally around. With that we looked to a document that is founded in research and seems to resonate with many educators: the School Effectiveness Framework. Within that the concept of Descriptive Feedback is featured and has even become the main focus of our board’s central resources staff. We first investigated it as an evidence based instructional strategy for our School Support Initiative but soon found that this could be something that could encompass many of the challenges facing our, (and I would argue, most), schools.
The most immediate purpose of the day was to generate some discussion around what good and timely descriptive feedback looks like in a school. We had lots of examples here and we even explored the use of some tools to facilitate feedback like Poll Everywhere. I like to put some very practical tools in every presentation that I do as that is really what teachers are looking for. I think we are all most interested and engaged when offered a relatively simple and direct tool that we can potentially try right away. This was fruitful and looks like will be one of the focus for our District Review later this school year.
More than that though was the concept of descriptive feedback of a different nature. I was looking to start the work of creating a community where professional and open dialogue is a norm. This is probably why I am so into this blogging exercise now. I like the idea of getting my ideas clear and articulated AND getting feedback from people that have something to say. I want the feedback and this seems like one way to get it. That being said, I wanted staff to comment and think about how they receive feedback from their peers, their administration and their students. This can be a bit more touchy a subject because as I said to staff, feedback in a classroom (at least teacher to student), is a much easier thing because the identity of authority is much more clear and concrete. All other forms can get much more complicated especially when one feels like they have to defend the choices that they make.
Still I know that professional dialogue is incredibly important to any community that purports to be about growth and professional development. I wanted departments to think about what descriptive feedback looks like in their department between teachers, students and admin. In fact that afternoon was devoted to this discussion entirely as they were to post summaries of their discussions on an eCommunity discussion board. I liked using this format because not only would it get people to work in the online forum that I had just set up, but it would also allow all members of staff to see what other departments were saying without having to sit through a sharing session involving over 100 people. I was very happy with the results as the admin were able to sit with some of the departments and engage in dialogue that was rich and professional in nature.
Now there was yet another case that I learned about some more of my blind spots when it comes to feedback. I made it clear in the meeting that involvement in the ecommunity was voluntary and that I had created it as a response to staff that were inquiring about a place to house resources and discussion points that all could access. I made this clear but still got some feedback, (including that from a member of the teacher union executive), seeking clarification about the “voluntary” nature of the community. Despite my intentions, some were a bit concerned that perhaps I was going to expect all members of staff to participate. I have to be honest, I was a bit upset about the concerns as I felt that I was clear and see the extra work that I do to maintain the site as a service to staff, not a threat to anyone. And if I was to be honest, I was probably also hurt that my staff did not have enough trust in me yet to hear my intentions for the site first, before calling their union. Funny how we can preach about not taking feedback personally and then have such a hard time taking our own advice.
As I reflected on Friday this weekend, I did gain some perspective on the whole thing though. I have to remember to see that people will look to offer their feedback in a number of different ways. Even though I may not understand the mode of delivery right away, all the input points to one thing: passion. My staff care enough about their profession and about each other that they are naturally on guard. I hope to earn more of their trust as my time in this position goes on, but I have to be impressed by people that are willing to question and comment. I need the feedback from my staff so as best to serve them and look forward to the discussions that will come about because of Friday’s meeting. I look forward to having more conversations with the Union executive as well so as to gather and appreciate their perspective as I make decisions for the school community. I hope that some of the groundwork around DESCRIPTIVE FEEDBACK leads to many more discussions and valuable collaboration. We are in the process of building our School Learning Improvement Plan this week so I imagine that I will blog about that later this week, and hopefully share more examples of professional encounters, whatever form they take.