How do you get better without feedback?


Burnout in special education part 5

I have never met a perfect teacher. If you have then I am really, really impressed and would love to meet this person. We all have areas where we excel and areas where we need to improve. The problem is that it is really hard to improve without feedback.

In some ways special education teachers get feedback every day. They might have kids who lose it if the lesson is awful, assistants who roll their eyes when the teacher says something really dumb, and parents who get angry in meetings when the teacher messes up. They also might have moments where they see lightbulbs turn on for kids, assistants tell them that was a great lesson, and parents who thank them and are appreciative.

While all of those things are feedback, they are general feedback and have never been the best way to help me make specific changes in my teaching practice. What I needed was more specific feedback—feedback like that lesson probably wouldn’t have fallen apart if you scaffolded that activity more, maybe next time you could try….Or feedback like, next time in the meeting try starting with the strengths—the parents seemed kind of overwhelmed by all of their kid’s challenges and it might have gone better if they also felt like they were hearing their strengths. That type of feedback is what really helped me grow but it was far, far too rare.

Administrators might give some feedback but it is rarely specific and formative enough to make a difference. Most administrators don’t really know special education and it is hard for them to know what to look for. In addition, most are busy enough that classroom observations are rare. While there are ways to solve that problem (train principals more in special education and spread out their other responsibilities so they can observe more) I still prefer getting feedback from my peers. There are things my peers will notice that other people would miss—the type of nitty gritty observations that can boost my practice.

You might walk in and watch my guided reading lesson for five minutes and immediately think, “Wow, I love they way she got their attention but man those questions really aren’t going to increase the depth of the kids thinking.” The problem is we don’t have mechanisms or norms set up for you to pass those insights along to me. You might have a super simple suggestion that could make me a much better teacher but if you never visit my classroom while I am teaching or never get the chance to actually talk to me about my teaching, I will miss out.

Teachers generally don’t visit each others classrooms. They are too busy teaching. That makes feedback a lot harder. Most teachers I know are sponges—if they walk into someone else’s room they immediately see three or four things they want to take back and try and at least that many that are uh-ohs. Teachers need a chance to observe each other and to share with each other what the notice that is working and what needs to improve. They also need norms that make it okay to share both the bad and the good. I went into a teacher’s classroom every who desperately, really really desperately, needed organization. I couldn’t talk with her about it though because that wasn’t our norm. We don’t have norms of commenting on each other’s teaching nor time to watch each other teach and that makes it harder for all us to grow as educators.