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Why School Leaders Must Go All-In With Real-Time Feedback

Kicking off this round of guest bloggers is Michael Sonbert, founder of Skyrocket Educator Training. Before Skyrocket, Michael was a teacher, instructional coach, and director of strategic partnerships with Mastery Charter Schools. This week, he'll share some of the insights that have fueled Skyrocket's work.

When I was a working at Mastery Charter Schools, I had an opportunity, along with three colleagues, to visit a high-performing charter school in Brooklyn, NY. At the time, Mastery was being nationally recognized as a leader in school turnaround, and we had people from all over the country visiting our schools to get a glimpse at how we were able to support students in getting such great outcomes. The goal of our visit was to see how another high-performing school operated. 

There was nothing, initially, about the school that stood out to me. It looked and felt like many of the schools I'd visited in the past—and like many of our Mastery schools. But when we met the school leader and began observing her, everything changed. She was relentless, holding an incredibly high bar for students. And not just for student behavior (because that happens in a lot of places), but for their written and verbal responses, for their homework submission, and for their independent reading. In fact, we found out that their scholars were on track to read 40 books each that school year—a number that dwarfed what our students were then doing.

The leader had equally high expectations for teachers, at one point sharing, "Our teachers are expected to work between 60 and 70 hours a week to be good enough for our students. If they don't like that, they can go get another job."

But it was what happened when the leader entered the classroom that was truly inspiring. She began talking. Out loud. To the teacher. To the students. Asking what they were working on. Providing feedback on the content and the questions. Asking students to elaborate on and defend their responses. And it wasn't awkward or negative or undermining or any of the other things often associated with providing real-time feedback. It was, in fact, totally normal. It was, in the school leader's words, "Just what we do here. Why say something later when I can say something now? Students don't have time for that."

That idea, that providing feedback in the moment is what's best for students, has been a hallmark of our work at Skyrocket. And when training school leaders, we ask them to go "all-in for kids" by embracing real-time feedback (and many other things). And while most educators will proudly report that they're certainly "all-in for kids," we've seen that that's not always true. Many leaders push back on the idea of real-time feedback and their reasons are rarely about students.

We get these standard responses from leaders, and we respond in-kind:  

  • "I don't want to undermine the teacher." Seventy percent of the students are talking while he is. He's already undermined.
  • "I don't want to interrupt her while she's teaching." The teacher is calling on the same two students and most of the rest of the class is checked-out. She's not teaching. She's tutoring.
  • "I don't want it to feel punitive." That's about how it's framed to teachers and students and how it's delivered. So that's work we need to do.
  • "It feels awkward." What's decidedly more awkward is explaining to families that their children are multiple grade levels behind, and that you're more concerned about how you feel in this situation.

We even had a school leader tell us recently, after we shared our real-time feedback strategies, that her teachers wouldn't buy-in to the idea. We pushed by asking if the leader was allowed, by contract, to provide real-time feedback. The answer was yes. Did the leader believe real-time feedback could be effective for students and teachers? Again, yes. But again, according to her, her teachers wouldn't buy-in. They'd push back on her, be unhappy, and complain to anyone who'd listen.

We could debate whether a school leader who takes little responsibility for inspiring change in her teachers is in the right role, but that's for another time. For now, I'll share what we coached her to do: Walk toward the pain.

For holding teachers accountable for on-time lesson-plan submission, or pushing teachers to write next-step objectives, walk toward the pain. For requiring all staff make a certain amount of parent phone calls per week, ensuring all staff are upholding school-wide values and norms, or insisting their schools be clean and neat institutions of learning, walk toward the pain. For asking that recent student work be displayed, expecting respectful interactions from all staff at all times, and the dozens of other potentially difficult or awkward things that come up, especially providing real-time feedback, we say, walk toward the pain.

We coach leaders to be okay with someone (or multiple people) in their building being upset with them if what they're doing is pushing everyone to be all-in for kids. To become comfortable with being uncomfortable. To have difficult conversations. To interject in every lesson—even if the lesson is going great. And to have an incredibly high bar and to walk toward the pain by addressing every instance, in themselves first and foremost, where the bar is even slightly lowered. That's all-in for kids.

—Michael Sonbert

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