To Pursue Excellence, Focus On It

September 17, 2019

By Jim Furman, Executive Director, The Danielson Group 

What if praising a teacher’s performance wasn’t just the first few minutes of a feedback conversation? What if it was the entire reason for the conversation?

I have given a lot of feedback over the course of my career – to teacher candidates, novice teachers, veteran teachers, team members, and bosses. I’ve gotten good at it. I’ve also done it pretty poorly more than a few times. 
I have typically identified strengths during an observation of a teacher at work and shared them. But, if I’m being honest, they were almost always the prelude to the real focus – what wasn’t going so well. The glows and the +s are too often meant to soften the blow of the grows, △s, and -s. Even if my ultimate goal was to facilitate self-reflection from the teacher, I’ve usually got something they need to improve in mind. 
As humans, we come with a negativity bias. It’s in our DNA. As observers and instructional coaches, we enter classrooms with that bias in full effect. Whether we name it or not, we are often thinking about how to help the teacher get better. It’s a deficit approach. “What do they need to work on?” instead of “What are they doing well?” Even when we do our best to record evidence in a neutral fashion, we often present the teacher with evidence that reflects a growth area.

The first time I was ever observed as a teacher, the observer tracked how much time I spent talking and how much time students spent talking. It was an objective tally. When she put it in front of me after the lesson, the point was clear. I was talking way too much. My classroom was teacher-centered. That was true, and it was something that I needed to think about and improve upon. 

She put that data in front of me so that I would draw the conclusion myself. It was a better approach than her just saying, “Jim, you’re talking to much. You need to get your students involved. They should be doing the work.” But, it still put a negative framing on my teaching. I was doing something ineffectively. Imagine if she had instead identified one of the moments in the class when students were doing the work, were engaged in discussion or were thinking critically. She could have put that in front of me and said, “That was great. What made that work? What happened as a result?” 

If you haven’t read The Feedback Fallacy by Buckingham and Goodall, consider it. The authors make a case for an approach to feedback that is focused on excellence rather than poor performance. Central to their case is that when we focus on what we are not doing well, learning is impaired. Even in a conversation where a coach never says a teacher is doing it wrong, the focus is still often on a shortcoming. 

One of their suggestions particularly stood out to me:

 “Excellence is an outcome, so take note of when a prospect leans into a sales pitch, a project runs smoothly, or an angry customer suddenly calms down. Then turn to the team member who created the outcome and say, “That! Yes, that!” By doing this, you’ll stop the flow of work for a moment and pull your colleague’s attention back toward something she just did that really worked.”

My life as an observer of teacher practice has been 90% focused on what teachers need to improve and 10% “That! Yes, that!” Now, you might not want to interrupt the class after the teacher engages a student who was previously daydreaming by shouting, “That was masterful!” but maybe you should – or at least say it later. Buckingham and Goodall put it this way, “By saying, ‘That! Yes, that!’—you’re offering her the chance to gain insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her so that she can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning.”

I think they’re onto something. If you’re getting ready to start your first round of observations and feedback, give it a try. Intentionally walk into the classroom with a positivity bias. Only look for what’s working. 

Allow me one more quote from the article, “If you study failure, you’ll learn a lot about failure, but nothing about how to achieve excellence. Excellence has its own pattern.” Look for excellence and see what you learn – about the teacher’s practice and your own.