Q: I’m a relatively new principal, and fear is getting in my way when it comes to giving thorough, honest feedback. I’m still establishing my reputation, and I made a lot of mistakes during my first two years on the job. I think I came in like a bull in a china shop. As a result, I lost several staff members, some of whom were beloved by the community. Now I’m reluctant to give anything other than positive feedback to my teachers, especially the ones who are good overall but have some room for improvement. In some cases, it’s simple stuff like wanting them to smile more or mix up their book choices to reflect the diversity in our student body or show up to meetings on time. In other cases, I want them to do a better job collaborating with other members of their department, or to improve their communication with parents. I know they won’t take my evaluation seriously if it feels fluffy and overly positive, but I’m legitimately afraid of the optics (and the impact on my program) if I lose another round of good teachers. I’m now in my third year, however, and I know I won’t be respected as a leader if I can’t be direct. How can I walk the line here without causing further damage?
A: I understand your fears but want to challenge some of your thinking, especially your assumption that you will drive teachers away if you’re honest and direct. You give yourself an awful lot of power if you think they’ll break down or flee because of a few comments in one evaluation. Teacher retention is complicated. They’re far more likely to leave because of what you’re doing (or not doing) the rest of the time. That said, you need to strike the right chord when you give your feedback. Their takeaway shouldn’t be that you’re trying to show them who’s in charge, or that you’re trying to take them down a notch. In addition, no one should ever feel ambushed or shocked by feedback. So make sure you’re doing your due diligence. Have you observed the teacher in class several times? Have you shared any of the suggestions before?
Reflect on the root cause of your fears, too. Since you’re relatively new in the position, you might be experiencing Impostor Syndrome. It’s normal to worry that you’re in no position to evaluate anyone, but that feeling will pass as long as you challenge any internal defeatist voices. If you don’t, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe you’re afraid teachers will be defensive or confront you and say, “I’m a good teacher, why are you giving me grief?” You can’t address your fears until you identify them.
It takes time to settle into any new job, but especially one where you’re expected to steer the ship. You might cope with the challenge better if you flip it around. If you were in the teachers’ shoes, which presumably you once were, what would you want? I bet you’d want your administrator to give you opportunities to improve, not silently judge your shortcomings. I agree that it’s bad if your competent teachers leave for other schools, but it’s equally bad for the integrity of your program if you tolerate mediocre teaching or don’t help teachers learn and grow. Not giving feedback is bound to reflect poorly on you. Besides, teachers are going to leave. If they’re underperformers, their new principals will wonder why you didn’t work with them to boost their skills. I just heard about one superintendent who dealt creatively with several principals in his district who kept passing along teachers to other schools. His solution was to transfer all of those teachers back to their principal of origin — the one who didn’t give them any honest feedback.
Since you’ve had a fair amount of turnover, seize the opportunity to initiate honest dialogue with all of your new employees from the start. That will help you summon the courage to take the same approach with more experienced teachers who have strong ties to your community. As you’re giving feedback, however, remember that honesty doesn’t mean handing someone a laundry list of gripes. You can pick and choose and decide to let some stuff go. You also can involve teachers in the process by having a conversation with them in advance to make sure you’re on the same page, or by asking them to detail their perceived growth areas. Always give them a chance to discuss any comments they think are unfair, and, of course, be equally thorough when reflecting on their strengths.
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