We don’t believe in “silver bullets”—one-off programs or initiatives that boost school improvement as an outcome of their implementation. In fact, too many efforts toward making positive change in schools are directed by programs that leave teachers and school administrators with “initiative fatigue” with little, if any, improvements to practice or gains in student achievement.
This is due, in part, to what we and others have referred to as a “culture of nice,” which is an environment that limits our success because we are often apprehensive about confronting difficult situations head-on. We need to revolutionize the way we approach feedback as a communication mechanism to building trust, to tackling issues at their root, and to creating a culture of efficacy for staff and students.
Grown out of the “too much testing” era and the age of accountability for educators is the paradoxical notion that we have to protect our inner selves. Because so many of the policy changes that came from outside our school systems were imposed as sanctions for teachers and administrators, school staff have built up protective defenses. This reality perpetuates the culture of nice and it actually traps us as a result.
Mandates and programmatic demands placed on educators have increased the empathy we feel for one another. This limits our ability to apply pressure from the inside, resulting in a loss of candor about what is and isn’t working. Because we fear that we will hurt the feelings of an already put-upon colleague, we stay silent or couch our recommendations.
Candid conversations take practice; without practice, we can’t get good at confronting reality. Unfortunately, without candor, real trust and continuous improvements are simply not likely.
Two Myths About Candor
It’s time to debunk two important myths about candor, which can also be stated as “straightforward honesty” or “frankness in speech.”
Trust comes first. Too often, school leaders believe that they have to build trust before they can be candid, while the opposite is true. Candor actually builds trust. When we confront tough situations in our schools for the betterment of students and staff, it communicates and demonstrates care. Done well, it also conveys our knowledge, expertise, and ability to improve substandard circumstances. Tackling tough issues reveals our concern for students and staff.
This issue is new. Fear can shake any leader’s confidence when confronting something that will surely create conflict. We can easily tell ourselves that we’re the first to raise this issue, and that we’re alone in doing so—but that’s rarely the case. If you’re addressing a need on your team or deficit in student achievement or even a performance issue with a staff member, all too often others not only know it’s an issue, they are waiting for someone to do something about it. This is another way in which candor builds trust. When we willingly face problems that others have ignored, it inspires confidence and hope that things will change for the better.
Ambiguous Versus Candid Feedback
Unfortunately, believing the myths will only limit a leader’s ability to communicate effectively and provide the critical feedback that leads to change. The example below pertains to feedback on classroom instruction after a walk-through, but candor is needed in all facets of our work.
Walk-throughs hold tremendous potential to provide teachers with very explicit praise and clear opportunities for improvement. The power lies in the communication, and too often, administrators provide teachers with ambiguous feedback that neither reinforces effective practice nor offers quality suggestions to improve instruction.
Consider these feedback examples to illustrate the differences in a real-world scenario of a classroom walk-through of an English class.
What the Observer Saw
The principal entered the room 15 minutes into the lesson, as the students were reading Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America as part of the civil rights unit. The class was quiet and appeared to be engaged, with each student waiting for their name to potentially be called by the teacher. The teacher was using a common round-robin reading strategy with popsicle sticks to randomly call on students, one after another, to read an assigned portion of the text. The principal stayed in the room for 13 minutes and listened to four students read their designated sections.
Ambiguous feedback provided by the principal: Mrs. Andrews, I always enjoy being in your class and seeing firsthand what the students are learning. Promises to Keep is a powerful book. I wonder, how do you gauge how the students who aren’t reading are paying attention and listening? We’ve discussed as a school that there are other reading strategies outside of round-robin reading. In the future, please consider a different approach.
Candid feedback provided by the principal: Mrs. Andrews, I always enjoy being in your class and seeing firsthand what the students are learning. Promises to Keep is a powerful book. I did note that for the 13 minutes I was in your class today, only four of the 27 students read. Round-robin reading is a common, but ineffective, reading strategy. As a school we’ve been actively working on our “during” reading strategies, such as the question-answer relationship strategy, along with the use of well-developed graphic organizers. Please use the strategies we’ve discussed in our Professional Learning Communities while reading the text in class.
The Definitive Difference
The differences between the two examples are critical. In the candid version, the principal uses data to support her evidence, her recommendation is based on a predetermined schoolwide initiative, she supports the teacher with a real recommendation to improve practice, and—most importantly—she makes her expectations for change very clear.
A Culture of Trust and Efficacy
When we use candor, we demonstrate our compassion and commitment for helping people get better. As Stephen Covey and others have pointed out, clarifying expectations, practicing accountability, and delivering results are all crucial aspects of a trusting environment. Candor is a two-way street to include an invitation for straight talk, a commitment to being at our personal best, and a focus on listening at the core of leading others.
When candor is employed in our conversations and feedback, we help to create better bonds between people, and we also improve their practice as educators. When we continually address issues by asking others to take corrective action, we create systematic improvements over time. When these improvements result in better outcomes, we increase self- and collective efficacy, which deepens relationships and signals the need for even more candor. This cycle—practicing candor > building trust > improving practice > strengthening efficacy > opening the door for even more candor—is the definition of a culture that transcends the need to “be nice” with the need to be better. The beneficiaries of this type of culture are always the students.
If there truly is one simple, positive strategy in education, it’s candor. The good news is that candor is well within our grasps as educators. It takes practice, but it results in stronger bonds between people, an improved sense of efficacy, and clearer direction forward. Without candor, even our best practices won’t work. Bringing teams of people together for shared decision making and professional learning is critical, but the work won’t move forward without honest and straightforward conversation. Promoting teachers to positions of leadership is at the top of the list of change strategies in schools, but without candid conversations with these leaders, we’re not helping the system. We must embark together on a new journey to free ourselves and others from being trapped in our “culture of nice” in schools. The result will be a better place to work for us and our staff and a better place to learn for our students.
Joe Jones, EdD, is the director of assessment and accountability at the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District, adjunct faculty for leadership studies at several universities, and executive officer at TheSchoolHouse302. T.J. Vari, EdD, is the assistant superintendent of secondary schools and district operations at the Appoquinimink School District, adjunct faculty for leadership studies at several universities, and executive officer at TheSchoolHouse302.
To Learn More …
For more on candor, you can read Candid and Compassionate Feedback: Transforming Everyday Practice in Schools by Joseph Jones and T.J. Vari. This publication speaks to the importance of candor, threads the need for candor through typical practices and scenarios in schools, and demonstrates how you can change your culture from the inside out. You can find their blog and other leadership resources at https://theschoolhouse302.com