We know learning is dependent upon teaching effectiveness, so we rightfully seek out and employ strategies that have the greatest impact on student achievement. Two very essential classroom practices are offering differentiated support and providing feedback to students.

Wouldn’t those same strategies prove equally effective when working with the teachers? Shouldn’t principals, along with other school and district leaders, offer differentiated support and provide constructive feedback to teachers?

Teacher effectiveness and enduring school success are based on capacity building within our classrooms, schools, and districts. We can build our teachers’ capacity through job-embedded, ongoing support and coaching. Differentiation and feedback-and combining the two to provide differentiated feedback-are at the heart of this practice.

What Is Feedback?

Quite simply, feedback is information we use to improve the results of our work.

Research clearly shows that feedback can be an incredible learning aid for students. The same is true for adults if the feedback informs the learner (in this case, the classroom teacher) of what is effective and what is ineffective, offers suggestions for improvement, highlights specific observations, generates thinking about professional practice, provides direction for next steps, and motivates the learner to continue.

As instructional leaders, we establish and clarify the vision and goals of our districts, schools, and teams. Feedback, then, is a form of formative assessment. Based on the teacher’s performance in the classroom, we gather important information: How is this teacher progressing toward our agreed-upon goals? Is the learner learning? To what degree? What are his/her strengths? What’s missing? What action will help move this teacher further along the path?

Matching Feedback to the Learner

Most importantly, feedback must be appropriately matched to the learner. It must meet the learner’s specific needs and readiness. Structure your methods of differentiating feedback according to each person’s current skill level (readiness), individual preference (interest), and professional inclination (learning profile), to 
borrow some Differentiated Instruction (DI) vocabulary. Use the acronym CART to help drive effective feedback. Feedback should be:

Continuous. Delivery of feedback should be an ongoing, regular process. The more frequent and consistent the feedback, the more it (and the ensuing discussion of it) becomes part of the standard operating procedure for schools.
 Accurate. The recipient must believe that the source of the feedback knows what he or she is talking about. As instructional leaders, we must continue to learn alongside our teachers, speaking the same vocabulary, staying abreast of recent research, and having a firm grasp of content and pedagogical best practices.

Relevant. By focusing on agreed-​upon benchmarks and staying true to teachers’ and teams’ goals, feedback becomes more valuable and is more likely to cause positive change. When teachers and administrators both know what administrators are looking for during classroom visits, the discussions stay on point and the feedback strengthens the ongoing conversation.

Timely. In my work, I have embraced the definition of “timely” to include “as close to the instructional event as possible.” When offering written feedback during a classroom walk-through, for instance, do so prior to leaving the classroom.

Feedback for Reflection and Technical Skill

Most professional development efforts focus on particular instructional strategies.

However, an additional level of differentiation is necessary for the delivery of effective feedback: addressing self-reflection and the recipient’s reflective abilities.
Teacher self-reflection provides the difference between the ability to utilize a strategy really well and the awareness of WHY a particular strategy is effective, for WHOM it is most effective, WHEN to use it, and HOW to modify it (or select a different strategy) when necessary.

In Building Teachers’ Capacity for Success: A Collaborative Approach for Coaches and School Leaders, Alisa Simeral and I unveiled the Continuum of Self-Reflection, a powerful tool to help support teachers’ growth as reflective practitioners. The Continuum is comprised of four stages (unaware, conscious, action, and refinement) that explain the gradients of teachers’ reflective behaviors. In particular, teachers differ in the frequency, accuracy, and depth with which they reflect. To support them, instructional leaders (administrators and instructional coaches, for instance) employ specific strategies to simultaneously drive deeper reflection and more effective classroom practice depending on each teacher’s individual reflective tendencies and skills.

Strategies for Delivering Differentiated Feedback

By combining teachers’ reflective abilities (to best match their needs and readiness) with their classroom performance (as a formative assessment), we can select strategies to gather these data and share our findings in a meaningful way with our teachers. In Checking for Understanding, authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey discuss ways to do just that through questions, writing, and projects. Consider these ways to provide differentiated feedback to teachers:

Questions. Asking teachers 
reflective questions can be a powerful mechanism for developing self-
reflective tendencies in the context of instructional skills. One convenient avenue for delivering continuum stage-based reflective prompts is through walk-throughs.

Writing. Another effective strategy is the interactive journal. In this approach, a teacher keeps a composition book on his/her desk that other important staff has access to. In the journal, visitors and the teacher share the pen, writing in the journal to exchange ideas, note observations, pose reflective questions, wrestle with challenges, and respond to each other’s entries

Projects. Collective inquiry through job-embedded projects is one of the most direct ways to engage learners in the higher levels (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Pete Hall is an award-winning former middle school principal and author of four books, including Lead On! Motivational Lessons for School Leaders.

Sidebar: PL Takeaway

Differentiated feedback can drive professional growth and ultimately lead to a lifetime of learning. We can communicate that student learning is our priority-and that we are committed to nurturing our teachers’ self-reflective growth and their development as effective educators-by engaging in practices that share continuous, accurate, relevant, and timely feedback with our teachers.