A Teacher’s Experience: Inadequate Lesson or Poor Teacher?

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Over the weekend, we posted on our Facebook page a link to this story from a new teacher in England about the effect of one “Inadequate” rating of a lesson from an outside observer. It’s a great opportunity to see how a school leader could use SMART Strengths skills to set this teacher and the school up for better results!

The post from the teacher is short enough to read quickly then come back to this post, but here’s the core:

  • New teacher
  • Prior observed lessons rated good and most recent given an “outstanding”
  • Observed lesson was carefully planned, but teacher recognized as “not one of my best”
  • The observer rated the lesson “Inadequate” and gave suggestions for improvement

Now, let’s apply a SMART Strengths skill, Think-It-Through (Chapter 7), pulling from the teacher’s words in the post:

It:Think:

 

 

Through:

“I was observed again by a different consultant – and this time my lesson was graded inadequate.”“To have done all that, and still be deemed inadequate? … How on earth could I have slipped so quickly from outstanding to inadequate, with no stops in between? 

 

“I was mortified.”

 

“The demotivating effect was instantaneous. I was so upset that I couldn’t go back into the classroom that afternoon. Instead, I went home and proceeded to do absolutely zero planning for the next day. For the rest of the week, my teaching was somewhat lacklustre because I was so wrung out by the distress of the observation. I felt ashamed of myself and unworthy of the responsibility of teaching a class of children. I started to feel overwhelmed by the possibility that I might be letting my students down. By the weekend, I was experiencing symptoms of anxiety.”

 

“I could remember bits and pieces of the suggestions for improvement, but what stuck in my head most was that grade. Inadequate, inadequate, inadequate.”

 

 

Over time, this teacher was able to pull out of the slump created by his thoughts and the emotions caused by his thoughts. However, it took days, during which he experienced significant amounts of, in his words, mortification, distress and anxiety. He summed it up as “overwhelmed.” Also, note that he was unable to get much benefit from the experience as he could not even remember the suggestions for improvement that were made right after the evaluation – a clear sign of fixed-mindset thinking about this event (1).

Obviously, this experience might have been very different had this teacher known and applied some of the SMART Strengths skills. Specifically, he could have quickly done a Think-It-Through analysis and applied RAMP-Up:

Reject:  “It’s not true that I’m inadequate. This was one observer’s opinion about one lesson. I know I’m working hard to apply all the best practices I know and to learn more and it is paying off in my students’ learning. Other observers have seen the results. That’s why I’ve received  Good or Outstanding on my prior observations.”

Alternatives:  “Although I worked on this lesson, I knew going in it wasn’t one of my best. This observation just confirms I’m really starting to develop a sense for good lessons. I can learn from what the observer saw and improve my approach next time.”

Minimize: “This is only one observation. In fact, if I learn from this and continue to improve, it may really help me become the teacher I want to be. I may look back on this is one of the best events of my early career.”

Plan: “I will pay close attention to suggestions, ask questions, and then discuss this with my leadership so that I get the most from this experience.”

Of course, it is possible that some readers, at this point, will be thinking, “that’s a lot of work.” Absolutely. Nobody ever said that achieving more of what we want in life is easy. It is hard. Remember, “Work Hard and Have a Good Time.” And, notice, that there’s really no alternative to doing this work. In fact, this teacher did RAMP-up, it just took a number of days. During that time, he suffered, and so did his students. In fact, given what we know of emotional contagion, it is likely that his mortification, anxiety, shame, and sense of being overwhelmed also brought down some other teachers in his school. With training, he could have caught what was happening with his thoughts, emotions and reactions in the moment and done a RAMP-up on his thinking before experiencing more than just the first blush of his emotional reaction, and maybe in time to benefit from the feedback.

Let’s look beyond the teacher, however, and consider how leadership could help.

Pre-set the interpretation: A SMART Strengths-savvy leader would spot in advance the potential impact of these evaluative events on teachers’ efficacy beliefs and positive emotional balance. By framing these events in advance as merely feedback about one particular lesson from one observer, the leader can help teachers pre-set optimistic and growth-minded thoughts about their observations. This will make it far more likely that teachers will get the most possible benefit from the evaluations, and suffer the least possible negative emotional and motivational impact. (Chapters 7 and 8)

High Quality Connections & Appreciative Questions: “Other people matter.” A SMART Strengthsleader would recognize the importance of close personal connection with teachers as they go through such evaluative events. If possible, it would be best to be with the teacher through the event, but if not, certainly to touch base immediately prior and after to help the teacher think optimistically and from a growth mindset about the experience.

Questions such as the following can help teachers and faculties benefit the most from feedback, even if the feedback is not ideally delivered:

  • When was a time I really benefited from feedback?
  • How are we at our best in turning “negative” feedback into sustained improvement?
  • Imagine that one year from today you believe you have grown as a person and as a teacher, how would you look back on this event?

(Chapter 10.)

Strengths Focus: Note that if a school is strengths-focused, for teachers and for students, then questions about “who am I?” naturally channel into thoughts about developing, applying, and managing strengths and their shadow sides. In other words, it is much less likely that a single feedback event, whether an evaluation for a teacher, a grade for a student, or a win or loss for an athlete, will result in thoughts that the event means one lacks the innate capacity to succeed (fixed mindset) or that the cause of an adverse outcome will continue into the future and affect many areas of life (pessimistic thinking). (Chapters 1-5.)

Positive Emotional Balance: SMART Strengths leadership would be aware of the need for a ratio of “positive” to “negative” emotions of at least 3:1 and maybe as high as 6:1 to enable optimal function of individuals and groups. Thus, during of those times during the school year when teachers or students might experience higher than normal levels of “negative” emotions, the leader would focus on ways to keep negative emotions in check and also increase levels of “positive” emotions. (Chapter 6.)

Goal Setting: Help teachers set “mastery,” “learning,” or “outcome” goals for evaluations. For example, a teacher might frame the goal as “My goal is to find at least 3 specific actions I can take to improve my lessons.” Such learning goals are far more conducive to sustained rates of growth than are “performance” goals, e.g., “I want to be rated as outstanding.” (Chapter 9.)

Are you facing a leadership challenge in your school? Send us a description of your situation and we will provide private, personalized suggestions for application of the SMART Strengths skills.

(1) Research by Jennifer Mangels and others has shown that fixed mindset beliefs even influence what regions of the brain activate when feedback is offered. Those who tend toward a fixed mindset do not pay much attention to corrective information and focus instead on evaluative feedback. Mangels, J., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C. and Dweck, C. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1(2): 75-86. Available online at http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/1/2/75.long.


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