Sunday, December 22, 2013

Two-way failure, feedback, trust, and communication

With failure in the title of my blog, I'm going to inevitably come back to it a lot.  I view failure as trying something and falling short of the original intent.  By planning pilots, frequent reflection, and time for iteration into a new initiative, you can have many small failures that are frequently adjusted, eventually pointing you in the right direction.  I expect that my administrators give me the freedom to try things and have these small, planned failures so that I can eventually end up with something great.  Most teachers feel the same way about this freedom to fail, and many take it a step further and ask that administrators vow to support them in the face of adversity when their small failures make people (students, parents, the community) upset.

However, we don't treat our bosses with the same freedom.  We don't tolerate new initiatives that don't seem to have a clear point.  We flip out over changes that don't seem vital.  We don't want to be bothered with new missions and visions unless they fit with what we previously believed.  Is this fair?  Sort of.

More than our failures, our bosses' failures often lead to wasting our time.  There needs to be some kind of balance where we can allow our leaders to give us new things to do without tireless explanations, but a mechanism for us to give our leaders honest and unopinionated feedback so they can adjust their demands to fit the user needs.  I think the solution comes from two time-tested friends: trust and communication.

When my wife does something that frustrates me (don't worry, its not too frequent!), I tell her right away as objectively as possible.  She then either (1) adjusts her behavior to my liking or (2) explains why she did what she did so I can change my response to her liking.  Either way, our small issue is often quickly resolved as a result of a short conversation that I felt comfortable initiating based on our mutual trust.  I would never give the same feedback to a stranger who upset me because that trust to communicate feedback would not exist.

When I look at my students, I see a variety of trust levels present in the room.  I'm fortunate to have high levels of trust with many of my students.  I know I have this with some kids because of their brutal honesty on the feedback forms that they fill out with their names.  I know I have it with others because of the way they interact face to face with me.  They know that when I ask for criticism, I want the truth, and that I will respect them more for sharing it with me, even it I don't agree or don't like what they have to say.  There are still students who are skeptical of sharing their mind, but I'm hoping I can continue to provide evidence in my interactions with these kids and their peers that I am worthy of their trust and want to design a better classroom experience for them.

Administrators deal with the same challenge.  I feel more comfortable sharing my thoughts with some admin than with others.  Those who consistently ask for feedback, and more importantly, do something with my feedback, are the ones who continue to receive it.  It is important to distinguish between "doing something with" and "adhering to" feedback -- all I want is to be acknowledged and at least receive an explanation for why my observations and suggestions are not being incorporated.  People who ask for honest feedback, carefully listen to the giver, and then respond in some form create a bond of trust between the two parties.  It also leads to a lot of new ideas, well-iterated policies, and fewer upset teachers.  But in order for this to work, all of the steps need to be explicitly built into every decision that takes place until it becomes district culture: ASK, LISTEN, RESPOND.  As it becomes culture between admin and teachers, it will make its way into the teacher-student relationship.  Then it can truly empower the bottom of the organization's power structure -- the students -- to openly communicate their needs and observations to their teachers and school.


  1. Have you noticed any progress towards "Ask, Listen, Respond" in your school/ district between admin/teachers or teachers/students?

  2. Yes and no. Communication channels up and down the organization seem to get better each day, but I think there are still a lot of students who wouldn't openly share feedback with many teachers and many teachers who wouldn't openly share feedback with administrators on a regular basis. I'm not sure what it takes to increase the trust level in the power-imbalanced relationships, but I think we have more work to do there.