Home Leadership An “Atta-Boy” Just Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

An “Atta-Boy” Just Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

by Lori Gracey

Regardless of your position in education today, you have to provide feedback to someone. Whether you’re a campus or district leader trying to help a staff member grow professionally or a classroom teacher working to move students along, the name of the game is definitely feedback.

But exactly what constitutes good feedback? What is needed to help an individual understand a weakness or opportunity for growth and develop both the desire and the skills to become stronger in that area? Or, if the individual is already doing extremely well, what words beyond “Good work!” should be shared? To be honest, we are asked to give feedback, but we probably don’t really know how.

As the executive director for TCEA, I’ve struggled with this. I meet regularly with all my staff members and always try to provide data and information for them to grow. But I’m not sure that I’m being successful. So I’ve spent some time recently researching this area.

The Feedback Cycle

According to my research, feedback is made up of the following parts, all of which work in a continuous circle:

  • Identifying an area for growth and sharing that with the individual
  • Providing actionable feedback
  • Monitoring the results and continuing to provide actionable feedback.

Obviously, the easiest part of the cycle is identification. It’s usually easy to pick out what’s wrong. It may be somewhat harder to share that with the other person. And it may also be a little difficult to convince them of the need for growth. But once past that, I think it’s the next part that is the hardest and that we tend to skip.

feedbackPutting It Into Practice

Instead of just telling someone, “Well, your classroom management strategies aren’t as strong as they should be” and walking away, the good leader has to help the employee develop new strategies to use and practice. That means helping him work through to a very specific plan of action that is short, measurable (as in easy to see if it’s working, not just a lot of percentages and numbers), and involves reflection on the progress.

For the example about classroom management, the leader, after discussion with the staff member, might suggest better monitoring of student behavior by walking around the room instead of always teaching from the front of the class. They should discuss what that would look like, what problems might occur with that action, and what results might be expected. After the teacher has time to digest the idea and fully understand what is involved, then he or she should respond with any questions and might even ask for the recommended behavior change to be modeled. The leader could do so himself or set up a time for the teacher to observe another educator who does that action well. The goal is to make sure that both parties are very clear on what exactly needs to be worked on.

Keep in mind that the feedback should be focused on what the person does. If it’s for an educator, then it should be on the content or pedagogy. If it’s for a technician, then it should be on specific job skills that need improvement. If it’s for a student, then it should be focused on content or behavior issues. And keep it simple. There’s no need to use our standard education-eese language filled with acronyms and big words.

Once the teacher implements the action, he or she should reflect on its success or lack thereof in written format over a period of time. This works best if the leader has provided some thought questions to help guide the reflection, such as “How do you feel about what you are doing? How are your students responding to this new behavior? What problems, if any, are occurring and why? How might you address those problems? What are your next steps?” Reflection is how we cement new ideas and behaviors in our brains; leaving this part out makes the change almost guaranteed to fail over time.

The final part of the cycle involves the leader seeing the new behavior in action and continuing to provide specific, actionable feedback. If things are going well, then don’t just say “Good job!” Instead, something like “I saw how you noticed that Mark was off task during the activity today and you were able to get him back on track just by walking over to him. I like that you didn’t feel the need to call him out in front of his peers, but still kept control of the classroom and ensure that learning could continue.” Then follow that up with a question about what prompted the teacher to take that action and how he felt about it.

For Those Doing Well

Although it doesn’t seem logical, the process is even more important for those staff members who are doing things well. In the past, they have probably just received positive comments about their work when what they really needed was the opportunity to pinpoint what exactly worked so well and why. They need the same opportunity for reflection that educators who are struggling do. “You were amazing!” is great to hear, but doesn’t really help anyone know exactly why they were successful or how to ensure they are successful in the future.


The bottom line in providing effective feedback that promotes change is that it should be a lot of work for not only the receiver of the feedback, but also for the giver. As a leader, you must take time to help your staff member or student come to the realization of what needs improvement and how best to make that improvement.

Don’t forget that you as the leader can also grow and improve. Provide opportunities for your staff to give you actionable feedback on what you can do better. This will not only help you; it will help them to see the process modeled.

I ask that you reflect on the feedback that you regularly provide by answering the following questions:

  • How are you enabling those you work with to identify areas in which they need to grow?
  • How do you provide specific, actionable feedback?
  • How do you offer time for reflection on the new behavior?
  • How do you encourage your best performers to grow?

If you follow the cycle, you will see positive changes and growth and learning will occur. And, after all, isn’t that what we’re all after?


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