being a teacher, feedback, grow, parents

Have You Asked For Parent Feedback – You Should, Even If It Hurts…

I click on the link nervously, not sure that I really want to read what I am about to see, and yet I must if I want to continue being a reflective teacher that realizes that she still has a lot to learn.  What has sent my palms into such a clammy mess?  Results from my end of the year parent survey….  Something I have forced myself to do the last two years, all in the name of bettering myself.

So why the trepidation?  Well, even though most parents don’t take issue with how I teach, or we iron things out along the way, sending someone an anonymous survey to fill out makes anyone nervous.  Particularly when those someones are people who have seen the direct result of your teaching on their child for a whole year.  Particularly when those someones speak to other someones who may just have a child going into 5th grade.  Particularly when those someones really have a right to tell you exactly how they feel because their kid is involved, which means they are involved.

And yet it took me 2 years to get to that point.  It took me that long to want to hear what parents truly had to say.  It took me 2 years to have enough confidence to be able to really listen without getting offended, without taking it like a personal attack.  Without feeling they were automatically in the wrong if they didn’t love everything I had done.

So now it is with gratitude, and of course still trepidation that I read the answers they provide.  I know I do school differently than most of them are used to.  I know my philosophy sometimes stands in a stark contrast to those of my amazing team members.  I know this 5th grade experience may be vastly different than that of 6th grade.  So I ask the tough questions and then hold my breath.  I ask how I can improve, what I should focus on next year,  whether I did a good enough job, because I truly do want to hear the answers.  I truly do want the truth so that I can grow.  There are always answers that go straight to my heart, those that make me reflect and rething, refine and reconsider.  And I am thankful for that.

Asking for feedback is never easy.  Listening to the feedback is even harder, and yet, I don’t look back.  I urge others to do the same; ask the questions and then really really listen to those answers.  Don’t ask because you feel you have to, ask because you want to grow.  Even if it hurts and stings.  Even if it is not what you had hoped to hear.  We are not perfect, or at least I am not.  I still have a lot of growing to do.

PS:  My parent survey changed a lot this year thanks to help from Kaitlyn Gentry who was kind enough to share her end of year survey with me.

authentic learning, being a teacher, feedback, lessons learned, students

Hold Your Tongue – Why Feedback has to be Time Appropriate

    Today, as we practiced writing our weekend webs, the students had to focus on writing a catchy first sentence.  It all ties in with our major writing goals of better word choice and yet was still met with groans and eye rolls.  “But that’s hard, Mrs. Ripp” was expressed repeatedly.  “Absolutely,” I said, “And that is why we have to practice it.”  
After the 15 minutes of writing were up, I had students share just their opening sentence with the rest of the class.  As we went through each sentence, I stayed quiet beside the occasional “Nice” that slipped out.  These sentences were not created equal by any means.  Some were catchy, exciting, inviting and others were just ho-hum.  In the past, I would have given my honest opinion at each sentence, and yet today I held my tongue.  Instead of sharing my opinion to each individual, I asked the students whether they heard a difference in sentence quality.  All of them agreed and some even ventured that there were certain stories they would love to read right away.  A discussion then broke out as to the purpose of that first sentence.  Was it to explain everything such as “This Saturday, I went to the carnival” or was it to entice the reader?  This discussion would not have happened had I greeted each sentence with a comment.  Instead, I would have had some deflated students, unsure of what their next step should be.
Public criticism disguised as feedback is always something I avoid.  Not because I feel students should not be aware of what their goals are, in fact, we discuss this quite often in my classroom, but rather the public part of it.  Of course, there are times when public discussion does happen such as addressing inappropriate behaviors, or when the whole class is trying to learn from each other in a more deliberate way.  Just stating though that student’s work isn’t their best, is simply not doing them any good.  In this instance, I would not have had time to properly discuss ways to change their sentence, and I knew that some students would figure out theirs was not as strong if they simply heard the other ones that were.  So I am learning to be quiet, to be more deliberate in my delivery of learning, and to sometimes forgo it all together.
Feedback is one of our strongest tools but can also be one of our more damaging ones if handled inappropriately.  While you can easily build a child up by publicly praising their work, one misplaced comment can undo months of confidence as a writer, reader or student.  This goes for disingenuous praise as well; children will see right through it if you don’t mean it.  So as I continue to grow alongside my students I try to keep it simple, earnest, and meaningful.  Saying “good job” might work at that specific moment in time but the students learn nothing from it.  Just as saying “That wasn’t a great sentence” delivers no learning opportunity, we must be willful and deliberate in our words.  How do you handle feedback in your classroom?  What are you stopping doing?  Am I the only one on this word choice journey?
assessment, conferences, feedback, new teacher, parents, students

Best Advice for Conferences

Recently I was asked to be guest moderator for the fantastic new teacher chat (#ntchat) hosted by Lisa Dabbs @TeachingwthSoul Wednesday nights.  While the name may be deceiving, this is certainly not just a chat for new teachers, but for all teachers looking to find new ideas and to share their expertise.  I was very happy to be a part of this chat because the topic was preparing for parent/teacher conferences.  The chat was lively as you can see from the archive found here, so I thought I would share some of my best ideas for how to have the best possible parent/teacher/student conferences.

  • My best advice: Don’t make this your first contact with parents!  Whether it be email, phone, letters or whichever method of contact you prefer; make sure you have reached out to all parents before they show up for the conference.
  • Invite the student to the conference.  Many schools are turning to student-led conferences, which is an idea I want to try as well, but if this makes you uncomfortable or does not fit into your school, at least invite the child.  After all, if you are trying to discuss solutions and give feedback then the child is a vital part of that conversation.
  • Plan, prepare, and know exactly why you are giving the feedback you are planning on giving.  If you seem ill-prepared, parents will notice.  This is an important conversation and should be valued as such.  I write notes for myself for each student using this planning sheet.  This way I know what I want to highlight and I also have a paper trail.  We write focus goals together and the next day the parents get a copy of my notes.
  • Dress the part.  Again, this is a big deal to students and can be a great way to share successes and give feedback.  Don’t let your clothing distract from the task at hand.
  • Remind, remind, remind.  Parents are busy so send home a reminder or two or three, or have students remind their parents.  If you have an inkling someone may not show up, call them.  If it is a transportation issue, offer to come to them. 
  • Be flexible!  Not all parents can automatically come to your planned dates.  I have had phone conferences, morning meetings, late night conferences.  Whatever it takes to communicate is worth it to me. 
  • Start and end with something positive.  You want everyone to feel good about this experience but you also want to be honest.  All kids have great qualities and success stories; share them!  Do not be afraid to bring up things that may appear critical, after all, this is a learning dialogue, however, leave the conversation on a positive note as well.  Sometimes it is best to let parents speak first, try to hone n on their social cues to see if that is the case.  That way they will be able to be fully engaged when they have spoken their piece rather than waiting for their turn.
  • Be honest!  If you feel a student needs to work harder, say so, but say it in a constructive manner.  Highlight the effort being made and how you feel you can work together to improve it.  Some parents will need a lighter phrasing than others; trust your instinct and know your relationship with them.
  • Have samples ready.  To illustrate highlights and “normal” work, use actual work from the student showing their progress and what you are basing feedback on.  
  • Do not use teacher language.  We may be fluent in the land of acronyms or reading comprehension but others are probably not.  Don’t assume that they will know what working on fluency means, rather explain it in a direct manner.  
  • Leave room for questions.  Make sure that there is plenty of time for discussion and questions during the conversation at the end.  Sometimes surprising knowledge comes to light or even more successes are found.
  • Be on time and stick to the schedule.  We are all busy so do not leave people waiting; it is unprofessional.  That also means you may want to schedule a short break for yourself to eat or just breathe.  If a conference is going over the time limit, offer to reschedule at another time.  Parents will appreciate your respect and promptness.
  • Do not be afraid to involve others.  If you have a mentor, ask them to sit in on a couple.  I have had my principal sit in on several and have valued his feedback.  Also, if you are worried about a conference make sure someone sits in with you.  If a conference ever turns argumentative or unprofessional do not be afraid to ask to reschedule with someone else present.
  • Embrace them!  I love conferences because it allows me to show off how incredible my job is and what amazing students I have.  Yes, they may be tiring, and a lot of work but let your enthusiasm show; you will be surprised at the response you get.  After all, I have the best job in the world and I am not afraid to say that.
So what did I miss?  Please add your best advice in the comments, we are each others’ best teachers and mentors.