Make Your Feedback to Teachers Matter: Leadership Content Knowledge is Key

We’re pleased to present this guest post from Drs. Alyson Lavigne and Mary Lynne Derrington, instructional leadership experts and authors of Actionable Feedback to PK-12 Teachers.

This is Part 1 of a four-part series on actionable feedback. Stay tuned for the next posts that will focus on Leadership Content Knowledge (LCK) and teacher feedback in the areas of STEM, Literacy, and Early Childhood Education.

The most important job of a school leader is to focus on the central purpose of schools—teaching and learning. Feedback to teachers on how to improve instructional practice is a critical element in promoting school success. 

On average, principals spend 9 hours a week observing, providing feedback, and discussing instruction with teachers. Including documentation, this equates to nearly six 40-hour work-weeks and as much as 25% of a principal’s time. 

Besides the time principals spend in these tasks, they are costly. It costs $700 million a year to observe all 3.1 million K-12 public school teachers just twice a year. All these efforts are based on the belief that, when school leaders observe teachers, they provide teachers with meaningful feedback — and that feedback, in turn, improves teaching and learning. 

So, how does a school leader ensure that their feedback impacts practice? Feedback only matters when it can be acted upon, so what makes feedback actionable? We can all agree that for feedback to be actionable it must be timely, concrete, and clear. But it must also relate to the task at hand—teaching subject matter content.  

When researchers ask teachers about the feedback they receive from school leaders, half of teachers reported that the feedback received from principals is not useful. Teachers say that they rarely receive feedback about their teaching content. Yet we know that pedagogical content knowledge is important for effective teaching and for student learning. 

If you want to make your feedback to teachers matter, emphasize a teacher's curriculum subject matter content as a part of your feedback. This requires differentiation for each teacher by subject matter and context of the classroom. Differentiation personalizes the feedback and emphasizes that the subject, content, and context of the classroom matters.

How can school leaders meet this lofty goal and possess expertise in every content area? First, a strong background in effective teaching practices is an important start. Second, leaders need a deep content knowledge of the subject and how it is learned (by students), and how it is taught, sometimes referred to as post-holing.

Principals can gain content expertise in many ways. For example:

  • Work with a content PLC team
  • Learn the standards for the subject
  • Review discipline-specific best practice research
  • Attend a subject-specific conference 

Post-holing provides a great opportunity to align with other activities that might be occurring in the school, and demonstrates that you care about the subject matter and the teacher by providing deeper differentiated feedback. Challenge yourself to tackle one subject matter each year. 

This blog entry is part of a four-part series on actionable feedback. Stay tuned for our next three posts that will focus on Leadership Content Knowledge (LCK) on concrete ways to provide feedback to teachers in the areas of STEM, Literacy, and Early Childhood Education.

If you want to dig into this content (pun intended!) a bit more, check out our book, Actionable Feedback to PK-12 Teachers. And for other suggestions on differentiated feedback, see Chapter 3 by Ellie Drago-Severson and Jessica Bloom-DeStefano.

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