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People-First Communication Improves Teacher Performance

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to share this blog post by PJ Caposey, author of the upcoming book Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders, released in November 2012. Caposey is the principal of Oregon High School and an adjunct professor in the educational leadership department of Aurora University. The following post offers communication-related tips for effective teacher coaching.

I was working with an aspiring leader the other day who was extremely frustrated that the guidance and direction that she had provided to someone had not impacted the person’s behavior in the desired manner. The lady I was working with stated in a flabbergasted tone, “I clearly stated that this [insert any negative adjective] behavior was the problem and provided five examples of how to improve upon it—then no change occurred.”

This comment illustrates how leaders generally communicate—issue first, person second. Communication rooted in supporting professional growth and seeking enduring improvement is substantively more effective than communication intended to fix problems. This paradigm shift is essential for successful communication, and thus the facilitation of professional growth.

Four steps to move forward to that ideal are listed below:

Trust is essential.
A large number of educators can tell you what "best practice" instruction looks like. Very few individuals can share that information with the most veteran and beloved teacher in the building and have any impact on that person’s behavior. Trust does not come from position, power or title. Trust comes from putting in effort to get to know the person and their performance and being committed to provide feedback to support growth, not to simply provide a judgment. With trust, people hear your message. Without trust, people just hear you.

The clock is ticking.
Timeliness is important—for you and for the other person involved. Just as it's important to give feedback from a formative assessment to students quickly, it also is important for teachers to get prompt data that will inform their practice in the future. The same is true in terms of leadership and communication. Providing feedback in a timely manner allows for easy recall of the situation and a more in-depth conversation, but also allows for change to take place quicker.

For example, in the high school setting, if it is noted that a teacher has his or her students lined up at the door two minutes prior to the bell ringing at the end of every class and it is not addressed until a summative evaluation conference in April—over 300 minutes of instruction have been lost. That's the equivalent of adding an extra week to the school year!

One conversation does not equal change.
Nearly everybody has been pulled over for speeding at one time. The police officer, whether issuing a ticket or not, always dispenses the recommendation of driving slower in the future. While this conversation may impact behavior for a while—it almost never impacts lasting change. Think about that—a logical, data-supported piece of information delivered from an authority figure with inherent consequences for insubordination does not change adult behavior for an extended period of time. So, why do we assume as leaders or as teachers one conversation will suffice? If there is true commitment to fostering professional growth of somebody within the organization, the conversation regarding ways to improve truly never ends.

Give the "why," not just the "what."
Providing feedback that simply instructs people as what to do or not to do is a directive, not supportive coaching. We provide five- and six-year-olds the "why" without thinking: “Tie your shoes—or you could trip and get hurt.” We treat adults much differently. When providing feedback on something observed it will most likely sound like this: “Do not provide extra credit to students in the future,” not, “I noticed you have been giving extra credit in your classes, but you have also previously discussed with me your support of our standards-based grading policy. How do you see the two working together?”

Of the two statements, it seems pretty clear which one will lead to more open and frank conversation and ongoing dialogue. While this distinction is clear when put on paper, it is often something that is forgotten during professional discourse. Always remember—all people (age five or 55) deserve to hear the "why," not just the "what."

Communicating effectively is difficult, but without great communication, leading professional growth is nearly impossible. Just keep leading!


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