Deputy headteacher David Morley examines how best to provide feedback, how to prepare for it and how to train others to do it

Providing feedback to staff is like attempting to fix a plumbing problem at home. By using your basic skills you might be able to solve the problem; but if it goes wrong things can get very messy and you can end up with a bigger issue than the one you started with.

Worst-case scenarios

Picture this: it is 8.45am and a class teacher is about to start an observed lesson with the headteacher. He is approached by his team leader in the staffroom who says to him in front of a group of teaching assistants…

‘I have now evaluated your planning this term and I’m afraid that it is not of a high enough standard. You need to go back to basics as you don’t seem to understand how children make progress. We will sit down and talk about it soon.’

Your class teacher is now in pieces, their confidence shot. Very sadly, this can happen all too frequently. Providing feedback is a skilled and delicate procedure and should never be undertaken without thoughtful consideration. No one enjoys having to tell people that things are not going as well as they might. These are the same people that you have to sit with in the staffroom. However, we are not in our roles to be liked. Our priority has to be the progress of the school and the children. We can sit on our hands and hope for the best or move forward, deliver what are sometimes uncomfortable messages and make a difference to the lives of the children in our care.

Planning the meeting

It is absolutely vital to plan what you are going to say before the meeting takes place. Remember the reason why you are holding the meeting in the first place – you have a message to deliver! It may be about the quality of teaching, or relationships with staff and pupils, their role within the school or their overall performance. Think carefully about how you are going to phrase it. Consider what their responses might be, the barriers they might put up.

Location, location, location

You must find somewhere where you will not be disturbed; somewhere that is comfortable. Make sure you have enough time in that room just in case the meeting overruns. Think very carefully about where you are placing the seating. Avoid at all costs sitting across a desk to talk to someone as this automatically creates a barrier. Consider placing the seats opposite each other, perhaps on the corner of a desk so that you have somewhere to rest you papers. For those who are very brave, place the chairs side by side as this can help to create a relaxed environment. One great tip is to sit down last, as they may move the angle of the chair that you have carefully positioned!

Putting at ease

Consider having the door open as the member of staff arrives and welcome them. Thank them for coming and tell them exactly why you have asked to see them.

Don’t dress the meeting up as something else… ‘I have called you in for a little chat to see how things are going…’

Don’t play guessing games… ‘Things aren’t going very well, what do you think the problem is?’

Don’t start off in friendly chat mode… ‘Wasn’t Little Britain fantastic last night? I love the character who…’

Presenting the issue

At all costs, do not present your concerns in the style of a custody sergeant reading out a charge sheet! In many ways it should been seen as poor management if you have allowed so many issues to build up that they need discussing during one session. Good starting points for a meeting might be:

  • ‘It has come to my attention that…’
  • ‘I was a little concerned to hear that…’

Followed up with…

  • ‘I would be interested in your thoughts on this.’
  • ‘Is that an accurate picture of what is happening?’

Unless you make it absolutely clear what your concerns are, the course of the meeting will not follow the path that you want. Do not dress up your concerns to make them sound insignificant or a minor problem… ‘It’s nothing to worry about but none of your planning for the last six months includes any differentiation.’

Encouraging a response

Feedback to staff must not be a one-way process. Your member of staff must feel listened to. Unless your member of staff has the opportunity to respond early in the meeting, they will quickly switch off in the same way as any eight-year-old would when being told off about ‘messing around in the toilets at break time.’ It is so important that you ask plenty of open questions to gain a response. But remember, it is your meeting and your agenda. By encouraging a response, your member of staff may change the direction of the meeting to areas that take you away from your purpose of the meeting. While it may be worthwhile to pursue these for a short time, always bring the discussion back to the place you want it to be.

Dealing with their responses

There are very likely to be underlying reasons why your member of staff is performing in a manner you feel you need to deal with. The task of the manager is to deal with these issues and any other barriers that they put in the way of successful resolution. Part of your preparation for the meeting might be to do some research into what these responses/barriers might be and how you will deal with them. It is quite possible that the issues brought up that are affecting performance have no link to the school whatsoever.

Your level of empathy

A good manager will show a level of empathy to responses. Nodding, smiling and even laughing in the right places will go a long way to putting your staff member at ease. There is nothing wrong with conducting the meeting in a friendly and cheerful manner as long as you are sure that your message is delivered and understood. But be careful what you agree with. ‘It is impossible for teachers to do their job properly these days because there is so much paperwork – that is why I don’t do my weekly planning.’ By switching off for a few seconds and going into nodding donkey mode, you have allowed them to justify their actions with your agreement. Don’t be afraid of disagreeing with them. ‘While I appreciate that there are times when you appeared burdened with paperwork, I have to disagree with you, planning is an essential part of your day-to-day role and therefore must be completed.’

Your body language

Stick to the basics and particularly avoid what can be seen as negative or defensive body language such as folding your arms and crossing your legs. Eye contact throughout the meeting is vital. Nervousness in such situations can lead to a range of movements that you may be completely oblivious of such as pen clicking, body rocking and foot tapping. Sit still!

What to do if the temperature rises!

It is quite possible that when you first raise the issue of the purpose of the meeting that your staff member may become upset and raise their voice. It is possible that it is the first time they are aware of any concerns about their performance. If they raise their voice and you respond with a raised voice things will inevitably become even louder and the meeting ends with a slammed door. Remain calm, with your tone of voice consistent.

Creating a way forward

Part of the planning and preparation should involve ideas for a way forward before the meeting begins. You may wish to adjust your ideas based on the response to your concerns. One of the most important questions must be: ‘What can I do to help you?’ As a school leader you have a responsibility to be part of the solution and present ideas to cut through the problems. You will need to be clear on what the solutions might be and make them commit to them. Consider writing them down as targets. It may also be worthwhile setting a date for a follow-up meeting in a few weeks’ time. In your summing up:

  • Re-deliver your message.
  • Readdress their concerns and barriers to a solution.
  • Remind them of their commitment to a solution and how you will monitor the situation, perhaps with a follow-up meeting.

Aim to end on a positive:

  • ‘I have faith in your ability to resolve these issues.’
  • ‘I think that it is important that we tackle this head on and I am looking forward to seeing the results.’
  • ‘I am sure that when we meet in a couple of weeks’ time, excellent progress will have been made.’

Training your middle managers

How good are your staff at providing feedback to others? The chances are you probably don’t know. Feedback is more often than not done on a one-to-one basis, behind closed doors. We make assumptions about our leaders’ skills in this area as we don’t get to monitor them. One of the best ways to train and develop your staff in this area is to work with a professional actor in a similar way to how it is used in NPQH assessment. Your staff can be presented with an imaginary scenario related to a staffing issue. The actor is also presented with a back story which provides them with their reasons as to why they are performing or behaving in a certain way – this is unseen by your staff. The middle managers are then given 15 minutes to read through the scenario and prepare for the meeting. They should then be given a couple of minutes to arrange the room as to how they want it. The meeting then begins with the headteacher making notes of their performance. Following the meeting, of about 10 minutes, the head then feeds back, highlighting strengths and areas for development. A carefully planned day can provide opportunities for up to six staff to have two scenarios each. There can also be opportunities for them to observe their peers. The session can end with collective feedback to the team from the headteacher and the actor. By using a professional actor you will be able to observe and train your middle managers at the same time. Your team will have the unique experience of being able to experiment with seating positions and methods of resolution that can only be done during a simulation. Although your team my be rather nervous at the prospect of facing an actor with the headteacher observing, it will give them the confidence that they can perform well when faced with the real thing.

David Morley is a deputy headteacher of a large primary school in Milton Keynes