Principals: School Improvement Starts with Better Teacher Feedback

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Teacher feedback is essential for fostering growth, improvement, and positive change within a school. Feedback leads to better student engagement and learning outcomes by identifying and refining teaching methods, which improves teacher effectiveness. Constructive feedback fosters a positive school environment by boosting teacher morale and communication. Ultimately, investing in teacher feedback enhances student learning by improving teaching quality. However, how you provide feedback can significantly influence how your teachers receive it and its effectiveness.

The Notorious Feedback Sandwich

Lunch isn’t the only time you have been served a sandwich. Someone has served you a feedback sandwich at your job at some point in your career. The sandwich method has long been a staple of leaders. Characterized by its structure of cushioning criticism or negative feedback between two layers of praise. It often includes the word “but” at least twice. For example, “You are doing a great job, but you could do x better, but you are doing a great job.”  

Initially popularized within the business world, it has also become a staple in education. Like many future leaders, this was the primary method I was told to use during my master’s classes on instructional leadership and by previous administrators. They would tell me “You always have to start with a positive.

Why is the notion of the Feedback Sandwich so enticing?

In a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, the authors identified two main motivational perspectives as to why the feedback sandwich is used by leaders. The perspectives are Approach and Avoidance.

The Approach Perspective is based on the simple idea that we should be more positive because people are likely to respond in kind. It is true that, as people, we react differently to positive people.  In an experiment, participants were asked to identify if a tennis ball landed in or out. The twist was that the two tennis players had different interactions before watching the game. One player was positive, and the other was negative towards the judge. The results showed bias toward more positive people because the participants made a call that benefited the positive player 40% more of the time.  

What needs to be considered is the purpose of being positive during feedback. In relation to the feedback sandwich, it is typically used to lessen the impact of the criticism and make the receiver more receptive. That sounds like positive feedback with a twist.

The Avoidance Perspective is based on evading or eliminating what is deemed negative or undesirable. One way to eliminate the anxiety and stress of sharing criticism or negative feedback is to avoid it by focusing on the positive. Is the positive feedback for the receiver or does it help the giver? Adam Grant, a Wharton professor, says it best, “Giving a compliment sandwich might make the giver feel good, but it doesn’t help the receiver.”

In addition, the giver may be avoiding critical feedback because they fear…

  • that they might offend the receiver
  • that the receiver may dislike the giver
  • that the receiver may leave the school or company.

Those who support the sandwich feedback method argue that this approach initiates the discussion, which is preferable to avoiding the conversation altogether. However, despite its advocates, it may not be as effective as some believe, and could, in fact, impede performance.

The Ineffectiveness of the Feedback Sandwich Method

Research and practical experience suggest that this method may not be as beneficial as originally thought. The following points highlight key reasons why this approach can undermine the very goals it aims to achieve:

  • Confuses Employees: The sandwich method can make the real message unclear, as employees may overlook the crucial feedback for improvement due to the primacy and recency effects, where the first and last things heard are most remembered.
  • Creates Suspicion: Over time, employees begin to expect that praise will soon be followed by criticism. This anticipation turns genuine positive feedback into something employees view with skepticism while waiting for the negative follow-up. Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist, wants you to imagine that you’re about to give feedback to an employee, but you have to be transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish using the feedback sandwich. The statement would look like this: “I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you and then give you negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office.” (Schwarz 2013)
  • Undermines Trust: Employees become aware that positive feedback is often a setup for impending criticism, leading them to distrust any compliments and focus on waiting for the negative feedback.
  • Diminishes Positive Feedback: Linking positive feedback with negative criticism devalues the positive feedback. Using “but” in feedback can cause employees to dismiss the positive aspects and focus on the criticism, lowering motivation.
  • Weakens Improvement Messages: When positive and negative feedback are given together, the need for improvement conveyed by the negative feedback can be overshadowed, making the corrective action less clear.
  • Leads to Inaccurate Self-Assessment: Manufactured positives can give employees an inflated view of their performance, making recognizing their real performance gaps harder.
  • Stale Positive Feedback: Using the same positive feedback repeatedly makes it seem less genuine over time, especially as the negatives change or grow, reducing the overall effectiveness of the feedback strategy.

The feedback sandwich method, while well-intentioned, often fails to deliver constructive improvement and can lead to a range of negative outcomes, including confusion, mistrust, and demotivation. Leaders and managers should consider more direct and transparent methods of providing feedback to ensure clarity and effectiveness. By separating positive and negative feedback, they can preserve integrity and value, leading to more honest communication and meaningful performance improvements.

Improving Feedback

In my work with school principals, one of the most challenging habits to change is the ingrained practice of always starting feedback with positive comments. Many leaders have adapted the feedback sandwich and use the “Glow and Grow” method, which involves giving both positive feedback and areas for improvement. Both the traditional feedback sandwich and the Glow and Grow methods are designed to influence others without being straightforward about the intentions behind the feedback. This is a unilaterally controlling strategy that aims to affect others without opening oneself up to reciprocal influence.

Guidelines for Effective Feedback

Separate Positive and Constructive Feedback: 

The first step is to separate positive from constructive feedback to enhance how you provide feedback. Each type of feedback should stand independently to avoid confusion and maintain transparency. Reflect on Roger Schwarz’s advice about being transparent in your intentions. For example, you might start a feedback session by saying, “I would like to discuss the positive aspects I observed during my 10-minute visit. Is that alright with you?” This approach ensures that the positive feedback is not seen as a prelude to negative feedback but as a valuable observation in its own right. By clearly separating feedback types, you prevent the common pitfall of mixed messages, where the recipient is left to decipher what is truly meant. This clarity helps in fostering a more honest and open dialogue where feedback is received as intended.

Encourage Open Dialogue: Move away from strategies that seem manipulative or indirect. Encouraging a two-way conversation about feedback helps build trust and makes the process more collaborative. This approach respects the autonomy of the receiver and fosters a more productive and positive learning environment.

By adopting a more structured and transparent approach, leaders can ensure that their feedback is more meaningful and supportive, leading to better outcomes and a more positive atmosphere for growth and development.

To illustrate the impact of these principles in practice, let’s examine the case of a middle school principal, Zach Marks, who transformed his approach to giving feedback.

Case Study Summary: Transforming Teacher Feedback with Principal Zach Marks

In a focused effort to enhance instructional quality at his middle school, Principal Zach Marks embarked on a transformative journey to overhaul the teacher feedback process. Transitioning into a complex, post-COVID environment, Marks identified instructional improvement as his primary goal. Recognizing the unique challenges both new and veteran teachers face in this new era, he sought to establish a culture of continuous improvement and open dialogue.

Partnering with Learning-Focused, Marks and his administrative team initiated teacher professional development on high-yield instructional strategies and a structured feedback program. This program included three key phases over two years:

  1. Direct Classroom Observations: Short, 10-minute sessions provided immediate insights into daily teaching practices.
  2. Timely Feedback Debriefs: Conducted within 24 hours of observations, these sessions offered personalized coaching for teachers, focusing on small, impactful changes to enhance instructional effectiveness.
  3. Leader Coaching: School leaders received guidance on delivering constructive, growth-oriented feedback to foster a supportive environment.

The results were remarkable:

  • The school exceeded growth expectations for two consecutive years.
  • It ranked in the top 5% of all schools for growth in the 2022-2023 academic year.
  • The school’s grade improved significantly, reflecting the positive changes in classroom instruction.

Zach’s approach demystified the feedback process, transforming it from a potential source of anxiety into a powerful tool for professional growth. His story is not just about the success of a feedback initiative but about fostering a culture where all embrace continuous improvement.

Discover how professional development and effective feedback led to sustained improvement and learn from the insights of a leader who believes in being ‘all in.’
Click here to read the full case study.

Final Thoughts

Effective teacher feedback is more than a procedural task; it is a critical component of educational leadership that fosters a nurturing and growth-oriented environment for teachers and students. The traditional feedback sandwich, while well-intentioned, often falls short of fostering genuine improvement and can obscure the clarity needed for true professional development. Instead, by adopting a more transparent, structured approach to feedback, leaders can enhance their communication, build trust, and ultimately significantly improve teaching quality and student outcomes. The journey of Zach Marks, a middle school principal, exemplifies this transformative approach. His success story is a testament to the power of effective feedback in driving school improvement and achieving remarkable results. 

Questions to Consider:

  1. How are you currently delivering feedback to teachers? Is it a formal observation with a written report or a more informal conversation in the hallway? Does your approach vary depending on the situation or the teacher?
  2. What are your goals for teacher feedback? Are you primarily focused on identifying areas for improvement, or do you also want to acknowledge and celebrate successes?
  3. How do teachers typically react to your feedback? Do they seem engaged and receptive, or defensive and dismissive?
  4. Are you seeing the results you desire from your current feedback practices? Is teacher performance improving, or are you encountering the same challenges repeatedly?
  5. How comfortable are you delivering critical feedback? Do you find yourself softening the message or avoiding difficult conversations altogether?

Actions to Take:

  1. Ditch the Feedback Sandwich: Separate positive reinforcement from constructive criticism. Deliver each message independently to ensure clarity and avoid mixed signals.
  2. Invest in Coaching for Yourself: Seek professional development opportunities to improve your own feedback delivery skills. Consider coaching sessions focused on effective communication and constructive criticism.
  3. Cultivate a Safe Space for Dialogue: Encourage open communication by creating a space where teachers feel comfortable asking questions, sharing their perspectives, and actively participating in the feedback discussion.
  4. Embrace Collaboration: Shift from a controlling approach to a collaborative one. View feedback as a joint effort aimed at mutual learning and professional growth for the teacher and leader.
  5. Seek Feedback on Your Feedback: Request honest input from teachers on improving your feedback delivery methods and overall effectiveness.

Resources

Daniels, A. C. (2009). Oops! 13 management practices that waste time and money (and what to do instead). Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publications.

Schwarz, R. (2013, April 19). The “Sandwich Approach” Undermines Your Feedback. HBR Blogs. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/04/the-sandwich-approach-undermin/

Wood, A. (2013). The Feedback Sandwich—Tasty or Bitter? Retrieved from http://projectcommunityonline.com/the-feedback-sandwich-tasty-or-bitter.html

Grant, A. M. (n.d.). Stop Serving the Feedback Sandwich. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@AdamMGrant/stop-serving-the-feedback-sandwich-bc1202686f4e

Don Marlett

Don has been an educator for 20+ years. Before joining Learning-Focused, he taught High School and Middle School Science and was a school administrator. Don has participated in school evaluations focused on implementing High Yield Strategies. In addition, he partnered with various state DOE to support leaders as well as present at numerous conferences hosted by multiple leadership organizations in Florida, NC, Ohio, WV, TN, and KY Don leads product development, provides leadership training and coaching, and coaches educators in the implementation of the High-Yield strategies.

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