by Rebekah Benoit
Rebekah Benoit completed her Masters degree at the University of Calgary in 2017. During her 10-year teaching career in Alberta, she was fortunate to work with many talented administrators, who inspired her to focus her research on educational leadership and how communication and relationship-building between principals and teachers positive benefits students and schools. Rebekah currently lives in Montana with her husband and three daughters, and looks forward to the next phase of her educational journey as she pursues her PhD.
Research tells us that feedback loops are important components of organizational learning and school improvement. Although much study has been done on how principals provide teachers with effective feedback on their teaching practice, little research has focused on how leaders themselves collect feedback to inform their own professional growth. This study interviewed five principals within a large urban school district to examine the different methods school leaders use to collect feedback from staff, and how they used the data they collect.
The study found that, overall, principals considered the collection of feedback to be essential to the role of leadership, equating their role to that of a teacher. Primarily, principals used informal methods including open-door policies and observation to collect feedback. Formalized, anonymous methods were used rarely. Feedback was generally used to make operational decisions and drive change within the school. Principals identified a variety of barriers that prevent teachers from providing feedback. Further study is required to address how principals can use the feedback they collect to intentionally improve their own leadership effectiveness.
As teachers, we are deeply involved in the world of feedback. As part of effective teaching practice, we use feedback from students, parents, colleagues and administrators to continually assess and change our practice. We know that asking that question – “So, how am I doing?” – might be difficult and the answers sometimes hard to hear, but we also know that this important question must be asked if we are to continually grow and improve.
The seeds of inspiration for this research project were sown years ago, during an offhand conversation with a colleague in a school hallway. We watched as our principal left the classroom of a new teacher after conducting an observation, carrying a sheaf of hastily-scribbled notes and observations. “Principals always have lots of suggestions for how we can do our job better,” my colleague remarked. “I’d love to give her some feedback on the kind of job she’s doing. I’ve got some great suggestions!”
This brief conversation sparked something in me. As teachers, we are provided with feedback through so many different forms – parent and student satisfaction surveys, formal interviews, classroom observations by school leadership, conversations in hallways. But as an aspiring school administrator, this experience made me question: how do school principals know if they are truly effective leaders?
This musing was the inspiration for this research project. Like teachers, principals collect feedback from those under their leadership in a variety of ways, which range from highly informal methods to more formalized processes. In this study, I sought to understand how principals collected and used feedback about their own professional practice from the teachers under their leadership. Which methods of feedback collection yielded the most useful data? And, perhaps more importantly, how do principals use this feedback to assess their leadership practice and use it to guide their professional growth?
The intentional collection of feedback by principals from school stakeholders, in particular from the teachers they lead, is essential for professional growth and continual improvement in leadership practice. Research tells us that feedback loops, in which feedback contributes to learning by providing new data and eventually merging with original knowledge to create continual growth, are important components of organizational learning and school improvement (Scribner, Cockrell, Cockrell & Valentine, 1999). Much study has been done on the importance of principals providing teachers with effective feedback on their teaching practice as a means of formative assessment. Such feedback helps us, as teachers, improve instruction and assessment practices, and also encourages us to become reflective practitioners. Research also tells us that the ability to receive and act on feedback is an important characteristic of strong and effective leaders (Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee, 2002). However, the ways school leaders receive and use feedback, and which methods are most effective in shaping leadership practice, are varied and not well understood by research.
In this study, I sought to understand the different ways in which school principals collected feedback on their own leadership within five different school communities, as well as how this feedback was used by principals to inform and shape their own leadership practice, including decision-making within the school, implementing change effectively for the benefit of the entire school community and intentional professional growth and improvement.
In this study, I focused on the relationship between how feedback was delivered, collected, and used within schools, both formally and informally. Feedback mechanisms can range from highly informal, such as casual conversations held within and outside school, to more formalized tools, such as surveys or anonymous questionnaires distributed school- and district-wide.
The conceptual framework used in this study was the concept of feedback loops, which research indicates could benefit the development of effective leadership practice and organizational improvement. Organizational learning involves detecting and correcting errors, generating new insights and knowledge, using feedback in future decision-making, and changing behavior through the process of information-gathering (Scriber et al., 1999); all these functions are essential parts of feedback gathering and use within schools by leaders. For organizational learning to happen and to result in positive and lasting change, as opposed to simple repetition of ingrained practices, double-loop learning needs to take place (Scriber et al., 1999). Such learning, which relies on feedback to provide essential data, merges new learning with existing knowledge and uses this new product to guide decision-making, searching for ways to improve effectiveness by acquiring knowledge through feedback, building capacity within the system, attending to, sharing and interpreting information (Scriber, et al., 1999).
Research suggests that effective school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on student learning (Leithwood, Harris & Hopkins, 2008). “Leadership acts as a catalyst without which other good things are quite unlikely to happen” (Leithwood et al., p. 28). Leithwood (1994) specifically identified the ability to respond constructively to feedback about one’s own leadership practices as a key transformational leadership practice.
A review of scholarly literature on leadership in schools found that the most successful school leaders “are open-minded and ready to learn from others. They are also flexible rather than dogmatic in their thinking within a core system of values, persistent…resilient and optimistic” (Leithwood et al., p. 36). Such behaviours are integral characteristics of values-led contingency leadership, a leadership concept that has developed along with our understanding of transformational leadership as the most effective leadership model for schools (Gurr, 2002). Along with values, vision, and integrity, key qualities of values-led leaders include an understanding of educational context, continuing professional development and personal reflection (Gurr, 2002). It can be argued that effective feedback practices should play a vital and beneficial role in all these contexts.
Research has taught the educational profession much about the importance of feedback to help teachers improve their own instructional practice. Effective, regular feedback from principals to teachers under their supervision, which includes substantive and practical suggestions for improvement, can improve both teaching performance and personal satisfaction (Fraise & Streshly, 1994). An important role principals play within schools is that of instructional leaders (Whitaker, 1997); it can be argued that feedback should hold the same importance for school principals as it does for teachers in the improvement of their own professional practice. If we view the role of the principal in the context of an instructional leader, with the principal acting as “teacher” and their staff as “students,” principals also require feedback to continually grow and improve as leaders, just as teachers require feedback to continually improve their teaching practice.
Although research indicates that feedback is important to develop strong leaders, little research has been done on how or why principals collect and use feedback, or whether they do at all. These processes are far from self-evident. Goleman, Boyatzio, and McKee (2002) recognized that leaders often experience challenges in receiving feedback constructively. “People tend to withhold important information, especially when it is unpleasant, from senior leaders. Sometimes leaders do not encourage feedback not because they are egoistic, but because they genuinely believe they cannot change” (Goleman, Boyatzio & McKee, p. 14).
Despite challenges that might exist around the collection and use of feedback by leaders to inform their own decision-making and instructional practice, research suggests good reasons for doing so. In terms of effecting organizational change, school principals’ personal attributes can significantly impact whether teachers in their schools embrace or resist change (Oreg & Berson, 2011). Principal transformational leadership has been shown to have a positive impact on retaining school staff, improving job satisfaction, and improving student achievement progress (Griffith, 2004).
Feedback plays a key role in developing and utilizing such an effective leadership style, according to Kelley, Thornton and Daugherty (2005).
Principals have the power, authority and position to impact the climate of the school, but many lack the feedback to improve. If principals are highly skilled, they can develop feelings of trust, open communications, collegiality, and promote effective feedback…If principals are blind to critical information about their schools, then they could make erroneous decisions. In the complex and dynamic environment of schools, all principals need to understand effective leadership behaviours and teachers’ perceptions of their behaviours” (p. 23).
To begin the process of understanding one’s own leadership behavior and how staff perceive these behaviours, the first step is to seek out feedback by asking.
In this study, I utilized primarily qualitative research methods to understand principals’ perspectives on effective leadership practice, what feedback was valuable, and how feedback was being used to shape practice.
The sample size of this pilot study was relatively small. I conducted interviews with five school principals within a large Canadian urban school district whose school staffs ranged from 30 to 130 individual teachers. I asked principals about the importance of collecting feedback about their own practice from teachers, the methods they currently used to collect feedback, and how they used and shared the feedback they collected. I also asked principals about their ideal vision for the use of feedback by school leaders, and the barriers that exist within schools that might impact this vision. Finally, I asked principals to reflect upon their past experiences in collecting and using feedback from teachers, and how these experiences might have shaped their current practice.
Interview data was analyzed and coded for underlying themes. All principals agreed that feedback is important for principals to collect. One principal said, “[Feedback] helps guide our practice…I would say our main role is to support teachers, to help them do their jobs for the success of our kids, so having any information that helps us understand the challenges and barriers they face, I think, is by all means really beneficial.”
However, most pointed to the importance of feedback to help principals make organizational decisions rather than as a means of evaluating and shaping their own professional practice. Only one principal clearly identified the link between teacher feedback and its use as an evaluative tool for principals to reflect on their own leadership practice, saying, “To parallel it from when I was teaching, I don’t think I became a good teacher until I started using feedback from students. I feel the same way about school leadership, because these [teachers] are the people I’m working to serve. Without feedback, how do I know if I’m doing my job?”
There is a strong tendency among principals to view school leadership in terms of good pedagogy and teaching practice, seeing the principal as a "teacher" and the staff as "students". This tendency arguably makes research around the importance of feedback on teaching practice also applicable to leadership practice. One principal described it in this way: “We have to think about our classroom, and your staff is a representation of your class. It probably sounds a little silly, but I see the staff as my class.”
Principals primarily used informal feedback methods to collect data from staff, describing the context and relationships involved in such methods as integral to the collection of useful feedback data. All principals depended at least somewhat on teachers to come to them to provide feedback, maintaining an “open-door policy” in their offices and expecting teachers to voluntarily come and give feedback, especially negative feedback. One principal said of himself and his vice-principal, “We both have open doors and consistently communicate to teachers, ‘Come see us if you have a problem.’”
Another principal described her leadership in a similar way. “The number one thing that I do is have an open-door policy, and I check in with my teachers regularly. I really hope that, if there is something that’s bothering someone, I will be able to pick up on it. I really try to be tuned in to the needs of my staff.”
Three of the five principals interviewed regularly utilized indirect feedback collection methods such as observations, where teachers were not aware they were providing feedback, as one of their primary feedback gathering methods. One principal described the value of such an approach in this way. “It gives you a good indicator of the thermometer of your building when that feedback is received from staff indirectly. They don’t even realize they’re giving you that feedback. That, to me, is quite valuable…that kind of feedback is very important on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis.”
Another principal said, “A large barometer for me is when I see people laughing and having fun and getting the job done. When I go around and see students engaged in learning with very few discipline problems, that’s a huge amount of feedback right there.”
Formalized feedback opportunities were rare and, in nearly all cases, non-anonymous. Principals primarily used these types of feedback methods to gain information about future staffing decisions, programming, and grade assignments. Principals acknowledged that non-anonymous feedback collection methods often elicited only positive feedback and very little negative feedback. One principal said, “A lot of feedback doesn’t impact your practice. People will say, ‘Oh yeah, we love her,’ or ‘She’s fantastic’, or ‘She’s the best administrator ever.’ That’s not constructive – there’s no meat there. You need meat in order to be able to change your practice.”
Principals observed that non-anonymous methods allowed some personalities to dominate and quieter voices not to be heard. One principal said, “I have a pretty open-door environment, hopefully [teachers] know they can come in an any time, although some people might not be comfortable with that. There are a number of teachers I see quite regularly, and some teachers I’ve had to reach out to, to gain a better understanding…you have to be careful that the squeaky wheels aren’t getting all the grease or traction.”
All principals felt that anonymous data was less valuable because it lacked context and did not allow deeper conversations to unpack the feedback. Another drawback to formalized, anonymous data identified by all principals was the fact that such data is difficult to manage due to the sheer volume collected by these methods. Overall, principals felt formalized feedback collection methods yielded less valuable information.
When asked what barriers existed within schools which would make teachers reluctant to provide feedback, principals identified different obstacles which suggests that individual school contexts or other factors might impact barriers to providing feedback. Two principals identified lack of time and energy as the most important barriers to prevent teachers giving feedback. One said, “If you’re smart, you’re conscious of how much time you ask from people. People very quickly get surveyed to death.”
Two other principals believed that feelings of fear and intimidation stemming from the power differential between teachers and principals played a role. One principal said, “I think we have to be mindful and intentional that this is a scary place to come, into the principal’s office. We need to get out and be with teachers in their classrooms and in the hallways. I think that’s an important bridge to that barrier.”
Other barriers identified by principals included apathy and a perceived concern among teachers that providing feedback was not going to make a difference in the functioning of the school, as well as a perceived fear of retribution for providing negative feedback. As one principal described it, “Sometimes we just assume there’s no process to change when in fact, there is. That’s part of the misconception of teachers – ‘I’m not going to complain because it’s not going to change anything.’ But actually there is a process.”
All principals used feedback primarily for operational purposes. Feedback was not explicitly used as a part of reflective practice, but more often in terms of procedures and practices within the school, developing school culture, making operational decisions, etc. Some principals viewed feedback as a type of formative assessment of their schools but not necessarily assessment of themselves.
All principals described the collection and sharing of feedback as a way to build relationships, establish trust, support teachers, and/or to encourage staff to support mandates, changes in practice, and future directions for growth and organizational change. One principal said, “I think one of the ways to get people invested, especially when you’re looking to change practice in any way, is to ask them. It’s very similar to good teaching practice. Choice is very motivating for people and responding to that choice cultivates loyalty and gives you more engagement…You need people to paddle the canoe in the same direction. If they get to pick that direction, you’re more likely to get wholehearted cooperation.”
Another said, “Sometimes you have a predisposition about a direction you’d like to move to, so you are looking for supports out there that you’d like to move in that direction. But you also need to listen to and give credence and value to those other opinions that might differ…So it’s a balancing job. You have to make sure that people feel they’re part of the process.”
Principals did not explicitly link getting staff members on board with change, improving culture, or supporting teachers and intentionally improving their professional practice. Most principals acknowledged the benefit to using feedback to assess their own practice and three of five acknowledged they would like to gather more feedback about their own leadership practice specifically as a means of assessment. One said, “It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but I guess I’d say it’s worth doing and it’s important to do it. I don’t know that you could do your job very well if you didn’t do it.”
In terms of the findings of this study, principal conceptions of what makes feedback truly effective vary, particularly if one considers effectiveness to be linked to leadership practice improvement. The principals I interviewed relied heavily on informal feedback collection methods such as casual observations and conversations, often initiated by teachers themselves. The question remains whether principals reflectively use feedback to consider and improve their own practice by recognizing areas for improvement, setting goals, and purposefully working towards improvement. As teachers, we have all provided informal feedback, even if were unaware of it, casually chatting with our principal in the hallway, or simply going about our day while being observed from afar. Although these informal methods might make teachers more open to providing feedback as compared to a more formal interview setting or through a formalized survey, if principals do not use this feedback as data to improve their own practice, can the data we provide in this way still be considered effective or even useful?
Informal feedback collection methods offer many attractive qualities to principals, including ease of collection, little to no preparation requirements, and no requirements for recording of data collected or actions taken as a result. Although these qualities might make such collection methods attractive to principals, they also call into question the quality of the feedback itself. If data is not recorded, not acted upon, or actions are not documented for future analysis, does such data qualify as being part of a feedback loop? If principals are unable to reflect on how they’ve used feedback data, can they truly learn from it and use it to improve their own practice? Perhaps they can, but the use of a system for recording and implementing feedback data for the purpose of professional improvement would allow principals to look at their own practice in a more targeted way, arguably improving personal accountability and allowing for conclusions to be drawn beyond just the overall conception that “things are going well.”
To collect feedback from all staff members, both informal and formal anonymous feedback collection methods must be used. Most principals do not use these methods; therefore, they do not collect the broad range of feedback from teachers needed to establish an complete feedback loop. My research suggests that principals should expand their repertoire of feedback collection methods to include informal and formal, anonymous and non-anonymous methods of feedback from teachers to create a fully-articulated feedback loop to support professional growth. Furthermore, allowing teachers to give feedback in non-threatening ways, or even making it known to staff members that leaders are seeking honest feedback in a way that will not damage teachers’ relationships or careers has the potential to create a culture of trust and openness within the workplace that many principals say they are striving for.
Principals use feedback for operational purposes, building relationships, and supporting organizational change. A gap remains in the use of feedback to explicitly reflect on and shape leadership practice intentionally. Because research surrounding teacher professional growth stresses the importance of feedback use and intentional goal-setting based on this feedback, and principals widely compare their staff to “students” and themselves to “teachers,” arguably they are not engaged in best practice to encourage and support their own professional growth. My research further suggests that principals should collect feedback intentionally based on their own professional learning needs and use it explicitly to grow and improve their own leadership practice.
One of my most interesting research discoveries was that principals are interested in collecting feedback from teachers; they value teachers’ opinions about how the school is functioning and are authentically interested in hearing these perspectives. Personally, the idea that teacher perspectives are discredited by administration is a common refrain I’ve heard in staffrooms over the years, and I think it’s important to note that the principals I interviewed were genuinely interesting in hearing what teachers have to say regarding how the school is operating and, in a larger sense, how well they, as principals, are doing.
Furthermore, principals actually use the data they collect. Rather than acting within a vacuum and making decisions about school operations based on their own feelings and opinions, principals actively use teacher feedback data to improve the day-to-day operations of the school. As teachers, we don’t always see what’s happening behind the scenes, but my research suggests that principals both hear teachers and act upon what they learn, even if teachers aren’t aware of it.
However, in terms of using teacher feedback to create double-loop learning that allows principals to integrate feedback data to improve their own practice, simply collecting feedback from teachers using convenient informal methods isn’t enough. These methods run the risk of only collecting positive data that reinforces practices already in place within the school. Simply observing teachers in their daily routines, engaging in casual conversations in hallways or inviting teachers into the principal’s office when they have a concern is not enough; it doesn’t truly ask the tough question, “How am I doing?” To ask teachers this question and receive genuine, truthful data, principals should use a variety of methods to allow teachers to provide sometimes difficult answers without fear of reprisal, punishment, or damage to relationships.
Furthermore, once they’ve collected that data, principals need to look at it reflectively and unflinchingly, asking the difficult questions: What does this data say about my own practice? In what areas am I succeeding? Where are areas for growth in my own practice? What goals should I focus on, and how will I know when I’ve succeeded, based on the feedback I’m hearing from teachers? These questions allow principals to effectively use feedback data provided by teachers to improve their own leadership, completing the feedback loop and truly modeling for their staffs what it means to be a reflective practitioner engaged in continual self-assessment and improvement.
Questions also still exist that merit deeper investigation but were not addressed specifically in this study. Although we know more about how principals feel regarding the use of feedback, teacher attitudes must also be explored to discover ways they feel most comfortable providing feedback. Within this study I have made assumptions that, because principals acknowledge that informal feedback methods often don’t allow more reserved teachers to offer feedback, anonymized formal methods might offer such opportunities; but, until teachers are explicitly asked, we cannot assume this is the case. Further study is required to discover factors that impact how principals collect feedback including years of experience, school context, strength of administrative team etc. Finally, more research can be done in terms of how principals should gather and use feedback intentionally to set and assess personal leadership goals and improve their own leadership practice most effectively.
Principals believe collecting feedback from teachers is vital to effective decision-making within schools, as well as developing effective leadership practice, and they actively collect this feedback primarily through informal methods that are valued for the relational context they provide. Although principals viewed formal, anonymous feedback collection methods as less valuable, they also identified drawbacks to their preferred methods of feedback collection.
Although it is encouraging to find that principals collect feedback from teachers about their own leadership as part of their regular professional practice, more work remains to be done to ensure this feedback truly represents all staff members, rather than just dominant personalities. Perhaps more importantly, little evidence exists that principals use this feedback in intentional ways to shape their own professional practice by identifying areas for growth and improvement, setting goals related to leadership quality standards, and measuring their improvement.
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Keywords: school leaders, feedback, feedback loops, teachers, leadership development