Giving Effective Feedback

Two weeks ago, I blogged on When Feedback Hurts. We have all experienced those painful moments (they can be the hardest to forget, unfortunately). As a leader, we recognize that receiving feedback is important if we are to grow, but we also need to consider how we give feedback to others.

We may not always be aware of all the instances we give feedback. It is worthwhile to notice the comments and criticism we offer. A teacher is late bringing in his class. You note the lateness, and unbeknown to you, he is thinking you don’t understand what is involved in getting this group organized and ready to go to the library. With this negative feedback, will he be as willing to schedule his class in the future? Will he be open to collaboration?

The IT department has not responded to your request to address an issue. You are justifiably frustrated and send an email, copying the principal, saying the delay is affecting student learning. Do you think the IT department will be more or less responsive to your next request?

You give feedback to students all the time. Perhaps a group is supposed to be working on a project and is obviously more interested in socializing. You tell them it’s time they settled down and got back to work. Are they now more or less engaged?

It’s not that these issues shouldn’t or can’t be addressed, but words count and so does the delivery. Consider these alternate approaches:

  • If you said to the teacher, “Let me get them started. You can probably use a breather after getting the kids here today,” the teacher will feel taken care of, not criticized. You’ve let him know you’re aware of the challenges he faces. And he’s more likely to start the process of getting his class organized earlier so they’re not late in the future.
  • If you sent the IT department a message (not including the principal) and said, “Help! I really need you. I appreciate how very busy you are, but I hope you can make this a priority,” their response is likely to be far different from that annoyed email where they were embarrassed in front of a superior. And you’ve shown you understand their workload.
  • If you said to the students, “Now that you have completed the preliminaries, where are you planning to go next?” Because they need to respond, they are more likely to focus on the task and start working.

While it’s important to let people know you’ve noticed them doing something that doesn’t work, there are ways to move from that information toward something that is helpful to you, them, and the relationship you want to have with them going forward.

Be SpecificThis allows people to be focused. You can tell the teacher in advance what the class will be doing, which can support them all to arrive prepared. The IT department will appreciate as much specificity as possible. Telling them it’s important to you, doesn’t make it important to them. Let them know how their work will have an impact. Your next question with students should direct them on how to start.

Be Timely –The more immediacy you bring to giving the feedback the better it will be. The teacher knows he is late. The IT department is buried in requests for tickets and doesn’t usually think yours is special. The kids are going to have fun until you show them there is fun in the task. Once you’ve pointed out the situation, move on.

Be Prescriptive – What can they do to improve and how can you help? Once the class is going, ask the teacher if he could use a brief reminder early in the day about the impending visit. Ask the IT department how they determine priorities and if there’s anything they need from you in the future, since your request affects so many students. Tell the students you are looking forward to seeing whatever it is they are to do next (a reminder here to be specific).

Be Encouraging – Let the teacher know you recognize the challenge of getting kids to the library as scheduled and are glad to help. Assure the IT department you are aware of their workload and appreciate all they do. Tell students the project is challenging, and you are looking forward to seeing their creative solutions. And the second part of this is to recognize changes. When the teacher arrives on time, say you appreciate what it took to get this done. Thank the IT Department every time they are responsive. (This is the time to copy the principal.) And, if possible, make a positive specific comment to the students when you see what they have accomplished at the end of the period.

So often (maybe even more often) it’s the little things that count. Leadership is not just huge projects with big outcomes. It’s what you do every day to encourage, support and work with the people around you.


Fielding Tough Questions

We live in a confrontational, polarized world. Tough questions—and charges—are a part of it. If you are a leader, chances are someone is going to challenge you. It happens to every president, CEO, director and head coach. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a leader, people know you lead the library. If someone has an issue related to the library, you are going to be challenged. What you do next defines you as a leader.

A story I have told before occurred when I took a new position in a school and a teacher came storming into the library and started haranguing my clerk. I came over immediately, indicating if there was a problem, the responsibility was mine, not the clerk’s. It was in the early days of automation, and the practice had been to use teachers’ social security numbers for their barcodes. The teacher was opposed to this. I listened to what she said and apologized for not being aware of the policy. It was my library, and I was responsible. I told her would return all her books, issue a new barcode for her, and re-check out the books to her. At the end of the school year, we changed all teacher barcodes.

What worked when I was challenged? I listened without getting defensive or arguing that I wasn’t the one who put the practice in place. I came up with a satisfactory solution. The result – she became one of my strongest library advocates.

The tough questions are getting tougher, the challenges louder and more fierce. To help us be prepared, Allison Shapira has some answers for you When a Tough Question Puts You on the Spot. Here are her four points.

  1. Prepare in Advance–You can expect to have questions and accusations directed at you for books in your collection and displays in your library. Don’t be caught off guard. Be familiar with the Library Bill of Rights and be able to quote key sections. (You might keep a copy on hand). Have a Selection and Reconsideration Policy in place. This ALA toolkit will get you started if you don’t have one yet.
  2. Pause and Breathe–Being confronted is scary. Your body goes into fight, freeze, flight response. While it is trying to protect you, the process shuts off your cerebral cortex–the part of you that thinks. Allow yourself a moment to respond and get your (hopefully) pre-planned response into action.
  3. Express Sympathy and Honesty–This is what I did with that teacher. When a parent comes to you with a challenge, acknowledge their awareness and their concern. Explain how you don’t seek to override their decisions for their child. Once things have stopped escalating, explain that other parents have the right for their children to have access to those subjects.
  4. Acknowledge the Uncertainty–This is often at the root of challenges and frustrations, rather than true animosity. A teacher is angry and wants to know why the material they requested for inclusion in the library last year is still unavailable. A principal wants more data on the impact of your Makerspace and you hadn’t thought of that before. Be honest about your lack of knowledge, assure them you will look into the matter when possible, and give them a date by which you’ll have an answer.

In some of these confrontations, you need to take a stand and that can be difficult. Shapira recommends you use this PREP framework:

  • Point: State one main point.
  • Reason: Provide a reason behind it.
  • Example: Give an example that supports your point.
  • Point: Before you start rambling, re-state your main point.

You will have to face tough questions and never know when. As with any other aspect of leadership, planning is key. Knowing what you will say when it happens will put you in the best position to handle the challenge and help you trust yourself in difficult, emotional situations.

When Feedback Hurts

We know feedback is important, but when it’s negative, no matter how kindly it’s said and even if we know it isn’t intended as criticism… it hurts. Knowing where and when something isn’t working is the only way to make changes. Positive feedback feels good but doesn’t suggest any way to improve. We have to find a way to hear the negative so that we can use it.

There are occasions when we have to seek out the negative. For example, when you collaborate with a teacher and look for feedback on the lesson, asking “What did you think of it?,” chances are you will only give you platitudes. (“It was fine.” “The kids liked it.”) Asking, “What could I have done better?” “What didn’t work well?” will give you the truth. Great. Feedback you can use to improve. In these cases, you are prepared for the comments and can handle them (even if you don’t like them).

It’s harder, however, to handle feedback when you didn’t seek it. Your principal makes some negative comments about your classroom management techniques. A teacher says your attempt at using an old book to create art could use a lot of work. How do you handle it? Criticism and feedback are two sides of the same coin. Yes, the teacher comment was negative, but the point was still there. It’s your choice how to receive – and respond to it. What do you do?

Mary Kelly offers these 5 Tips to Help You Take Feedback the Right Way.

Choose to see feedback as an opportunity – Kelly says to reframe it as a positive. Not always an easy thing to do, but chances are you can find the kernel of truth in what was said. When you do, ask yourself what can you learn from it? Can you make the change on your own or is there someone who could help you do better at whatever it was? If so, this feedback could not only improve your project, but lead to additional collaboration which is a good thing.

Remember you have only your perspective – This is good to keep in mind with any difficult conversation. You don’t know what preceded the comment. People are struggling with any number of challenging and stressful situations in their lives. They could have just had an argument with someone and are still in a bad mood.

It is also worth considering your perspective. What has your day been like? If a number of little things have gone wrong, you are apt to respond more strongly and for the words to sting. We bring who and where we are to every conversation and overlook that the other person is doing the same.

Pause – And breathe. This is one of the best pieces of advice for many situations. That small moment of time allows you to reframe and think about differing perspectives. It will keep you from going on the defensive – or in some cases going on the offensive. Either response is likely to have a negative effect on the relationships you continually try to build. Taking the pause can lead to better understanding and stronger relationships going forward.

Objectively reframe your response – Kelly says how we react to criticism is a habit. This means we can learn to do it well. The truth is, we will experience it a number of times on the job – and in our personal lives. Learning better responses can improve things in a number of areas.

Think about the points the person raised. Can you see the validity of any of them? Start there. Kelly asks you to consider that you were misunderstood. It’s also possible that you misunderstood what the other person said. Seeking clarity, when necessary, can be helpful

Be kind to yourself, but do not wallow in self-pity – Always take the time to recognize your emotions. Yes, it hurt, and that reminds you that the work you’re doing matters to you, but don’t let the feedback – or criticism—be a reason to beat yourself up. We are all human. We make mistakes. We will never be perfect. If we want to keep improving, we need to be open to handling negative feedback.

Learning how to handle negative feedback is an important skill to master. It makes you a better leader because when people see they can tell you the difficult things, they trust you more. The next step? Remembering this process when you give feedback to others.

Resolutions that Work

The new year has begun. Did you make a resolution, or did you not bother because you never stick to them? In December. I blogged about Gratitude, Reflections, and Resolutions, but the holiday season was imminent. You may not have had the time to make those resolutions or reflect on the past year. Good news – there’s no reason you can’t do it now.

Why am I making such a point about resolutions? It’s because I am a strong believer in goals that get you to where you want to go. I often quote the famous “philosopher” Yogi Berra’s who said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up someplace else.” Too many people finish the year “someplace else.”

I have embraced the AASL Vision, “Every school librarian is a leader; every learner has a school librarian.” For me, this translates into writing and curating ideas and resources to give school librarians techniques and tools to build their leadership. It means I learn as much as I can about new trends as well as challenges so that I can better advocate for librarians with people I meet, making them more aware and, if they aren’t already, making them supporters of school libraries. This is always the focus of the professional goals I set for the year.

In How to Have a Good Year, David Bigman has the following suggestions for making resolutions you actually keep:

Set Better Goals- Having big goals is great, “but boil it down to something really practical that you can measure yourself or notice yourself doing every day, every week, but something that’s tangible.” The vision I embraced is huge. But my weekly goals include finding topics and writing my weekly blog, working on the second edition of Leading for School Librarians, and teaching pre-service school librarians.

Bigman’s blog post cautions against setting too many goals, recommending one professional and one personal goal. Although I have 3 professional ones, they have been ingrained as habits for me. My personal goal is about walking which improves my mindset and my physical well-being.

Acknowledge Tensions – Life is stressful. List the tension areas in your life both professional and personal. The bad news is they won’t go away. You have heard of another “philosopher,” Roseanne Roseannadanna (played by the amazing Gilda Radner) from the original cast Saturday Night Live, who said, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

To deal with the tensions on your list, reflect on how severely each impacts your life. What can you do to ease them slightly? Where can you get support? You won’t eliminate them but getting a handle on them will help you stop beating yourself up about not being able to manage them better or get everything done.

Connect with Others – The pandemic showed us how much humans need social contact to thive. Make sure you plug this into your weekly actions. I have lunch with a friend once a month. I have scheduled calls with relatives so that I don’t allow my tasks to cause me to neglect what is so important to my mental health.

Your PLN is also important. School librarians are lonely. Yes, they interact with the whole school population, but no one in the building truly understands the scope and demands of the job. Get a mentor or be a mentor. Serve on your state’s school library association. It will enrich you on many levels. And take time to share your goals and resolutions with peers and friends – you never know where support can come from.

Focus on Certainties – There are so many uncertainties in our life and worrying about them adds to our tensions. Instead, consider the certainties you deal with. There is a certain rhythm to the school year and predictable deadlines. These can help calm us in rougher times.

By managing the certainties as efficiently as possible, you can ease tensions which makes it easier to handle those uncertainties. As the blog notes, “This will really help you do your clearest best thinking about the things that are uncertain and are nebulous and hard to wrap your arms around.”

Retake Some Time – Try doing a time audit. How much time are you taking for your various professional and personal tasks? Do they really need that much? How can you cut back on some so that you can give more time to your priorities?

If you set a time limit for going through email, you might find you can get it done faster and just as well. Do you really have to stay as late as usual or on as many days? Leaving early at least one day a week could strengthen your relationships outside of work and give you needed mental break. Finding places to reduce the time you invest in a task makes you calmer and feeling more successful.

So where do you want to be next January? The “resolutions” or goal you set today are the best way to help you get there. From my resolutions to yours – I’m wishing you a great year!

Opening a New Door

Happy New Year! I’ve got a tough question for you – is it time for a new position?

Last week I blogged on Gratitude, Reflections, & Resolutions. In reaching your resolutions, you identified what you don’t want in your life and what you do want. Some of you may have faced an uncomfortable realization. What you don’t want in your life is what your job in your district has become, and what you do want is to be in a school where you have the opportunity to grow and be all you can be.

In the last few years, being a librarian has become more stressful, and you all have been stretching and leading as you do whatever you can to make the library essential to teachers and students. In some places that hasn’t been enough. The administration thwarts every idea you have and gives you more tasks far removed from your Mission and Vision.

If this is your situation, it is time to consider an exit strategy. That’s a scary thought. Naturally, adages such as, “better the devil you know” and “out of the frying pan into the fire” jump into your head. On the other hand, remember your two lists from last week. To decide if it’s time to “read the handwriting on the wall”, ask yourself, “Is there any chance the situation will improve?” If not, recognize the cost of continuing where you are. It is likely your relationships with your family will suffer, you’ll face each day with dread, and the joy you once had in being a librarian will be gone.

When I was in a situation with a horrible principal, my saving grace was a very supportive superintendent of schools. When she announced she was retiring, I got busy job hunting. I knew eventually this principal would become superintendent. My prediction proved true, but by then I was happily in a new district where I had more opportunities to take a good library program and make it better. All I lost after 22 years in the district was my sick days.

Consider these steps to make this change as successful as possible:

Planning to Leave – Update your resume. Prepare an e-portfolio of your accomplishments. Quietly let any vendors who visit your library know you are job hunting. They often hear about potential openings first. Check your state library association job board. Check in with your peers -and me – on the School Librarians Workshop Facebook group.

Zeroing in on Your Target – When you learn of a possible position, research the district. Does the school’s website match their stated Mission? They may say academics are important but do they only show pictures of athletic success? Check the library’s webpage. Use social media to learn about the administrators. What can you learn about their budget? Call the librarian and talk to them in advance of the interview.

Preparing for the Interview – Check websites such as Elementary Librarian Interview Questions or the School Librarian Interview Guide. Prepare a list of your questions for the interviewer(s). Remember – you’re interviewing them, too. Ask what they like best about the library currently and what they would like to see in the future. Their answers will tell you how much they know about the library.

Acing the Interview – If possible, take a test drive to the location so that you’re comfortable with the drive. On the day of the interview, arrive early. Dress nicely but comfortably. Shake hands with the interviewer(s). Position your seat to give you the best possible view of them. (This also gives you time to calm yourself.)  Pause before answering questions and ask for any clarifications you need. Listen for what they are saying and not saying. Make sure you have a chance to see the library and look around. What messages is it sending? During the interview, never criticize your current school. Focus on the positives of the one you hope to get. You might say you want an opportunity to work in a forward-looking district.

After the Interview – As soon as possible follow up with a thank you message to the interviewer(s). Email is fine, but handwritten ones are better. Be sure you have the correct spelling of names.  Chris Littlefield details the steps in How to Write a Thank You Email After an Interview. Some highlights are:

  • Referencing something said that was of significance.
  • Reminding them of your interest in the position.
  • Keeping it brief. Don’t add too much detail.
  • Making sure there are no typos, and the grammar is correct.

In closing, note you are looking forward to hearing from them. The value of the thank you message, as Littlefield explains, is that it helps you stand out from the crowd. You remind the interviews of who you are and what you said. It shows your people and communication skills.

Leaders take risks. Sometimes the risk is knowing when to leave and find something new. Whatever your new year brings, I wish you a great one!