First Year of Teaching /Best Practice

First Year of Teaching / Best Practice

Teacher Passivity and Teacher Proximity

 Today’s topic of teacher passivity and proximity to learning go together.  I believe that there is a direct correlation between teacher passivity and student achievement.  I also believe that when a teacher is within “a proximal distance” to a student, learning will improve.  I base both of these assertions on many years of observations in classrooms of all ages and all levels.

Let us first take a look at what I refer to as the teacher’s proximal distance to learning.  Is essential that teachers get out from behind the desk and move among the learners.  The closer a teacher is to the learning activity the more focused a student will be.  When a teacher is near a student, a healthy awareness of that presence will more than likely lead to a more thorough completion of the activity.

The physical presence of the teacher around the room is important, but what transpires between the student and the teacher when the teacher is in that proximal zone is critical.  It may be a brief verbal exchange.  It may be eye contact. It may be that pat on a shoulder.  It very well could be something as simple as a favorable head nod.  Many teachers, for whatever reason, have a comfort level in the front of the classroom or maybe it is behind a desk or a lectern.  There is a certain degree of comfort and safety there.  If there is a traditional seating arrangement, there is a good chance that those not seated near the front will be lost.  The teacher must get out from behind any barrier.  How else does one know what is going on in the rest of the room?

I will share two anecdotes that support my theory:

  1. The teacher is teaching in an older science lab. Hence, he is elevated on a small stage in front of the class.  Students are arranged at traditional lab tables, two to a table in rows around the room.  I was seated in the back. The instructor never moved from the center of the room in front of the blackboard.  About half the class was engaged in other activities.  I saw a young lady open a novel and place it upon her lap in a notebook and read for pleasure the entire period.  Another young lady did a thorough job on her nails.  Meanwhile, the teacher was oblivious to this and upon a discussion with him, thought it was great lesson.  Believe or not, this was an Honors class!!  The students were cheated on this day.  The problem in part could have been solved by moving around the classroom.
  2. The class was arranged in four learning groups. The teacher was very proud of her learning stations.  Each group was assigned a problem which required discussion and a solution to be shared with the class.  In three of the four groups, there was an adult directly involved. (Classroom teacher, Special Education Co-Teacher or Paraprofessional) The groups rotated every 10 minutes.  Each group of students when they arrived at station four, where there was no adult, took a ten-minute break.  This was a waste of time and energy.  Later, the teacher and I shared ways to solve this problem.

Both of these anecdotes speak in support of the need for the teacher to be in a proximal learning zone to the students.  By being there and by being aware and proactive, our class instruction could be better.  Teacher awareness will enhance learning.

Coupled with my theory about the proximal distance to learning is a theory on teacher passivity.  This discussion is not about the concept of active vs. passive learning.  It is about the passive teacher.  I have seen many.  They will hide behind a lecture.  They will hide behind their belief that they are giving students information, and they are answering any questions that these students may have about the topic.  This is the teacher that is going through the motions.  They do not take the time to think up new ideas, and they fail to create any sorts of projects where they can work alongside the students and guide their growth (Freeschools, 2008).

The passive teacher comes into class with low student expectations.  They fail to motivate students.  They are disinterested, disconnected, and detached (Martin, 2014).   Passive teachers are boring and will rarely connect with the students.

So why does this happen?  There are a multitude of reasons.  The easiest one to think of is that the teacher is beginning to burn out.  When this happens, it is a signal that this teacher needs to take a step back and re-charge their battery in some way.  Maybe a change in assignment or grade is called for.  Maybe it will require a change of schools.  In other cases, it might signal a change in district is needed, and for some, it might mean a change in careers is needed.  When we see, this is happening it crucial that we point it out to each other.  That is the most collegial thing we can do because many times the person experiencing it is the last to know.  It could be a health situation or a family situation.  In these cases, we need to provide the support needed to help this person through the crisis.

Another reason that comes to mind is that we tend to teach as we were taught.  If you were constantly lectured to, it will be easy for you to fall into the same pattern.  Especially if you liked and admired a teacher you had.  In this case, we must continue to drive personal professional development to help this individual change his/her pedagogy.  Our undergraduate institutions must help by providing site based internship where interns can grow and learn by experiencing the world of teaching.  You become a better teacher by teaching.  Let us break down some of the traditional walls that bind us.

I would like to close by once again referring back to what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about on numerous occasions.  It is the concept of “withitness”. This is the ability of a teacher to communicate expected behaviors to the students without ever saying a word.  It is the notion of having “eyes in the back of your head”.  To become a great teacher, you need to have “withitness”.  You develop “withitness” by teaching, teaching, and  more teaching.  In this case, practice may lead to perfection (Gladwell, 2008).

Thankfully, I have seen far more teachers that motivate, stimulate, and inspire than the passive teacher who disconnects.  I thank all of those who work to stay connected and continually change and adapt to meet the needs of our students.  Kudos to you! I am proud to have worked with you and proud to know you.


Gladwell, M. (2008).  The Most Likely to Succeed. Retrieved from

Martin, A. (2014).  The Disconnected Teacher.  Retrieved from

(2008).  http://freeschools,wordpress,com/2008/08/20/the-passive-teacher-vs-the-undogmatic-teacher.




Leadership / First Year of Teaching / Best Practice

Leadership / First Year of Teaching / Best Practice

Receiving feedback

Please do not ask, “how am I doing?”, if you do not want to know the truth!  I know this question has been posed to me many times, and the wait time before I answered seemed like an eternity.  I wasn’t prepared to tell the truth, and I know the person asking was not prepared to hear the truth.  Some organizations function on a foundation of lies.  No one tells the truth to anyone.  Likewise, some families and relationships operate in the same manner.  We will take a look at the essence of truth and trust in future posts.   But today I am going to focus on how we receive feedback.  It is a companion to last week’s article, Giving Feedback.

There is a general consensus that the first thing one should do when receiving feedback is to stop and to mentally prepare to process this new information.  Understand that this new information could be painful to hear.  Once again, people tend to like lists so I will hopefully make this easier to understand and use. It is also naturally easy to hear positive feedback. We cannot get enough of that. By reflecting on the points below, it may be easier to hear something that does not make us feel good about ourselves. Let’s call this list a Framework for Receiving Feedback.  It includes the following points:

  • Listen and do not interrupt or respond immediately. Hear what the person is saying.  You do not have to agree with it.  As a matter of fact, many times, at that moment, you will not agree with it.
  • Listen to what is being said not to how it is being said. Try to remove any preconceived bias you may have personally against the individual supplying the feedback.
  • Ask questions about what is being said. Try to repeat back and paraphrase what you are hearing.  I know many times a person did not get my message.  I know they heard it, and I thought I said it clearly.  However, we did not communicate.  I also know that some people are experts at playing dumb and twisting things to hear what they want to hear.
  • Control your body language. This can be very difficult, but it is essential.  No matter how devastated you may feel, try to keep your body and mind in the present, both calm and unemotional.  I know I have said this in past posts, but what you do not say speaks much louder than the words that come out of your mouth.  Be careful.  Do not withdraw, and do not pout.
  • Do not become combative. In most cases, you will be given an opportunity to discuss or reply.  If this reply is in written form, I caution you to be careful what you put in writing.  An emotional and perhaps immature response could come back and haunt you through your entire stay in this school, district, or business.  Never respond when you are angry or emotional.  Wait a day or two.
  • Take this opportunity to re-focus your goals or re-establish your priorities. If you receive the feedback with an open mind, it may prove to be a wonderful opportunity for growth.
  • Once you receive feedback, keep it to yourself. Of course, you may want to discuss it with a trusted friend or significant other, but in all likelihood, they will have a bias towards the favorable because of their relationship with you.  Do not use this as fodder for the school’s or business’ informal complaint room. (You know the faculty room, the water cooler, or whatever informal designated space your co-workers use to vent information they do not want the boss to hear.)
  • As you receive this feedback, although this may be difficult, try not to take it personally. Try not to be defensive about what is said.  Defending your actions will not solve anything.  Use this as an opportunity to perhaps provide solutions to what may be seen as problems.  Strategize with the person giving the feedback as to how he/she perceives your suggestions for change.
  • Do not feel compelled to fill dead time with conversation. Ideas may need a chance to percolate.
  • Always ask the person for specifics and evidence of the action being discussed. If you are able to hear what exactly you said or did with supporting evidence, it is easier to process.  I spoke last week about the need for the giver of feedback to be specific and show supporting evidence.  Obviously, it is easier to hear feedback from someone who is skillful at giving it.  (McCarthy, 2008)
  • Finally, it is important to thank the person for giving you the feedback. Feedback will allow you an opportunity to grow.  Look at it this way, the person did you a service. (Hindy, 2017)

Every piece of feedback gives you an opportunity to change.  It is up to you to take advantage of it.  Some people live in a state of denial.  No matter what they hear they convince themselves that it is not them who needs to grow. They will assert that the person giving the feedback is wrong or just doesn’t like them. I would guess that these people are miserable at work and will consistently be passed over for growth opportunities.  They will either leave the school or business on their own, be asked to leave (get fired), or exist at the minimal level of proficiency and competency and be malcontents.  How sad.  How detrimental for those that are around them.  How sad for their students!

Possess a true growth mindset.   Be able to change with the times.  Be resilient.  Learning is never terminal.  You can learn something new and something about yourself every day.  Take this information and grow.  I think you will enjoy the challenge.


Hindy, J. (2017). 8 Ways to Receive Feedback and Turn Them into Your Strengths.  Retrieved from’re-made-to-feel-unwanted-and -leave-and never-turn-back/

McCarthy, D. (2008). 18 Tips for Receiving Feedback.  Retrieved from http://greatleadershipbydan,2008/1/18-tips-for-receiving-feedback.html

Seiter,C. (2016). The Art and Science of Giving and Receiving Criticism at Work.  Retrieved from



Leadership / First Year of Teaching / Best Practice

Leadership /First year of Teaching / Best Practice

Giving Feedback

Grant Wiggins describes feedback as more than just hearing comments made after the fact, namely: advice, praise, and evaluation.  He asserts that feedback is the information we receive about how we are doing to reach a goal. (Wiggins, 2012 )  Usable feedback followed by advice should be our goal.  When giving feedback, we must be specific and non-judgmental. It sounds so easy.  Yet I have found providing usable feedback is be probably one of most difficult skills to master. This skill crosses all levels.  From my administrative perspective, providing good feedback to teachers is critical.  From a teacher’s point of view, providing the right feedback to students is essential.

Hundreds of articles and books have been written on this topic.  However, I believe that when new administrators enter the field they have little practice or knowledge in this area.  I do not recall any course being given in “principal” or “superintendent” school on the art of feedback.  I would like to hope that this has changed in our modern era, but I am not optimistic that much of a change has occurred.  I will extend my argument to assert the same may be true of teachers. How much undergraduate time is spent on this topic?  How much in district professional development time is spent on feedback?  Once again, I will argue not too much.  So basically, we fly blind in the area of feedback.  Yet, it is a critical skill.  Today I will take a quick look at some rudimentary concepts of feedback.

Feedback must be actionable.  What good is feedback if we do not process it, reflect upon it, and implement some of the advice we receive after we assess the feedback. I will share a brief anecdote.  I am a big believer in numerous short visits into a teacher’s classroom to evaluate.  I am a strong advocate of the work of Kim Marshall, if a district implements his plan as is it is supposed to be implemented.  Our current new evaluation systems, in my opinion, have not improved instruction one bit.  What they have done is made several people and companies quite rich.  I will save that discussion for another day.  The visits that Marshall talks about are extended learning walk visits.  By current policy, these would not be considered short or long observations.  Saying that, I would preach to my administrators that it is not about the walk, it is about the talk that follows.  I was trying to emphasize the importance of feedback.  One day after hearing me once again remind everyone about this, a principal chimed in and stated that it is really not about the walk or the talk it is about the action that follows.  Well done. Kudos to this principal.  He got it.  Unless behavior changes our walks and talks become useless.  But I believe that many principals purposely work to avoid that talk.

Before people can receive feedback, they must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.  Many times, feedback will fall on deaf ears because people do not really know what one’s expectations are.  Goal attainment is the end result.  Therefore, if people know and understand their goals and have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, feedback is easier to give and receive.

From conducting some personal action research, I have found that for the most part teachers do not value any feedback given to them by their administrators.   It is a little dance that everyone does.  No feelings are hurt, no truth is told, and no change in behavior is ever evidenced.  As each teacher reads this blog today, I ask he/she to think long and hard and to try to remember the last piece of good feedback given by an administrator.  Although not in the business world, I will speculate the same thing happens there. When was the last time your boss or team leader gave you feedback that you could actually use?  Once again, I will bet that you will have to dig deep into the archives of your mind to remember that moment.  I reflect upon much of the feedback that I gave over the years especially early in my career and will admit that it was for the most part unusable.  I think I improved with age but still was weak in this area.

Why does this happen?   I think the first reason is that we do not want to hurt the person’s feelings.  Everyone wants to be liked, and most people are generally congenial.  One might also worry about the ramification that may accompany what one would perceive as negative feedback.  Many times, I softly peddled my feedback because I did not want to go down the long list of nuisance activities that could accompany negative feedback such as meeting with union representation, protracted response writing, and appeals.  There were times that I made the determination that honest feedback was not worth the effort.  Upon reflection, I was wrong.  Honest feedback is clearly worth it.

Also, I strongly believe that most do not know how to give or receive feedback.  This should be incorporated in all undergraduate work, graduate work and meaningful professional development on an ongoing basis.  We will only get better by practicing this skill.  Repetitions in this area are critical.  Let’s take a lesson from the athletic field.  Athletes repeat, drill, and evaluate their practices.  We need to do the same with giving feedback.  Film a feedback session and then pick it apart.  Coaches film everything.  They evaluate everything.  Why are we reluctant to use this practice in education?

I would like to review several ideas to help you become better at giving feedback.

  • Initiate the conversation-Sometimes it might be wise to seek the person’s permission. Others times may call for directness.
  • Share what you have noticed-Explain clearly what you saw.
  • Provide specifics-Be exact with evidence of what you saw.
  • Give the person an opportunity to self-evaluate-Give the person an opportunity to provide clarity to your observation.
  • Problem solve-Ask the person to be reflective and provide alternatives to what was observed. Then you can provide your options.  Together a plan will emerge.
  • Ensure that the person understands your feedback-Be direct and check for understanding. Do not be ambiguous.  Yes, it is important to be aware of other’s feelings but do not let that mitigate or change your feedback.  You may want the person to explain back to you your feedback.  Ask the right questions of that person.
  • Explain why it is important-There is an opportunity for the teacher to internalize the feedback and make changes. It is critical that he/she understand why it is important.  (Hurt and Dye, 2017)

Feedback presented in a skillful manner will positively affect the growth of that person.  Some reminders: don’t be judgmental, be clear and specific, provide evidence, and never offer anyone any false hope or encouragement.

Practice leads to perfection.  The more you work on this skill the better you will become.  It is never easy, and it could be the hardest thing you have to do.  Keep at it. Do not give up. Do not compromise your principles or what you know is right for the easy way out!


Hurt, K. and Dye, D. (2017).  This Seven Step Guide for Dishing Out Feedback is Totally Idiot-Proof. Retrieved from

Wiggins, Grant (2012, September). Feedback for Learning. Educational Leadership,70(1). 10-16.