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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Dear principal, this is why your feedback is ineffective

Photo by Monstera Production

A scenario like this plays out in schools across the country almost every day.

Principal Smith conducted a brief, spot observation for one of her teachers, Ms. Jones. At the end of the day, Principal Smith catches up with Ms. Jones to give her feedback on the observation. "Ms. Jones, thanks for letting me come into your classroom today. I was pleased, as always, that you were on pace with the curriculum guide and your students were engaged. My job is to grow you, so let me give you some quick upgrades and next steps based on what I saw." Somewhere in the midst of the final sentence, Ms. Jones' body language screams STOP! Her arms cross, she takes a small step back, and a frown contorts her mouth. While Principal Smith continues on with her flood of suggestions, they wash harmlessly off Ms. Jones' defenses, like ocean waves endlessly pounding, but never breaching, a sea wall.

Where did Principal Smith go wrong? She started off with some glows rather than jumping straight into the grows. The end result, however, was be the same as if she approached Ms. Jones aggressively and began berating her in the teacher's lounge - resistance and defiance.

Approach vs avoid

In a seminal paper published in the NeuroLeadership Journal in 2008, David Rock posited a model of human behavior extremely important for anyone who works closely with others in social situations (e.g., principals and teachers). The SCARF model leverages neuroscience research that shows that much of the motivation driving our social behavior comes from a desire to minimize threats and maximize rewards. More importantly, many domains of social experience draw on the same brain networks used for primary survival needs.

In the brain, social needs are treated in the same way as survival needs such as food and water.

These domains help drive our approach-avoid response. The same levers that help us immediately jump from a striped serpent slithering toward us, due to our unconscious mind labeling it a threat, also help us avoid a boss that is undermining our credibility. Unfortunately, when our brains are in an avoid response state, it can have a large impact on our cognitive performance, making it harder to solve complex problems and more likely that we'll make mistakes.

Threat response

An avoid response has detrimental neurological effects because the resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex decrease. We literally have less oxygen and glucose available for brain functions involved in working memory. Thus, it's harder to answer your boss when she's yelling at you. Also, being threatened inhibits your ability to perceive subtle signals needed for solving complex, non-linear problems.

When the threat response is activated, it means that the amygdala, a part of the brain's limbic system, is calling the shots. It plays a central role in remembering whether something should be approached or avoided and activates proportionally to the strength of the emotional response. The activation of the amygdala tends to cause us to generalize more, increasing the likelihood of overreaching in our connections and associations in our problem solving. We also tend to react defensively to innocuous stimuli, turning molehills into mountains because of our stress.

The amygdala is a hypervigilant watchdog, always on the lookout for threats. In fact, our brains are inherently attuned to threats. The avoid response generates far more arousal in our brains, more quickly and with longer lasting effects, than the approach response.

To help contextualize the avoid-approach response, David Rock proposed a five-domain model that examines this response in the areas of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness (SCARF).


Status is about relative importance, or the social "pecking order." Whether it be in a large organization or in a quick conversation, our brains are always calculating where we stand socially - above, below, or on level with others. Social rejection, such as being left out of an activity, lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Threatening someone's status is actually easy to do. Giving advice, instructions, feedback, or even suggesting that someone is slightly ineffective at a task can turn everyday conversations into arguments.

In most people, the question 'can I offer you some feedback' generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night.

In the opening vignette, Ms. Jones' amygdala perceived a threat with Principal Smith started talking about some "quick upgrades". Ms. Jones felt her status drop and her defense systems activated. If feedback causes most people to feel threatened, how are principals supposed to fulfill their mandates to lead instruction on their campuses?

Knowing that there is already a power imbalance due to position, teachers can be hypervigilant for any status change in relation to their supervisor and offering feedback might trigger an avoid response. Rather than jumping straight into feedback based on a short observation, principals can instead lead with reflective questions that open up the possibility for self-discovery and insight.

Leading with inquiries rather than statements helps preserve a person's sense of status. If asked with general openness rather than as an avenue for attack, they help the teacher maintain their importance and not become triggered by a perceived social threat. Here are some questions to start with when offering feedback to teachers.

1. How would you rate the effectiveness of that lesson on a scale of 1 - 10?

Ask the teacher to rate him/herself but refuse the temptation to immediately follow up their answer with your own rating. It doesn't matter so much what you think as to how effective they though their lesson was. When they answer, ask several follow-up questions to probe their response:

What made it a [number]?

Why didn't you think it was higher?

What would it take to get from a [number] to a 10?

2. What part of the lesson was most effective? Why?

3. What part of the lesson do you think could be upgraded? Why?

Here is where you, as the instructional leader, have an opportunity to enter the conversation. As long as the teacher's threat response has not been activated (hint: pay close attention to body language and non-verbal cues), they will typically want to hear from you at this point. After giving themselves accolades and upgrades, the conversation might open up to the point where you can share the floor with them without causing an avoid response.

Even if that doesn't happen, the use of reflective questions shifts the cognitive burden from you to the teacher. It's the teacher that needs to make the connections between ineffective teaching practices and poor results, not you. When they make their own discoveries between causes and effects, they are much more empowered to follow up on any action steps because they had a hand in creating them.


Our brains are pattern-recognition machines that are constantly trying to predict the near future. The more the brain can operate on auto-pilot, the more resources it can keep ready for more important functions. We've all experienced this on the morning commute to work. There are days when we arrived at the office and, having taken the same route for the 400th time, don't recall how exactly we got there. It was so routine that we navigated based on past experience rather than on fresh data. Instead, we daydreamed, listened to our morning podcast, or did a number of other activities.

Without prediction, our brains must use dramatically more resources, including the prefrontal cortex, to process the moment-to-moment experience. That takes more energy and our brain avoids that at all costs. Whatever can be automated is automated in our daily experiences. When uncertainty generates an "error" response, it forces attention to the error. It's like having the check engine light coming on during your drive - it's kind of hard to ignore.

To mitigate uncertainty and the avoid response it generates, principals can clearly communicate instructional look fors before a set of observations. I'm not advocating that principals schedule spot observations, for that would lend itself to manipulation and dog-and-pony shows. Instead, share with the teacher what part of the lesson you are looking at. The opportunities are numerous:

  • Posted learning objectives

  • Alignment between learning objectives and instruction

  • Pacing of the lesson

  • Student engagement

  • Student discourse

  • Differentiation

  • Lesson internalization

  • Fidelity to the curriculum

  • Rigor

  • Behavior management

While I could go on, I hope the point is made. A lot happens within a lesson and going in to observe without a focus can cause confusion and uncertainty.

In the opening vignette, Ms. Jones might have given herself a decent score if asked to reflect on her lesson (e.g., 8 out of 10) because she had tried a new engagement technique and the students had done fairly well. If Principal Smith's feedback instead focused on the lack of posted learning objectives or the fact that she had inserted some additional resources to spice up the lesson, there would be an instant mismatch in her brain and the "error" response would flare up.

Creating and sharing a set of look fors has multiple benefits. First, it narrows the focus for the observer. Second, it reduces uncertainty on the part of the teacher because now she knows what the principal will be on the lookout for when she pops in. This increases the effectiveness of feedback because the topic of the feedback has already been broached and any subsequent upgrades suggested by the principal are to be expected.


This domain is your perception of having choices, of being able to exert control over your environment. Having increased autonomy feels rewarding while decreased autonomy increases stress.

This often shows up in education, as it does in many other industries, in how someone is managed. When your supervisor overcontrols your actions, or micromanages you, it creates a threat response and often has disastrous results. Rather than implement any suggestions, most employees fume and focus their attention on reestablishing some semblance of control.

In the opening vignette, Principal Smith is completely in control of the conversation. She starts with some praises but then keeps plowing through, obliterating any chance for Ms. Jones to contribute or even respond. Not only are the upgrades controlled by Principal Smith, she also mentions that she's going to give Ms. Jones some next steps.

Ms. Jones had little control over this situation. With the power imbalance that already existed between them due to their relative positions, Ms. Smith had to stand and take whatever Principal Smith threw at her. Not even having the ability to choose how to respond, but instead having her next steps decided for her, was most likely the last straw.

Everyone likes choices. One way Principal Smith could have preserved her teacher's autonomy would have been to allow Ms. Jones to reflect on the feedback and the ask her what reactions she had, including how to process and incorporate the feedback. She could have invited Ms. Jones to propose some possible next steps.

Sometimes principals have pressing concerns that need to be addressed. If there are serious behavioral issues in a classroom, it's counterproductive if the teacher processes the feedback and decides to update her bulletin boards. In this instance, the principal could instead offer some options and then ask for the teacher's input about which one they'd like to implement first.

For example, if a teacher is dealing with serious behavioral issues, the principal might say, "Based on this, I think there are several options for moving forward. I could work with you to plan out your activities so they minimize downtime. The assistant principal could model how to clearly set expectations and monitor them during a task. Additionally, you could work closely with your mentor teacher to utilize positive reinforcement to minimize negative behavior. Of these three options, which one seems like the best place to start?"


Being "in" or "out" of the social group can make a world of difference. With relatedness, our brains are on the look out for signs for belonging.

In the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response.

Meeting someone unknown can even generate an automatic threat response. Think about the last time you went to a meeting, party, or event where you knew no one or only one or two people. It was most likely nerve wracking, even scary, until you ran into someone you knew. Once you saw a friendly face, a different neurological reaction occurred.

When you connect with other people, the brain releases oxytocin, a naturally produced hormone that increases connective behavior. This wonderful brain stimulant can be triggered with a handshake, talking about the weather, or even just discussing something held in common. When you connect with someone, you trust them more and they become part of your "in" group, even if temporarily. This increases relatedness and creates an approach response.

In the opening vignette, Principal Smith bullied her way through any connection and got straight to the heart of the matter. By jumping directly to the punchline, there was no time to form connections and increase Ms. Jones' chance of an approach response.

Before getting down to business, Principal Smith could have started with small talk, asked a question about Ms. Jones' family, or even discussed the upcoming football game (if Ms. Jones is a fan). By providing a little time to connect as humans, you can do much to grease the wheels of the later conversation. Don't step over the touchy-feely stuff but instead first see the other person as a whole person with aspirations, feelings, faults, and strengths. If Principal Smith had taken a few moments to engage with Ms. Smith the human, it would have been easier to create an approach response when she needed to give feedback to Ms. Smith the teacher.


Fair exchanges are intrinsically rewarding. The need for fairness drives us to sometimes make irrational decisions. For example, studies at UCLA showed that when participants split a dollar fairly and each got $0.50, it generated more of a reward response in the brain that when an unfair split resulted in one participant receiving $10.00 and the other participant receiving $40.00. A fair split of a dollar was viewed more favorably than receiving a reward 20 times as great.

When the rules are enforced in an inconsistent manner, that registers as a threat in our brains. Different expectations amongst grade levels, some teachers getting written up for minor infractions while others seemingly slide while committing grievous errors, and hypocrisy all play a part in generating an approach or avoid response.

One aspect of fairness that can easily be managed with the right mindset is the area of intent.

People tend to judge themselves by their intentions but others by their actions.

When something goes wrong during a lesson, such as a poorly planned transition or a low-level task, it's too easy to attribute that to poor intentions. Maybe the teacher is lazy, or disinterested, or simply is a substandard educator. When filling in the blanks as to why issues occurred during the observed lesson, we naturally provide a narrative that explains what we are seeing. When we attribute negative intentions, it's sure to trigger an avoid response because it will be perceived as patently unfair (which it is).

To combat this, principals can stop and presume positive intent when trying to create an internal dialogue about why the lesson turned out like it did. If the transition didn't go smoothly, it's better to presume that the educator planned out the transition and it simply didn't go according to plan. When the learning task is too low or lacks rigor, presume that the educator previously studied the task and knows her student data. Instead, their was another reason that caused the mismatch, but it wasn't due to a lack of effort.

In all honesty, we don't know the true intentions of anyone. We can make educated guesses but that's all. Why not have a bias toward presuming the best in others? This helps us avoid triggering an avoid response due to unfair attributions.

In the opening vignette, Principal Smith could have combined presumed positive intent with reflective questions. Assuming some of the feedback revolved around a slow transition and a low-level task, here are some examples.

1. I noticed the transition took longer than you planned on. What do you think went wrong?

2. Knowing that smooth transitions help keep the students on track, how are you processing today's transition?

3. It's evident that you took care to plan out your lesson today, including the task. What are your thoughts on its match with the needs of the students?

4. I noticed that some students finished early with the task and you are always purposeful in matching the task with the time frame. What are your thoughts on how to make adjustments based on today's lesson?

Putting it altogether

Rarely will principals trigger an avoid response in all five SCARF domains within a single conversation. All it takes is one trigger, however, to derail a productive conversation and reduce it to resentment and compliance.

One way to keep teachers' brains calm and open is to plan out feedback conversations using the steps below.

1. Communicate what you're looking for ahead of time. This will frame the subsequent conversation and reduce uncertainty.

2. Start with a trust connection. Approach the person first and the educator second. When people feel seen and heard, they are much more open and connected (relatedness).

3. Use reflective questions that presume positive intent. Instead of battering teachers with your own conclusions, allow them space to reflect and connect their own dots. While probing, always presume positive intent. Using these two tools in tandem with reduce threat responses to status and fairness.

4. To conclude the conversation, mutually create and agree upon next steps. Let the teacher clearly enunciate what they'll do as a result of the feedback, while you continue to probe for clarity. This will maintain their autonomy and increase the likelihood that they'll actually implement the upgrades.

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