If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Keep Looking
Updated: Apr 23
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Sound familiar? Where I grew up in Minnesota, this was a common refrain. (“Minnesota nice” is a real thing!) But, as school leaders and coaches and, just, humans, I think we can do one better. Instead of saying nothing, I urge you to keep looking. Educators need - and deserve - authentic and intentional praise for what they are doing well, and should keep doing, as much as they need feedback on how to improve. This is even more important in our current, dynamic reality that is requiring unprecedented change and experimentation from all educators.
When I first started coaching school leaders and coaches, I quickly saw how difficult it was for many to find strengths to praise genuinely. Most leaders are looking for, and can find, dozens of areas for improvement but some of us struggle to identify even one authentic piece of positive feedback to give teachers. When I debrief with school leaders after observing classroom instruction, I often hear: “where do I even start?” And my response is almost always: “what went well?”
While this initially surprised me, it actually makes sense. In the urgency of the education world (and in a space that attracts a lot of type-A personalities), we are often quick to jump immediately to fixing any problem. (And the current shift to virtual/remote/distance learning is only exacerbating this sense of immediacy.) However, teaching is a deeply personal profession and teachers bring their whole selves to this work. If a teacher feels like you are only seeing, and looking for, what you think they are doing “wrong,” they won’t be available to receive feedback on how they could actually improve from you. On the other hand, it’s not impactful to give a compliment to just “check off the box” for praise either. However, if you are genuine and strategic, you can use praise to give effective feedback that builds off someone’s strengths! Start with what they are already doing well and help them to build their practice from there.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when looking for authentic and intentional areas to praise your teachers.
Entry point: Is the teacher starting to do the work you want them to do? Are they attempting parts of it? (For example: If you want your teacher to include a model in their instruction, maybe they’re not demonstrating yet but they do project a specific example to students. Maybe you could praise how they intentionally chose an example of the skill and then coach them in to showing, instead of just telling.)
Pre-skill: Are they proficient in a necessary pre-skill that could be a building block to what you want them to be doing? (For example: In order to include a model in their instruction, they need to have a clear and narrow objective for learning. In this case, maybe your positive feedback is on their objective and then the next step is to model the objective.)
Previous action step: Can you see evidence of progress on a specific area of previous feedback? If not mastery, where have you seen growth? (For example: If a teacher’s goal has been to shift more of the thinking on to students, doing less of the cognitive work themselves, but the teacher is still doing most of the talking & thinking, maybe you could find some specific and strong questions they posed that would require student thinking. Even if they’re not giving time for students to answer or they’re giving the answers at this point, if they’ve made growth in their questioning - name it!)
Student-Level: What are students doing, saying or demonstrating? Are there any small moments of student thinking/dialogue, engagement or classroom community that you could highlight & celebrate? (For example: Maybe you heard a specific partnership having a thoughtful turn & talk conversation that the teacher may not have witnessed. You could share what you heard and what you liked about it and then ask follow-up questions such as: What did you do to set them up for to have that level of discussion? How could you extend that practice to replicate those behaviors with your whole class?)
Artifacts: What evidence is there in the teacher’s planning or preparation that shows intentionality and thoughtfulness towards student needs and outcomes? Even if it wasn’t observed in the delivery of instruction, where are there strengths in the plan? (For example: What you observed was a lot of teacher talk but the teacher text was post-itted with student-level questions on different pages. Maybe you could praise their pre-reading and preparing of the text, assuming an intent to include dialogue and student discussion, and then address the gap between what they wanted to do and what actually happened.)
Physical Environment: Look around you - is there any evidence of strong learning in the anchor charts, student work posted, etc? Even virtually, what structures have they created to share their teaching and/or student work? What visual support are they using to anchor the learning? (For example: Maybe your teacher has set up a white board in their home where they have captured thinking steps for students to reference while they work. You could praise their use of a visual anchor to support remote work and then explore the pedagogy itself.)
As education is getting redefined and redesigned, it is more important than ever to see and acknowledge the amazing things your teachers are doing and trying to do. If used authentically and intentionally, praise not only builds trust but is also a springboard to continued development. So, next time you don’t have anything good to say...keep looking!