Start With Appreciation – Further Thoughts on Language of Leadership

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about the language we use as leaders, and I had a few more thoughts I wanted to share…

Recently my good friend @AmyIllingworth and I had the opportunity to present a full day workshop to a group of new and aspiring principals on “Monitoring Implementation of the Common Core”. One component of our workshop focuses on the critical responsibility of principals to visit classrooms often and to provide coaching and feedback that motivates and inspires.  As part of our seminar, we shared ideas about what to look for during classroom visits and ways to provide meaningful feedback. We also watched video clips of classroom teachers and their students during lessons and asked the participants to diagnose what they saw in the lesson and practice giving feedback.

As participants started this task, we were a little bit disheartened with some of the comments we heard.  They were judgmental and their was a distinct lack of language that showed appreciation for any aspects of the lesson which ultimately led to uninspiring feedback. None of the lessons we watched was perfect, but what lesson ever is? Each lesson we observed had moments  that might be worthy of discussion on how to strengthen and enhance the experience for the students, but every one of them had moments that deserved appreciation.


If you find yourself in a role where you are fortunate enough to be in classrooms often and provide feedback through coaching, then language of true appreciation is essential.  As an observer of thousands of lessons in my career, I have yet to see a single lesson where there weren’t several things to appreciate. No, they have not all been award-winning lessons, but they have ALL had merit and value that was deserving of kind words and appreciation.

In the first lesson we watched, a middle school social studies teacher was trying the strategy of close reading with a text.  Admittedly, it was not a “perfect” lesson and didn’t go exactly as I’m sure she would have liked, but it was NOT deserving of harsh criticism and negative judgment.  Here are just some of the things Amy and I noticed and appreciated about the teacher and her lesson:

  • We appreciated that the teacher allowed a camera into her room to film her lesson
  • We appreciated she was taking a risk and trying a new strategy
  • We appreciated she was trying to give more ownership of the learning to the students
  • We appreciated she was structuring time for students to talk to each other about a complex text
  • We appreciated she tried to have kids use context clues to figure out word meanings
  • We appreciated that as she was checking in with the groups, she noticed when they were struggling, and when she did, she brought them back together whole group to model her thinking as she read the piece to them
  • We appreciated she identified the major error the kids were making and adjusted her instruction to try to help them through their struggle

And we appreciated a lot more!

Was this the most polished close reading lesson I’ve ever seen? No. Could her lesson have used refinement? Absolutely. My guess is she knew that before anyone else since as educators we are often our own worst critics!

The teaching of new standards, trying new strategies, doing something different, takes practice, reflection, feedback, refinement, more practice, more feedback, more reflection and so on.  If we don’t notice and appreciate the risk-taking, the practices, the approximation, the trying on of new things, and instead we judge best efforts and first attempts as poor or unsatisfactory – many teachers will stop trying and fall back on the things they already know, and we will sit back and wonder why nothing is changing in our classrooms and schools.

If as leaders we want to promote risk-taking and trying new things, then we shouldn’t judge the practices! Appreciate the approximations, and provide coaching, support, and new learning that inspires growth, motivates new thinking, and reminds teachers that they are the magic and they are capable of making miracles happen for kids in their classrooms everyday.


6 thoughts on “Start With Appreciation – Further Thoughts on Language of Leadership

  1. In our modern culture it is SO easy to see the failings. Criticism is part of our daily diet in newspaper, magazine, radio and TV ads. And sometimes the culture of our staff rooms and lunchrooms reflect this as we gang up on the latest political gaff or errant TV personality. It becomes downright dangerous when negative talk is leveled at fellow Ts… or Ss.
    So I appreciate your viewpoint and the length you go to explain how to look for the positive and the affirming. After all, studies tell us that the school culture directly influences the level of achievement in the school: that unity among staff is a key measure of a positive school culture. Without a fundamental trust, a surety of appreciation, how can the learner fell free to take risks, to “fail forward”?
    I’ve heard it said that Trust is the foundation of all virtues. If so, appreciation is the visible form of that trust which we need to practice in order to build and sustain our school culture for optimum results.

  2. How true! I know that in my work as principal I had to listen so much more and not jump to conclusions as to how to make a lesson “better”. I also know that the power of my words can make a positive and negative effect…based on the words I use. Trust is huge in giving feedback and I believe that without it, words are just words with no value. I learned all of this from you Shelley and for this I will always be grateful! Bring on the approximations:). We all need words of encouragement and support. I miss you.

  3. Loved your post. So often we focus, and rightly so, on giving feedback to our students, yet forget we teachers need constructive feedback as well. I would never attempt to provide areas of improvement for a student where I didn’t first begin with aspects I found working particularly well. We teachers are the same way. We know not every aspect of a lesson is always going to be as great as we hoped. However, we receive constructive criticism so much better when we know you noticed the good parts as well. When trust and compassion are present we all improve which directly benefits our students. I’m always impressed at the compassion you have for all you interact with. On Twitter you are so welcoming to each chat we both participate (I’m @dkmartin69 on Twitter.)

  4. Amen ! Our teachers are amazing and I have had the priviledge of knowing a few who went above and beyond my expectations in their efforts to reach my student w autism .Thank you teachers….for your time, IN & OUT of the classroom,the patience to perservere,the energy it takes to inspire students as well as your peers.Thank you for believing in our students while leading the way with

    keys that will allow our children to open doors to a hopeful future where a myriad of possibilities and opportunity awaits.

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