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"Rethinking Feedback: Goodbye Red Pen!"

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

For years, my best friends were red pens. They were on my desk, at the bottom of my purse, or in my hand. As an English teacher, I constantly marked papers, essays, and homework via the red pen. Every error saw red ink. Together, we were relentless—obsessed. After all, feedback is essential for students to improve—isn’t it?

As educators, we know that providing frequent, accurate, specific, and timely feedback (FAST) is a key element in the learning process (Mounce 2014). Grant Wiggins suggests that there should be less teaching and more feedback (2012). I felt duty bound to give feedback regularly. And I did so, over and over again and usually with a red pen.

At one point, I wanted to see if students were paying attention to the feedback that I had given them on an essay I assigned. So, I returned papers with feedback but did not give a grade. UPROAR! Students were so dissatisfied (and rightly so) that I promised to give a grade if they applied one element of the feedback provided. They dutifully revised their papers for the ultimate reinforcement—a grade.

The Grade was All that Mattered.

As I reflect on this experience (and hours of my life spent grading papers), I realized that giving feedback to students was simply a ritual in the life of a school. It had great meaning for me but little for them. Ironically, I thought I was pretty good at it, too!

Reflecting on Feedback:

Today, as an administrator, I give feedback regularly to teachers when I visit their classrooms for observations. As a profession, we believe that the clinical supervision model used in schools leads to improvement of instruction and better outcomes for students. So my question is, if teachers, like my former students, do not consider my feedback of any value, will there be improvement in instruction?


This following episode prompted me to reflect. I made an unannounced observation in a class where most students knew little to no English. The first 15 minutes was spent in SSR (sustained silent reading). It took about 13 minutes for students to settle down. Following SSR, the teacher spent 45 minutes on one vocabulary page in a workbook. Three students in the back of the room talked in Spanish. Another student, who was talking, was asked to come to the front of the room. He complied. Yet another student began eating Doritos. After class, we began the obligatory post-observation conference. A sense of dread came over me.

I decided not to discuss her plan or delivery. Instead I focused on the learning environment. I asked her if students were involved in developing classroom expectations. She stated that she gave them her expectations at the beginning of the year. In short, I suggested that she engage them in creating norms for the learning environment so that everyone could do his/her best work. I also stated that if she didn’t get the class under control, they would drive her crazy by March. Apparently, I took a step too far. Later that week, I got a message from the union who told me that my comments were condescending. I was trying to help. In essence, hearing someone else’s truth hurt. Trust was broken.

Getting Better at Feedback:

Providing a definition of feedback is one way to start. Grant Wiggins (2012) says it best: “The term feedback is often used to describe all kinds of comments made after the fact, including advice, praise, and evaluation. But none of these are feedback, strictly speaking. Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.”

Taking a more constructivist view, feedback can be viewed as a systematic approach where learning is co-produced in a professional exchange (Specter, et. al.). In this sense, feedback is generated through two-way communication, not one person giving information to another.

I believe that many administrators, like myself, simply transferred the methods from what we previously gave students in our classroom to our current work with teachers in our schools. Although red pens are no longer visible, they can emerge with stinging consequences.

Feedback and our egos are closely connected. In the end, our feedback leads to some sort of an assessment (or grade) that rates a teacher’s performance. If the feedback is worthy, it should help teachers and students improve. However, when our ego gets in the way, it emphasizes the power differential between teacher and administrator. As was the case with my red pen, I was telling the ELL teacher what to do by virtue of my authority.

Rethinking Feedback:

I have come to the conclusion that many administrators have not been adequately schooled in how to give feedback to teachers in collaborative ways. Many of us know little about feedback theory and as such, the information shared may be generated from a specific teacher evaluation model. We might even engage in our personal pet peeves. Good heavens! So, what are we to do?

One strategy to explore is Hattie and Timperley’s model of feedback as follows:

- Where am I going?—Feed Up

- How am I going?—Feed Back

- Where to next?—Feed Forward. (2007)

Consider methods where the focus is on gathering data on the students’ learning experience (Feed Up) and set goals with the teacher to look at student work products (Feed Forward).

Another method I found valuable is to ask administrators to shadow one’s practice and observe giving teachers feedback. How did it look and feel? What worked and what didn’t? We should give one another feedback on our methods of giving feedback for calibration purposes. Lastly, filming ourselves during a post-observation conference may be beneficial. (Where to next? Feed Forward).


The tone of our messages matters. Whether we communicate it intentionally or not, the things we say to teachers can be interpreted as hurtful. We must communicate respect for the teacher and her efforts with students. Teaching is a complex, human interaction between one adult and many learners. It’s a tall order to make it all work seamlessly.

Feedback methods need to evolve. It’s not about the grade nor is it about the evaluator’s score. It’s about growth. It’s time to ditch red pens, put egos aside, and create opportunities together.

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January 7, 2021

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