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Who Knew Feedback Could Be So Complex? Peer Cohorts Help Faculty Grow

 Being the professionals they are, Graland faculty are eager to receive feedback and want it from multiple sources. This truth was gleaned from a faculty survey completed in 2017 as a task force delved into creating a more effective faculty evaluation system, now being implemented as part of Graland’s new Faculty Growth Feedback Model. It includes both a formal evaluation process and a professional development model we call “peer cohorts” which was created in part to satisfy faculty’s thirst for feedback. 
According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of the book Thanks for the Feedback, “Feedback-seeking behavior - as it’s called in the research literature - has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover,” all things we value as a school. 
Graland’s peer cohort model includes goal setting, peer observations, non-evaluative peer feedback and reflection. Each cohort includes five cross-divisional educators, ensuring teachers receive feedback from a variety of voices and perspectives. Throughout the year, each member visits the other members’ classrooms, sharing what they appreciated about the lesson, what they noticed (factual) and any questions that arose. Grade 5 science teacher Andy Dodge has found value in his peer cohort stating, “For the first time ever, I’m receiving input from an unlikely group; yet because we trust one another, the feedback feels genuine. There is no judgment.”

As Andy noted, relational trust is critical when it comes to being open to learning from colleagues. To support the success of the peer cohorts, time on professional development days is dedicated to building relationships and learning how best to receive feedback from others. As it turns out, receiving feedback is more complicated than giving it. Stone and Heen point out that there are barriers that inhibit one’s ability to hear and internalize feedback from others. The authors call these “triggers.” 

Certain triggers are activated due to the relationship between the feedback giver and receiver.  Others are stimulated by the content of the information shared and our belief that what the feedback giver is telling us simply is not true. Finally, feedback sometimes stirs insecurities we have about ourselves; that self-doubt can inhibit our ability to even hear what another person is saying, effectively blocking our own growth. Teachers at Graland are learning the importance of managing their own feedback resistance and how to lean into the conversation with confidence and curiosity.

Although teachers give feedback to students all the time, there is a sense of vulnerability that goes along with opening our professional practice up to critique from colleagues even after we’ve come to understand our personal trigger points. University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work research professor Brené Brown has spent her career researching vulnerability, courage, shame and empathy. She notes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Due to the support, ideas, feedback and encouragement faculty receive from fellow teachers, we believe peer cohorts will ultimately build teachers’ confidence to be even more collaborative, innovative and creative in the classroom.

Third grade teacher Cole Hamilton welcomes the feedback: “The most valuable piece of the peer cohort for me has been reexamining my practice through someone else’s lens. We all have blind spots in our teaching, and sometimes the best way to find them is to invite someone into your space whose day-to-day classroom experience is miles different from your own so they can shine a light right on it. There’s no telling what a kindergarten teacher, an art teacher or a middle school science teacher will see during the same lesson in my room, but you can be sure they’ll all see something different and worth thinking about.”

Graland’s peer cohorts were created for three reasons: to build a stronger professional culture grounded in growth and collaboration; to give faculty the opportunity to engage in frequent conversation about their teaching practice; and to allow for more feedback, from more people, more often. Peer cohorts and our focus on feedback help us, as educators, continue to hone our professional craft and also push our comfort levels as we come to better understand ourselves as learners as well as feedback givers and receivers. 
With a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Colorado, Gail Sonnesyn manages Graland’s professional development and faculty recruitment efforts while assisting the Head of School in day-to-day school affairs. Her twin daughters, Sara and Megan Hill, graduated from Graland in 2012 and are now college juniors.

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.