Feedback often feels like criticism. But what if we used it as an opportunity to grow?
In third grade, I had my own time-out chair in the principal’s office. My exuberant chattiness, combined with an 8-year-old’s lack of social filter frequently earned me a trip to that chair that sat in the corner facing the clock.
My face would burn with shame as I trudged down the long hall. As I sat and waited for the loud ticking of the clock to signal my release, I would try to figure out what I’d done wrong. Sometimes it was obvious: Nathan’s story hadn’t “gone to the dogs” as I’d loudly proclaimed. (But it had just seemed like the perfect punchline to the joke when my teacher had asked…‘Where has your story gone?…’)
Other times, many times, I was completely bewildered. I’d do my time, and then return to the flow of the classroom, as if I’d never left, edgy and bracing for my next invisible (to me) infraction.
Based upon the frequency of these visits, I doubt they were learning experiences. Instead, they were punitive, spirit-crushing time-outs; lost opportunities for growth.
As an educator feedback is crucial to our success
Just like our students need to know what the expectations are, how they’re progressing, and which areas they need to improve in, teachers also need clear expectations and feedback in order to grow in our practice. But aside from the routine teacher evaluation process, opportunities to reflect on our practice are rare. Often, it’s hallway conversations or reactions from parents that let us know how we’re doing.
Many times, we receive helpful suggestions, great ideas, or revealing observations from these interactions. But sometimes, feedback comes in the form of anger, frustration, or dissatisfaction. This hurts. We care deeply about our work. We put in countless hours of careful planning to help our students learn and grow. So when we are faced with these complaints, it’s easy to become defensive and dismissive.
We may have the best intentions…but that’s not always enough
As a teacher, I wanted to nurture the development of citizens engaged in creating sustainable and just communities. I used project- and place- based education to help my students understand the interconnectedness of the world.
One such project, which didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped, was the Apple Journeys project.
My students would research and map the routes two apples took to arrive at our local grocery store: one from Washington state, and one from an orchard just up the road. We would consider all the inputs and outputs along the way — the energy used to fuel the transportation, to jobs created, the pollution generated, the energy our bodies receive from this food.
I wouldn’t tell my students which apple was “better”, but my hope was that through this exploration they would come to understand interconnectedness, the concept often explained as, “we all live upstream, we all live downstream.”
I hoped my students would understand that every choice we make as consumers has an impact; each choice ripples out in previously unconsidered ways. So, I hoped, my students would become thoughtful and astute consumers and citizens.
At first, the project seemed to be a success.
My students were excited to share their maps and learning with the school at our weekly all school meeting. I was so proud that I had immersed my students in an engaging, hands-on, place-based project where they could grapple with the ideas of systems-thinking and interconnectedness.
And then a parent wanted to talk to me.
We need also to tend to outcomes
For a long time, the words “I need to talk to you,” struck fear in my heart. That same old bewilderment and fear would wash over me as I tried to determine what I’d done wrong. My palms would sweat and my heartbeat would quicken as I braced myself for the attack and shame. But slowly, I’ve learned that if I can stay curious and present during the interaction, often what I need to know will be revealed.
My face flushed and my throat tightened as I listened to that parent.
Their child had come home and exclaimed that their family needed to buy only local apples. The parent questioned the child to learn where this had come from, and the child shared about our project, and his conclusion that it was local apples or no apples. The parent probed further and discovered that the child had interpreted this lesson literally, and missed the nuance of choice and responsibility. Further, the parent did not share my views and was quite irate that I was “bringing (my) agenda” into the classroom.
As I sat there, fighting the hot tears of shame welling in my eyes, I tried to explain my intent: that I only wanted to help my students understand that our choices matter, and we have a responsibility to make the best choice we can given the circumstances of a particular situation.
Sometimes the lesson you thought you were teaching wasn’t the lesson your students were learning
But I also recognized that I was getting important information.
And I thanked that parent for the feedback. Despite my good intentions, the lesson was not clear to at least one of my students. Where had the disconnect happened? Had other students left with the same misunderstanding? Was my goal developmentally appropriate for my students? Was I teaching values or critical thinking skills?
Despite the thorny tone of the feedback, I was grateful for the opportunity to critically reflect. I wanted to get better at my job. After a bit of contemplation, I decided to check in with my students. I brainstormed a series of questions to help guide them to a broader understanding of the implications of our learning, namely that the choices we make depend on both our personal circumstances, as well as the consequences of our actions. Sometimes, buying the non-local apple might make sense, like if you’re hungry and it’s the more affordable option, or local apples aren’t available.
Note to self: sometimes the lesson you thought you were teaching wasn’t the lesson your students were learning.
It takes #everydaycourage to open ourselves to negative feedback
These discordant moments of feedback can be scary. We bring our hearts to work with us each day, and criticism can feel crushing. But if we can stay present and curious, and lean in to the discomfort, these moments can often show us something we couldn’t see before. If we listen closely, they can offer us glimpses of our practice and our selves that are invisible to us.
Recently a colleague offered me some honest yet hard to hear feedback. I wanted to pull up my defenses, I wanted to make excuses and dismiss her, but I couldn’t. Her candor and courage to share her observations with me invited me to lean in, stay curious, and hear her perspective. I recognized truth in her words. Those words offered me an opportunity to honestly reflect, recognize, and revise my work and myself.
No matter how it arrives, feedback is there to offer us an opportunity to learn, reflect, and grow. When we notice our heart pounding, or catch our temper stir, that’s the cue to take a deep breath, put our egos to the side, and listen. Be curious, and open. Ask questions, probing into the feedback. Reiterate what you’re hearing, seek clarity. Change the track in your head from “what did I do wrong?” to “how can I learn from this?” It’s still scary.
But it feels right, doesn’t it?
How do you remain open to feedback in your teaching practice?