The Courage to Seek Authentic Feedback

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We assess students’ work and behavior every day. We are professional feedback-givers, dispensing grades, advice, support, and red ink with frequency and aplomb. We believe that substantive, high-quality feedback will make them proficient readers, better writers, more intuitive mathematicians. In short, we believe in the power of feedback to communicate what students are doing well and how they can do better.

So why is it that we teachers shy away from opportunities for feedback on our own work? Why don’t we actively seek comment on our teaching from colleagues, supervisors, students, or their parents? Why do we so often convince ourselves that we work best in isolation or that observation would hamper our instruction?

I know why. It’s fear. As a middle and high school English teacher, I can say unequivocally that nothing has made me more uncomfortable than having a supervisor sitting in my classroom, scribbling away on his or her legal pad as I teach. But this is no excuse for not welcoming feedback, which I have come to recognize as vital to good teaching.

Despite my fear and discomfort over the process—I never want supervisors to say anything bad about what they see—the truth is that I’ve always found much of the feedback from evaluations very helpful. (I learned, for example, that I don’t use the board much from one supervisor’s observation). And learning to leave my comfort zone to see through the eyes of other educators has brought many benefits as well.

But over the years, I have found that the best feedback comes from students. Every school I’ve taught in has encouraged student feedback by administering those end-of-course evaluation forms on which students respond to questions about the teacher, course materials, and homework load. At one school, the evaluations were sealed in an envelope and delivered to the head of each department without teachers’ seeing them. My department head never shared the results with me or other teachers. Maybe we had done well, maybe not. Who knew? Not exactly a good use of feedback.

Neither is the practice of asking for feedback at the end of a course. Why don’t we offer students the chance to have a say in their courses as they’re enrolled in them, so that we can make changes as needed? I started doing midterm evaluations on my own years ago, promoting them to students as a chance to have a say in how the course is run. I’ve found this feedback infinitely more honest, detailed, and helpful than the end-of-course reviews, which come at a time when students have less incentive to be constructive in their criticism. Midterm feedback can have real benefits, for both student and teacher.

Once, I was teaching a class on writing problems to seniors. In it, we reviewed key points of grammar and writing mechanics. The midterm feedback revealed that, while a few students thought we were doing too much grammar (a finding that didn’t surprise me), many others felt we weren’t doing enough. I shared this with the class, and it helped dispel the sentiment that “the whole class” wanted less grammar when it was actually less than half. The students who were “pro-grammar” were able to sway their peers, and so we adapted the course accordingly. I have found that students appreciate the fact that their feedback is read and acted on in real time. The course then becomes theirs in a way that feels authentic.

The best feedback mechanism of all, though, is one that a colleague tipped me off to about five years ago.

First a little context: I had always asked students for honest feedback on evaluations, insisting that I did not try to identify them by their handwriting. Yet when the tables were turned—when I was asked to fill out an evaluation on how well the school’s administration had run new-faculty orientation—I froze. “Will they recognize my handwriting?” I wondered. In the end, I was too afraid to be as honest as I wanted to be, because I worried that the administration would single me out later. This taught me an important lesson in how honest my students’ feedback had really been up to that point.

"Why don't we offer students the chance to have a say in their courses as they're enrolled in them so that we can make the changes as needed?"

My colleague told me that she wrote an extensive course-evaluation form and sent it by e-mail to all her students. Then she took the class to the computer lab one day, waited outside while they completed the evaluations, and assigned one student to collect the printed-out copies and hand them to her—all typed and totally anonymous.

The first time I tried this was with a class I felt had great rapport with. I anticipated fairly positive evaluations. But while I did get a lot of positive feedback, I was surprised by how many students voiced real concerns about grading, favoritism, and appropriateness of course materials. It was both sobering and enlightening. I realized I had been kidding myself all these years—I hadn’t been getting truly honest feedback, just slightly honest feedback.

Once I swallowed my pride (it’s about being a better teacher, not being loved, I reminded myself), I vowed never to do course evaluations any other way.

And I’ve never had a negative experience—no student taking advantage of anonymity to rail against me in a hurtful way. That may still happen, but I’m willing to take the risk because the quality of the feedback is so much better when the comments are anonymous. I actually learn from it, where before I thought it was reaffirming, or dismissed it out of hand as axe-grinding. Now, I take the feedback, go to the students, and say, “A lot of you felt this way, and I hear you. Let’s see if we can change that aspect of the course.”

I was among the lucky teachers. Early in my career, I was encouraged to seek feedback often, and I never had time to settle into a deep-seated fear of it. Now I crave feedback, and wouldn’t know how to teach well without it. But I understand how many teachers, especially those who’ve rarely if ever had good feedback, must feel about it.

A part of all of us wants only to hear good things about what we do. But that part is not the teacher, but the child in us. The teacher truly wants to keep learning how to be better, and feedback is a mechanism for doing that.

Regular, authentic feedback is one of the best forms of professional development. It’s free, easy, not time-consuming, and it pays big dividends. Teachers should shake off their fear and welcome it into their classrooms. If we want to be serious about students’ learning, we need to be serious about our own. We need to continually seek and accept ideas, help, and criticism. Feedback works.

Vol. 30, Issue 08, Pages 19, 21

Published in Print: October 20, 2010, as The Courage to Seek Authentic Feedback
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