Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

The Courage to Seek Authentic Feedback

By Alexis Wiggins — October 15, 2010 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Courage to Seek Authentic Feedback

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion How I'm Putting the Joy Back in Teaching This Year
Here are three steps I’m taking to bring back the joy—for my students and for myself.
Domonique Dickson
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of people floating in space around a bright central core
iStock/Getty Images
Teaching Profession Opinion Why I Left Teaching (Spoiler: It Wasn't the Students)
A public school teacher explains how three troubling trends drove him out of the profession this year.
Paul Veracka
5 min read
Illustration of exit doors leading out of a school hallway
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Black Teachers, Pay Incentives, and Evaluation Systems: What New Research Shows
Black teachers in D.C. respond differently than their peers to job-evaluation pressures—and are less likely to opt into a bonus system.
7 min read
Rear view of a Black female teacher in front of class teaching students - wearing face masks
E+/Getty
Teaching Profession A Teacher Advises Colleagues: Find a School Where You Can Be a 'Magician'
In a new book, Patrick Harris remembers his teacher role models and urges his peers to find a school with the right fit.
2 min read
Patrick Harris
Patrick Harris