This is a post for people who identify with this comic:
In particular, this is a post for people who struggle with receiving feedback, especially feedback surrounding their teaching, whether as end-of-term course evaluations or as mid-workshop, mid-lesson, mid-course feedback forms.
Where I’m coming from
I really struggle with feedback on my teaching. I honestly want to improve,
but I’m also terrified to hear what people really think. I’d like to think
this is a common sentiment, but for me, I know that my own fear
of feedback is exacerbated
by the fact that I am a slowly recovering people pleaser. By default, I want
other people to feel good, and so constructive/negative
feedback from learners pings all my anxious, people-pleasing, perfectionistic buttons.
(These people-pleasing tendencies have other repercussions in the classroom, but that’ll be the topic of another post, someday.)
So this is a post of things that have helped me get better at receiving feedback. Full disclaimer: my only expertise in overcoming feedback fear is my own experience, so take this list with a grain of salt. Hopefully some of these ideas will be helpful to other people who struggle with receiving feedback, for whatever reason.
- Tell yourself the right things. This is usually not enough for me, but
it’s still important to remind myself that:
- “it’s not personal.”
- “look at the positives along with the negatives.”
- “it’s not the end of the world.”
Mental habits matter!
Use a feedback translator. This is one of my favorite ways to get feedback when I have to read it right away (mid-lesson feedback during Software Carpentry workshops, for example). How it works: I have my fellow instructor (or other trusted person in the room) read over all the feedback and give me an executive summary. It’s very different to hear “It sounds like most people are following, so you could speed up” than to read several notes all saying, “this is too slow” or “this is boring”.
- Control how you get/receive feedback. Obviously the goal here is not to
create feedback mechanisms that avoid exposing your weaknesses while glorifying
your strengths. Feedback needs to be honest and helpful. But despite its
potential pitfalls, I think controlling how you get and receive feedback can be a way to
ensure that the feedback is helpful to you, by keeping it relevant and
- I’m a big fan of feedback questions like “what is one thing I could have done as a teacher to make this lesson more effective?” Or “If you could pick one thing from the lesson to go over again, what would it be?” These questions (hopefully) spark answers that reveal what didn’t work in your teaching, but read as suggestions rather than judgments.
- If your teaching feedback is taking the form of an observation (and you’re comfortable enough with the observer), tell that person how they can best communicate their feedback to you. For me, I would tell an observer that I will best hear feedback in the form of compliment sandwiches (good-bad-good, or even just bad-good), and where negative feedback is always couched in terms of ways to improve, with at least one concrete suggestion from the observer for moving in that direction.
- See a counselor (or receive other mental health care). If
feedback is a symptom or representative of other
things making you anxious, insecure
or depressed, this might be the way to go.
I remember going to a writing workshop once where mental health and self care became a recurring theme throughout the day to the point where the person on my right leaned over and whispered, “Is this a writing clinic or a counseling session?” I laughed, but mostly because I realized the truth of the workshop presenter - to do any kind of strenuous mental effort (which writing certainly is!), you have to take care of your mind or it’ll come back to bite you. I think teaching is the same way. I went to see a counselor for other reasons, but once I saw where my mind was unhealthy, it helped me realize why I struggle with feedback.
I was finally brave enough to try a “one-up, one-down” feedback exercise at the end of my first solo instructor training in December. In one-up, one-down, the instructor (in this case, me) asks the learners to alternate in giving one positive and one negative point about the day, without repeating anything that has already been said.
This was a little scary for me, since it involves negative feedback in real time with no filter.
That said, receiving feedback this way was less panic-inducing than I expected. First, part of the exercise requires that the instructor not respond to any of the feedback until everyone has had their turn. I was just the scribe, writing down people’s impressions, which turned out to be a fairly effective way of appropriately distancing myself from the feedback even as it was happening live. Second, the “artificial” balance of positive and negative feedback alleviated the worry of “will there be more positive than negative?” It’s so tempting to weigh up likes and dislikes and hope that you came out ahead - the 50/50 +/- split helps make that a non-issue.
I was still a little anxious about some of the negative feedback. But having practiced receiving feedback, having thought about a lot of these things, it was not as bad as it could have been. I can see that I’m moving towards a state of not only being able to receive all kinds of feedback, but to welcome it, not necessarily without fear, but in spite of.
I hope that’s an encouragement to other folks who teach!