Managing Feedback

When I think of getting feedback one memo­rable occasion springs to mind. It was when I was with a group of students visiting the founder of SOTE, Vijayadev Yogendra, and he had called them into the room, leaving me out­side. After a while I was called in and he said in a very kind but direct way that the students were not enjoying my English class. Although my first instinct was to question the students then and there, Vijay directed me to talk to the class later and work things out. There was no room for any self-defence or justification and we moved on to other topics of discussion.

Later, in discussion with the students, we did sort out the issues they were reacting to and I continued with the class for a number of years after that. The discussions actually improved my relationship with them, gave me an insight into how I was coming across (albeit unintentionally) and this generated a lot of trust. They saw an example of a person accept­ing criticism with good grace and they gained confidence in their ability to handle situations of conflict and to bring up issues with others in a straightforward, unemotional way.

Encountering unsolicited and negative feed­back, or feedback which requires some kind of a personal change or shift in attitude, can be hard. There can be a range of emotions one goes through when receiving feedback — denial, defensiveness, wanting to put one’s point of view (yes but…), lack of acceptance, unwillingness to really listen, anger with the other person, anger with oneself, disappointment with oneself, guilt. It is useful to try to just observe these emotions rather than going with them, as acceptance, adjustment and learning will follow sooner and with less pain and suffering. The less of a perfectionist one is, the easier it is to take on board any criticism.

Inviting feedback from others can be quite threatening, but also very helpful. It is most important to listen to what students have to say, and watching students’ reactions can be a good indicator of an issue that needs discussion. It is important to be sensitive to how and when it is best to talk with students — in the class group where they have support but on the other hand may feel they would lose face, or individually.

Students can be very straightforward and honest when asked for feedback and can be quite objective when anger is not involved. Situations like asking how you could improve the teaching of a unit, for example, can bring out some useful observations, as they have been on the receiving end of quite a lot of teaching and often know how they learn best.

When there is a situation involving conflict or anger, it is important to be able to listen to how the student is feeling. Even if one does not necessarily agree with all they say, it is important to recognise their perception of a situation and their feelings and to try to understand an issue from their point of view. They are after all the ones receiving our teaching and we are not necessarily aware of how we are coming across.

In terms of our impact on students, they are very vulnerable to our moods and will interpret, for example, a frown or a serious facial expression or one’s tone of voice as you being cross with them or as their having done something wrong. A consistently cheerful and light presence gives students a sense of security and acceptance. Our non-verbal communication can communicate suppressed anger, annoyance, irritation, impatience or fear even when we have not actually said anything. These emotions can make a child feel unworthy or in some way criticised.

Unless conflict is resolved, it can go under­ground amongst students and a kind of gossip or garnering of support can result, which can create a “them and us” atmosphere which is not helpful.

Being prepared to apologise and start again with a relationship is really important and I have found that I have come closest to students and gained greater respect from them when I have been prepared to come more than half way to­wards them, rather than expecting them to do all the hard work. This builds a tremendous amount of trust which lasts throughout your relationship with the student. It also provides them with a model of a person who is not caught up in de­fending their ego, but is able to be humble and to admit to mistakes. A really genuine relationship can then develop.

About the Author

Pam Isaacs has been a senior at SOTE for many years. This article is based on a presentation to teachers on managing feedback from students, parents and other teachers. Pam retired from teaching at SOTE in early 2011.

This article originally appeared in the SOTE Newsletter, Term 1, 2008. (Published on web site: August 2011).