being a teacher, grow

Giving and Receiving Feedback So It Doesn’t Hurt

Feedback.  At times even just the word is enough to elicit shudders, at other times, it is met with a shrug.  How we react depends on many things; our state of mind, our relationship with the person providing the feedback, the subject matter, and even the approach.  Sometimes the right piece of feedback transforms, other times it wounds.  And yet, feedback is a major part of being an educator.  Learning how to approach it, how to use it, and how to grow from it are all essential parts of being a better educator.  Knowing that feedback is inevitable, that we are meant to use it, and also that we do control one thing in the process; ourselves, I have a few ideas that may make receiving (and providing) feedback a better process for everyone involved.

If you are on the receiving end…

Listen with an open mind.  This is easier said than done, but one way I try to approach it is by reminding myself that feedback allows me to grow, but in order for me to grow, I have to first hear it.  That means that when someone is providing me with feedback, I focus on actually hearing it.  Not just picking up on a few things and then getting stuck on them.  A tip is to repeat what has just been said, such as by saying, “What I am hearing you say is…” that way you can fine tune what is being said and in case there is a misunderstanding, it can be cleared up right away.

Assess the situation.  Is this scheduled feedback from someone who has to evaluate you or is this drop-by feedback from anyone?  We all know that much depends on the actual situation and that feedback can be tainted by emotion and circumstance.  So if you are sitting in a formal evaluation, know that providing you feedback is part of that evaluator’s job and that everyone has something to grow on.  If the feedback is coming from an unexpected source and seems to be an attempt to make you grow in an unexpected way, approach it from a conversation starting angle.  A tip is to ask questions, such, “How would you approach the situation?”  or “Can you provide more details in order for me to understand?”  That way you can gather a larger scope of why the feedback is being given.

Take a breath.  Too often, our haunches come up when we are given feedback.  Being an educator is a deeply personal mission and so we all go in there trying our best every single day.  When someone points out an area of growth for us, it is hard not to take offense  Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what we should do.  Instead, thank the person for providing you with the feedback and then take a moment.  Just because feedback is given does not mean you must have an immediate response to it.  Offer to get back to the person once you have some time to digest, or simply explain that you need some time.  Sometimes feedback can really hurt, it is okay to have these emotions, but what is not ok is to get stuck there. That is why my next tip is to explore the emotions that have occurred.

Search for the source of hurt.  If the feedback hurts or is upsetting in some way, allow yourself to feel that way, but do take some time to reflect; why does this hurt?  Why is it upsetting to you?  Is it because you were unaware of needing to grow in this area or is it because of how it was delivered.  Often times, it is not the actual feedback that causes big emotions but everything else we add to the situation.  Do you trust the person giving it to you?  If not, why not?  Do you understand why it has been given?  Do you understand the bigger picture?  Is the feedback really directed toward just your practice or is it because you are part of the bigger picture?  If you feel the feedback is meant to hurt you then ask clarifying questions, never assume as it may cause further damage down the road.

Share to process, not to vent.  Often times, we end up venting without wanting to hear solutions.  While there is definitely a time and place in education for venting when it comes to feedback, a much better approach is to share it with a trusted colleague to get their perspective and wisdom, rather than just their solidarity.  Often times, because they are not emotionally attached to the situation, they can provide us with a new lens and help us see the bigger picture, rather than just the parts that may be upsetting.

Come up with a next step.  Once you have allowed yourself to process the feedback, decide on your next step.  How will you actually grow as a practitioner?  Even the most hurtful feedback can cause great reflection so no matter what, find out how to use it.  I have found that the more tangible of a step I can come up with, the better because I then feel like I am doing something about it.  So when a child tells me they hate reading, or a parent is disappointed in me, or someone I work with tells me I need to change a part of my teaching, I think of how it allows me to focus on that aspect of my teaching and get better at it.   Once I then implement the next step I feel like I can continue on my journey.

Realize we all need to grow.  There is no such thing as a perfect teacher, yet many of us think we have to be one.  Feedback can, therefore, be viewed in a deficit mindset where we assume that we are poor teachers, rather than ones that are growing.  So instead, realize that to have great days we also need to have days, or moments, where we hit rock bottom or worry that we are not enough.  While feedback that is meant to help us grow can sometimes knock us down, we are the ones that decide how to approach it, and ultimately, what we can use it for.  You can let it matter in a positive way, realizing that whatever was remarked upon is now an area you can grow in, or you can become angry and shrug it off.   Ultimately how you approach it is your choice, so why not use it for good.

Finally; ask for specific feedback.  If you are unsure about a person’s intentions or you feel particularly vulnerable, instead of waiting for feedback ask for it.  This also works really well as a simple step toward better teaching.  Whenever I am observed I ask for certain things to be evaluated because these are things I know I need to grow on.  This offers those observing a lens with which to view me through, as well, as a way for me to have some sort of input in the process.  When I am given feedback on specific things and then offered other feedback it is much easier to approach it as a package of growth rather than as a sign of failure.

If you are on the giving end…

Relationship trumps all.  Sometimes the hardest feedback comes from those we trust the most, therefore spending time building trust and professional community always pays off in the long run.

Think of timing.  If you have something harder to discuss, think about when during the day would be best to give it.  It is really hard to receive feedback that pushes you to grow right before you have to go teach a class.

Ask for it to be restated.  Make sure that the person receiving the feedback actually understands it.  While I don’t mean to have them repeat it back to you, simply asking; “What does this mean to you?” or “How does this fit into your growth plan?” is a great way to check for understanding.

Find the right method.  Sometimes feedback needs to be given but not from you.  If you know that feedback will be taken a certain way because of your position, then see if there is another way it can be given.  Sometimes feedback is given through professional opportunities rather than direct conversation.

Speak the truth.  Sometimes hard conversations need to be had, there is no way around it, therefore speaking the truth, keeping it human, and trying to focus it as a professional growth opportunity, rather than a personal attack, is the only way to do it.  Acknowledging that certain feedback can be really hard to hear can sometimes undo a lot of resentment.

Check yourself.  Is this feedback given in the right framework or even in the right spirit? Sometimes we are so eager to provide ideas for others that we forget about how it can feel to receive it.  So make sure that when you do provide feedback to someone that it will actually be worth the potential hurt or discomfort it may cause.  If not, reflect; why do you feel the feedback needs to be given?

Know the full story. I have been given unsolicited feedback where it was clear that assumptions were at play rather than a true understanding of what was going on.  This can lead to some really painful conversations and even to a lot of confusion. So ask questions straight to the person before you offer up any feedback.  Make sure you actually know more than you think you know.

While feedback can be viewed as hurtful, it can also be an incredible source of growth.  What matters is how we approach it, the time we are given to process it, and the tangible things we can then do.  May this be of help in the process.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

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