Feedback is vital. It’s how we learn whether we are on or off track. Knowing how to get it and how to give it are equally important. Sometimes it’s given as part of your job as when your administrator observes you and offers feedback. Requesting feedback is another matter.

Because of our own challenges, we tend to ask for feedback in a way that tells us nothing. Instinctively, we protect our feelings.  If we ask a teacher, “Did you think the lesson went well?” or some similar question, you are generally going to get a positive response. The wording of the question naturally leads to it.

However, you need to know if you were successful and to what degree. You can start with a more specific positive, such as “What do you think worked in this lesson?” But you also need to ask, “What didn’t work?” and “What would you like me to do differently?”

By being open to their negative comments about a lesson, you will hear the truth even if it stings in the moment.  You don’t have to be perfect as noted in last week’s blog. You just have to keep learning.  And that’s what leaders do.

I once did a unit with a 9th-grade science teacher who wanted her students to work on various recycling possibilities including composting.  I knew what databases would support the project and she brought the class in to find out about them and begin their research.

She asked them for preliminary work and was very disappointed with what they turned in. Fortunately, I was following up on it with her and asked if I could re-do the lesson.  I had not taken time to teach students how to create the questions they would seek to answer and select sources based on relevance to what they were doing.  If the source had one keyword, they assumed it would work and included the information from it whether it fit or not.

The re-teaching proved successful and the teacher was happy.  When she repeated the project the following year we were ready.  We were more specific about what its purpose was.  Her in-class introduction was more focused, and so was my lesson with the kids and how I worked with them during their research.  The results far surpassed what happened the previous year.  The initial feedback, negative though it was, was invaluable.

One of the more common ways to see if students are on track is getting feedback on your lesson from exit tickets.  Asking, “What confused you?” or “What do you still not understand?” will let you know where your instruction missed the mark.  Of course, the classic thumbs up, down, and out are always helpful while you are teaching.

For receiving feedback, I like an article written by Peter Bregman for the Harvard Business Review on How to Ask for Feedback that Will Actually Help You. He lists five ways:

  • Be Clear You Want Honest Feedback– People are hesitant to tell you where you missed the mark. You may think you’re being clear, that you don’t only want to be told you did great, so reinforce your question by saying to the teacher something like, “It’s very important to me to learn where I didn’t do the best job.”  (The exit tickets from students does the same thing.)
  1. Focus on the Future – As I suggested, since the lesson has already been taught you want to show why hearing a negative has a purpose. Saying, “I hope we do this project again next year, so for my notes, what didn’t work and needs to be changed?”
  2. Probe More Deeply – The first response you get may not be as honest as you need it to be. People don’t like to tell you messed up. Follow up by referring to specific parts of the lesson and ask about them.
  3. Listen without Judgement – This can be hard. You don’t want to defend yourself nor show by body language that you don’t accept what the teacher is telling you. Think to yourself, “I will analyze the information later.  Right now I just need to hear his/her opinion.”
  4. Write it Down – Take notes for three reasons. First, it’s human nature to forget or smooth over negative comments.  Next, writing down what is being said to you lends weight to your being really interested in making changes. Finally, it gives the teacher time to think of more things. (Ugh!)

When it comes to giving feedback, Entrepreneur.com offers Five Steps for Giving Feedback in connection with the business world. As usual, I am interpreting them for us as educators.

  1. Create Safety – If students think you only criticize, they aren’t likely to hear what you say or follow your advice. A teacher won’t feel threatened by what you say, but if you don’t have a reputation for your work with your colleagues or don’t have a relationship with the one you are speaking to, your words will fall on deaf ears. Remember to find a balance between what you tell students and understand the nature of your relationships with teachers.
  2. Be Positive – As much as possible offer positive feedback about something they are doing with students and teachers –and don’t always follow it with negative feedback or your first statement will be ignored as they wait for the other shoe to drop.
  3. Be Specific – Don’t just say, “Good job,” or the equivalent. That means very little.  Tell a student something like, “I saw that you continued searching after you first approach didn’t work. Your follow through shows you understand how to do true research.”  With a teacher, you might say, “How did you prepare your class for this project?  They were really on task and focused from the beginning.”
  4. Be immediate – The best feedback happens in the moment. Whether speaking with teachers or students, it reinforces positive directions and alerts the recipient to a potential problem before it becomes an issue.
  5. Be tough not mean – Or to put it in another way, “Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.” Don’t ignore what is happening when you see a teacher or a student saying or doing something that won’t get them the results they want. Speak the truth, but use the other four steps to ensure they know what you are saying is because you want them to be successful.

Think about times when feedback – either positive or negative – helped you improve your performance. Learning to give and receive feedback is a process and a practice developed over time. Look to your relationships with students and teachers to see if you know how you are doing on this and take the time to think about where you might need to grow this skill set.

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