As educators, our lives are encircled by feedback. When giving feedback to our pupils we mainly think about what we are saying so as to help the student develop and progress onto the next stage of their learning. In the main, students ‘get’ this, and this understanding is taken in the teacher/pupil relationship fashion the feedback was given. Some pupils will act on the feedback positively, and others will ignore – as is the nature of many of us.
But when the proverbial shoe is on the other proverbial foot, we teachers can sometimes be sensitive to the feedback we receive if we are being observed in our classroom practice. We can easily turn a positive comment into a negative, focusing on a minor detail or aspect given during the feedback discussion. Why is this? Why are we educators, who are (and should be) experts at giving feedback to their pupils, so poor and sensitive to receiving and giving feedback to our professional peers?
Let’s break it down and explore the various and complex dynamics going on in feedback relationships.
- Cast your mind back to the last time you asked your pupils to mark/feedback the work of their classmates. In most cases, friends will want to feedback to their friends and this feedback will be full of loveliness, banter and generally worthless in helping the recipient to develop their learning to the next stage. These dynamics are still evident even when pupils are marking/feeding back to other students in the class, of whom they are less familiar. They will be conscious of hurting the feelings of others, and possibly receiving negative comments themselves for their work. For a moment, take yourself back to when you were at a similar stage as your students, and put yourself in their (proverbial) shoes. Priorities were different then, with dynamics and social standing being crucial at that stage of life. This takes us nicely into the next factor …
- Power Dynamics. All relationships have forms of power dynamics enmeshed – It’s a part of being human, and sometimes it is difficult to explain the power relationship. However, when we are being observed as teachers, the power is firmly possessed by the observer. Whether this is a colleague, an inspector, a member of the Leadership Team, they ultimately have the power to tell you what you were doing was wrong, rubbish or totally inadequate – whether they are right or wrong. They also have the power to tell you how amazing, wonderful, or outstanding your lesson was (and in fairness, most will), but they ultimately still hold on to this power.
We previously wrote about being judged (See February 2014 Article at https://bit.ly/BeingJudged ) and many points raised in that article are well-founded, and well worth revisiting when our teaching practice is being judged. But if you are the one giving the feedback, certain considerations are fundamental when deciding how to approach the discussion with a colleague who is going to be ultra-sensitive to any negative comments implied.
In a recent article by Jennifer Winter, the dangers of passive-aggressive tendencies in giving feedback were considered, which will bear a resemblance to the experiences of many. Careful consideration in peer-to-peer feedback needs to be taken, as a comment such as, “I Was Surprised/Confused/Curious About…”, can easily be interpreted as, “YOU’RE WRONG.” Another familiar feedback comment in observation discussions is, “Oh, I Thought You Understood…”, which can be taken as, “ACTUALLY, YOU DID IT WRONG BECAUSE YOU’RE STUPID.” In fact, that word “Actually” is deduced as, “I THINK YOU’RE AN IDIOT.” Instead, the following phrases deviate away from passive-aggressive statements, and are less likely to be misinterpreted:
- “I thought X was different, because Y. Can you walk me through your steps?”
- “You took this lesson in a different direction than initially intended, but let’s talk about what you found by doing this and what will the next steps be.”
- Actually, remove the “actually” from whatever you’re about to say 😉
As teachers, we are actually not too different from the students we teach when it comes to relationships. You would prefer feedback about one of your lessons from a colleague you ‘like’ and, in turn, you would be super-sensitive to giving feedback to another teacher, but it’s how this is done which is critical in helping each-other develop. Power relationships are inexorable, but beware of these (possibly unintended) passive-aggressive behaviours and think back to the times when you were expected to give/receive feedback from your peers, about your work, and be sensitive to the person receiving.
This article was originally printed in the October 2015 edition of UKEdMagazine and the online version shortly afterwards. The online article was updated in 2020 by UKEd Editorial in accordance with website and policy updates.