When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

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One comment

  1. I find it can help to do a lesson on how to give constructive feedback – explaining the psychology of why, if you just fire out criticism, the reciever of the feedback will get defensive and is unlikely to take your comments on board.
    Of course, if, as teachers, we find ourselves constantly defensive and almost aggressive when anyone comments to suggest any changes, it can be a sign that something else is wrong at a deeper level – see here: http://www.eltresearchbites.com/201701-teachers-immunity-to-burnout-how-to-get-it-right/

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