Does feedback need a kick up the empath?

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Jo Gakonga recently shared a somewhat unusual post on her Teacher Feedback site, about a personal experience of being on the receiving end of some painful feedback. You can listen to her story, titled ‘On empathy’, here. I was struck by this and it’s got me off my @#$% to blog, which kind of took me by surprise, so here goes.

I would consider most of the teacher trainers I know (maybe I’ve been very lucky?) to be highly empathetic people, and highly practised at understanding how people might feel or react – but this video reminded me how it really feels to be on the receiving end when you have something personal at stake, whether that is success on a course, track record, sense of self, professional identity or something else. Empathy at a safe distance is very different from experiencing a sucker punch to the gut yourself.

There are several reasons why this has been in my head lately, from a CELTA perspective. But one reason is that I often hear fellow trainers/assessors that I very much respect say things like:

  • ‘When I do feedback I get straight to the point’
  • ‘I don’t bother with the “that’s a pretty dress” approach’
  • ‘I don’t believe in beating around the bush’
  • ‘I don’t believe in back rubs’

And so on. I always nod sagely at this while secretly fearing that I’m that person taking the ‘pretty dress’ approach. But Jo’s post has made me think that I need to stop and take the power back a little here.

a) I’ve never once commented on anyone’s dress in feedback, AND

b) I do believe it’s important to get to the point and help trainees focus on the critical issues, BUT

c) It doesn’t follow that just because something isn’t an action point that it is pointless.

What Jo’s video brings out to me is that if we want trainees to be able to hear and focus on what we need to say we also need to:

  • recognise and acknowledge the hard work that has gone into something even if it didn’t work for whatever reason
  • ensure trainees know that we know that an unsuccessful activity or lesson is only that – not a sign of a bad teacher or a fail candidate, but simply something valuable we can learn from.
  • ensure trainees who have just had some difficult feedback know they can come back to us in private if they need to, whether face-to-face or by email,
  • share that we have had similar experiences, been through a similar process and are still learning ourselves – not that we are all-knowing judges from on high (I am a big failure fan!)

These things are not ‘beating about the bush’. They are necessary so that trainees can hear what you need them to hear instead of blocking on a wave of confusion, shame or defeat. They are important on a human level and for effective communication.

Let’s make a difference between bad feedback/pointless reassurance and emotionally intelligent talk. To give just one example: ‘That’s a pretty dress detailed lesson plan’ versus ‘I can see you put a lot of work into that lesson. How long did you spend making those materials?’ The former doesn’t really go anywhere and maygirl-1467485_640 just be prefacing bad news, whereas the latter recognises hard work, invites the trainee into the discussion, and it’s usually a short step from here to the trainee, and everyone else, realising that so much blood, sweat and tears have been poured into the lesson plan and materials that they haven’t had time (or sleep) to run through their lesson in their heads, or ask themselves how this benefits students.

Another example that gets a lot of flak is the typical opening ‘So how do you think it went?’ Personally, I tend to eschew that in favour of a more specific: ‘What did you want the learners to take away from they lesson? So to what extent did they do that?’ But I do use this question at times because I think it serves an important purpose is where there is (or may be) a mismatch between what the trainee thinks and what the trainer/assessor thinks.

Often candidates know, all credit to them, when a lesson has gone to hell in hand-basket. But in other cases, particularly early on in a course, you can see from their face, from the way they describe their lesson to peers and from their post-lesson reflection that they are happy that they have done what you wanted them to do.

We all know ‘what I wanted you to do’ and ‘what you thought I wanted you to do’ are often very different things, and there are also those are mythical unicorns students to consider, but what I want to focus on here is what Jo described in her video above: that the most crippling feedback occurs when there is a mismatch between reality and expectation. ‘How do you think it went?’ can be a useful way into that discussion, if managed well by the tutor.

We’re lucky on courses like CELTA that we often know when there is a mismatch – we have evidence that someone might be missing something crucial before we walk into feedback. But this is more than an opportunity to ‘correct’ that. If we want that candidate to hear us, one of the starting points is recognising where they are coming from, and taking it from there, not just laying it on them from on high.

And that’s been my procrastination du jour. If you have any comments or insights do please share.

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3 responses

  1. Thank you for encouraging reflection on this important issue. Sometimes all trainers can see are the action points they want to talk about. Getting the trainees to tallk to each other first is helpful as usually they want to show solidarity with their peer, but it’s also a chance to widen perpectives, allow more consideration of context (person, progress) and as you say, validating effort in key areas. The other point is learning to see the lesson from the student’s perspective, which means understanding their needs: this takes the pressure off the focus being chiefly on the teacher- to some extent at least. Feedback becomes about how we can help the learners (note plural) not what the teacher didn’t do. That said, face will always remain a huge issue, and every trainee is different.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂 I completely agree with making feedback about the learners more than the teacher and this is what it is really about, after all. It’s also true that trainees are all different. Some 100% want the (and I quote) “hardass” approach. This is different from the trainees who only want criticism and don’t value positive feedback (which means that they might not be reflecting that effectively once they are on their own), and different again from the defensive ones…and I’m sure there are other ‘types’ as well. I wonder to what extent trainers take a differentiated approach in feedback. It reminds me of the ‘traffic light’ system that teachers sometimes use with students for correction/assistance (green = I’m good, amber = I’m a bit confused but OK, red = help!!) We can’t really use that with trainees to reflect state of mind/readiness for feedback (can we?), but we need to be able to read those invisible signals anyway and adjust accordingly?

  2. Well put, Sophia. Providing CELTA feedback would be far more complex than the learner feedback I give on speaking and writing. I really do think the old feedback sandwich idea is a good starting point. But, I consider that from a pysch/empathy perspective, not just a simplistic platitude approach.

    The first sweetener puts them in a receptive frame of mind and acknowledges their work. It shows respect. How much of this they need, I determine from their body language. Without this, the feedback is not heard let alone accepted. So a friendly hello is the very least we can give.

    The last sweetener rebuilds some of their self-esteem, and you are right – they are often very aware of their shortcomings. How much of this they need, depends on the critical feedback and how they react.

    The “get to the point” is, of course, the critical feedback (the meat) in the middle. That has to be correct and on-point, but it also needs to be consciously selected as timely and useful feedback. I always think, “What can they really fix or improve? Of all the shortcomings, what is achievable now?”

    They need to walk away from the feedback, with what they feel to be an achievable new goal. So how they feel walking out is every bit as important as the feedback received.

    Else, “getting to the point” becomes pointless.

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