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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