More Feedback

I know that I just talked about feedback in last week’s post, but here we are again talking about feedback. Blame it on Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania. I posted about Grant this summer while reading his book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Since then, I’ve been listening to his podcasts and following him on Twitter and Instagram. Grant always shares an interesting, novel perspective on teaching, learning, relationships, work…. and so much more.

Here’s what Adam Grant posted a few days ago:

“The people who are nice to you aren’t always being kind to you. Saying what you want to hear is nice. People sugarcoat feedback to make you feel good today. Sharing what you need to hear is kind. People speak honestly to help you do better tomorrow. Candor is an act of care.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you should recognize that Adam Grant’s perspective resonates with me. In a post a few years ago, I shared how on Rate My Professors a student had written:

““Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging…. His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.

As I wrote at the time, it’s not that I want to be a jerk or hurtful in any way. When I offer feedback to a student, I share what I think they need to hear at the time. I focus on what they’re capable of working on and how best I can support their learning. I consider these factors, but I definitely buy into Grant’s “Candor is an act of care” mantra.

Looking at the comments to Grant’s Instagram post, however, it’s clear that candor itself may be an incomplete lens. Rahaf Harfoush, who is a “digital anthropologist” and author, commented that:

“Candor is an act of care that requires trust. You need to trust that people have your best interest at heart and that they have good intentions in wanting you to improve.”

Harfoush’s comment made me think back to a quote I shared a few years ago.

Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead.” (Daloz, 1999).

While Daloz was writing about mentoring, their perspective is critical for teaching and learning, too. If we want students to have the courage to act on the feedback we offer with candor, we have to first establish trust with them to help them recognize our good intentions and that the feedback is offered for their benefit.

References:

Daloz, L. A. (2009). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Feedback Loop

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester, which for two of my classes, means that we’re in the home stretch. I teach two condensed, seven-week courses which means that stuff moves at pretty quick pace. Even though the end of the course is near, I’m still trying to gather information on the best ways to support my students. This means getting feedback.

As teachers, we mostly focus on giving feedback. We assign papers, schedule exams, and give quizzes and use that information to give students feedback on where they are in comparison to the learning targets and competencies we’ve set. Some of this can be progress feedback where we communicate to students the stuff they’re doing well. We can also provide discrepancy feedback where we explain things that students can do better and offer ways for them to improve. (For a more in-depth discussion of feedback, check out Glows and Grows)

While we’re in the thick of providing feedback, we can forget that we need to receive feedback, too. Sure, the process of assessment should itself serve a means of obtaining some feedback on our teaching. When students are successful on an assessment, that should communicate how well we’ve done as teachers. When students aren’t as successful… well, you get the picture. Sometimes, interpreting assessment data can be a little like reading tea leaves, though. It can be hard to decipher exactly what the assessment data means and what that says about our teaching. I graded some papers recently and found that half of the class did really well, while the other half didn’t do as well. This “bimodal distribution” seems to confusingly suggest that I’m doing a great job and a not-so-great job at the same time. And that confusion can stifle any efforts for me to revise my teaching practice.

Thankfully, teachers have other feedback strategies at their disposal. At the end of every class, I survey the students about what questions they have or what they’re confused by. I sometimes use the survey to simply ask “How’s it going? How can I help?” These exit tickets serve as both formative assessments for students (and for me) to gauge what they learned, but also as feedback opportunities for me to check how things are going with class. While I’ve used a bunch of different techniques over the years, I really like the ones that I’ve (slightly) modified from Stephen Brookfield’s book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (2017). Brookfield offers these “critical incident questionnaires” as a way to “see ourselves through our students’ eyes.”

  • At what moment in today’s class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in today’s class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in today’s class did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took in today’s class did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about today’s class surprised you the most?  (pg. 108)

While the student responses can be hard to read at times, the questions can help to uncover opportunities to course-correct (no pun intended). And that’s important to do, even when there are only a few weeks left.

References:

Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. John Wiley & Sons.

Pocketful of Kryptonite

Teaching is a caring profession. I know that the phrase “caring profession” was used a lot in the media during the pandemic to describe a host of jobs that focus on the care of others. Doctors. Nurses. Social workers. Teachers. Caring is our business. It’s not just a description of our roles, but it’s also codified in our certifications and professional expectations. Take the Model Code of Ethics for Educators. Principle 3 of the Model Code lists the responsibilities that teachers have to their students. It includes the following statement:

“The professional educator demonstrates an ethic of care through:

  • Seeking to understand students’ educational, academic, personal and social needs as well as students’ values, beliefs, and cultural background;
  • Respecting the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual student including, but not limited to, actual and perceived gender, gender expression, gender identity, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and culture; and
  • Establishing and maintaining an environment that promotes the emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual safety of all students.”

I’ve intentionally underlined the phrase “ethic of care” because it exemplifies how the profession (and the larger community) views the teaching profession. Teaching is relational work that is built upon caring. We care. That’s what we do.

Thankfully, most of the people who enter into the caring professions are ones for whom caring is natural. Nel Noddings, one of the educational philosophers who is credited with conceptualizing the “ethic of care,” wrote “that teachers approach student needs from the subjective perspective of ‘I must do something’ rather than the more objective ‘something must be done’ approach. Teachers are motivated by this philosophy to perform conscious acts of ‘being with’ and ‘doing for’ for the sake of their students.” (Owens & Ennis, 2005, p. 393). Most teachers are hard-wired for caring. It’s just who we are. I joked in a meeting recently that caring is the superpower of teachers.

The truth, however, is that while caring is our superpower, it can also be our kryptonite. We care a lot. And maybe that means sometimes we care too much. Teachers have a “fiduciary duty” to care for their students. Fiduciary duty is a fancy legal term, but it means that we act in the best interest of our students. That definition is where things can get a little troublesome for the over-caring teacher. I had one colleague who would stay up all night grading exams so his Calculus students could get their grades back the next day. I bet if you asked him to explain his reasoning, he’d say that it was in the best interest of the students. While that might be pedagogically sound, I doubt anyone would argue that depriving oneself of sleep was part of the expectations of the profession.

While it’s important to demonstrate an “ethic of care” and to fulfill our “fiduciary responsibilities,” it’s also important to care for ourselves and to set appropriate boundaries for our care for others. For my math colleague, I’d suggest setting better grading boundaries and more manageable expectations. Sure, it’s our job to care, but we can’t care for anyone if we don’t care for ourselves first. It’s kind of like the oxygen masks on airplanes. There’s a reason the flight attendants ask passengers to put their own masks on before trying to help others with theirs. We can’t help anyone until we’ve helped ourselves first.

References:

Owens, L. M., & Ennis, C. D. (2005). The ethic of care in teaching: An overview of supportive literature. Quest, 57(4), 392-425.

Not in Trouble

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my dean inquiring about an assignment I had given to my students. Before getting too far into the nature of the email or my resulting reflections, I feel some context may be needed.

In the professional block of classes for our teacher candidates, we offer intensive, shortened classes to offer students more time out in their field placements. For me this semester, that meant condensing an entire course on assessment into seven weeks of instruction. Assessment is a pretty expansive topic, so I hit the ground running and use every minute of every class intentionally. It also means that I assign my students readings to tackle before coming to class. Even on the first day of class.

Beyond reading any assigned articles or chapters, I ask my students to complete “Close Reading” assignments which are designed to help them better engage with what they’re reading. I’ve written about these strategies before (see Reading More Closely and Literacy and the Collegiate Student). For the readings I assigned for the first day of class, I asked students to identify a word, a phrase, and a sentence from the readings and write a short paragraph defending their choices. They had to post these to a discussion forum before coming to class. Even on the first day of class.

I choose to have students post these Close Readings to a discussion forum for several reasons. One, I look over the posts prior to class and quickly assess which topics resonated with my students and which topics they misunderstood. Two, I can assess which students actually read to material. Three (and most importantly), the students have contributed to a large discussion forum where they’re all highlighting different aspects of the text. For the motivated student, they can review all of the posts and see how their classmates have processed the readings. This can foster a collaborative meaning making process of some challenging material. Considering the reasons, I feel the Close Reading assignment is an important one for my students to complete. Even on the first day of class.

So, that’s the necessary backstory. Now, let me get into the email from the Dean. The Dean received an email from the university Provost who received an email from one of my students who was stressed about my first day reading assignment. The student felt it was unfair that I gave an assignment on the first day of class. That student’s email prompted the email I received from my dean who was inquiring about my rationale for assigning work on the first day of class.

If you don’t work in a collegiate environment, you might not know what a dean or a provost does. In some ways, a dean’s work is similar to a principal in a high school. The dean oversees the teachers and students within a college. Continuing with the K-12 comparison, if a dean is like a principal, then a provost would be like an assistant superintendent. A provost oversees all of the academic activity across the entire university. Provosts are pretty high up in the chain of command in a university setting. I would argue they almost have as much influence as a university president. So, provosts are really important people in a university environment. And the provost was contacted about my first day Close Reading assignment.

I guess the challenging part for me is that while I’ve been able to explain my pedagogical rationale to my dean (and to all of you lovely readers), I haven’t really been able to explain my rationale to the student, who hasn’t been identified. I’m happy to report that after a quick conversation with my dean, she assured me that I wasn’t in trouble in any way and that she thought the Close Reading practice was pedagogically sound. That was comforting.

The lack of conversation with the student, however, has been unsettling for me. This student is training to be a teacher and I worry about the missed opportunity for a discussion. Given the chance, I’d like to have a chance to outline my pedagogical rationale for the assignment but also to discuss how best to navigate stressful situations professionally and appropriately. Beyond that, I’d also like to explain that some time down the road, they may have a student or a parent who will email the principal (or the superintendent) to complain about their own class and I bet they’ll wish they had the opportunity to clarify their reasoning directly.

Another New Year

This post was inspired by a blog post that my colleague, Leslie Gates, posted last week. Leslie began her 19th year of teaching a few days ago and outlined really eloquently her reasons for returning to the classroom this year. Here’s the challenge. A lot of teachers have decided not to return. They’re retiring early, finding new jobs in other fields, or just taking time off to recharge before making their next move. This “great resignation” (as I’ve heard it called) isn’t just limited to K-12 education. Leslie and I have a bunch of collegiate colleagues on our campus who have chosen to leave. As I walked past the vacant offices on my way to class recently, I asked myself the same question Leslie ponders in her post, “Why am I still doing this?” While Leslie writes about a bunch of factors that influenced her decision to stay, my decision is rooted in a seminal teaching experience I had almost 35 years ago.

Initially, I was going to become an engineer. I was accepted into the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Engineering and was planning to follow in the steps of my father and brother, who were both successful electrical engineers. That plan was derailed by Frank Craig, a teacher in one of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Frank needed some tutors to work with at-risk students on the weekends and asked if I could help. After I navigated my engineering classes all week, Frank would pick me up on Saturday mornings and I would help students learn math and science. After a while, I realized I enjoyed my Saturday morning tutoring sessions more than my engineering classes. I remember one student (who I’ll call Rachel) who was failing her chemistry class and was close to dropping out of school. After we worked together over several weeks of Saturdays, Rachel was able to raise her chemistry grade to a C. Her emotions were a mix of excitement, pride and relief and I knew that I had played a role in her success. I had made a difference in a student’s life.

It’s that feeling of contributing to someone’s success that motivated me to change majors and enter the teaching profession. At the time, my parents weren’t too crazy about me choosing to become a teacher. They worried about my being able to buy a house or getting burned out. Thankfully, my parents were able to see the joy this career brings to me before they passed away.

So, while others are choosing to leave the profession, I’m going to stick with it. It still brings me a lot of joy. Sure, there are difficult days and I’ll probably write about some of those experiences down the road. For now, I’ll find solace in knowing that I’m playing a role in helping my students learn. I also recognize that each new school year may present an opportunity to make a difference in some student’s life. And I’d like to be here to make that happen.