I want to be one of those teachers that inspires his students. Not quite Michelle Pheiffer in Dangerous Minds or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, but somewhere in that vicinity. Someone who makes a difference. I know I’m not the only one.
It’s cheesy, I recognize.
The point is, I want to have high expectations of my students. I want to set the bar high and I want to help each kid get over it.
I want be a consistent positive force.
Every morning, that’s my goal. Make a student believe and move a student forward.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been very cognizant of the feedback I give my students. I try to tailor the feedback to be positive, to be constructive, to remind them of the successes they’ve achieved.
But upon reflection, upon sitting down and talking with students, I realize I’ve been glossing over the honest feedback. I’m trying so hard to polish my message, that the truth is being washed away.
This unsettles me.
Where is the line? Where is the tipping point between positive, constructive feedback and honest feedback? Because they aren’t the same thing.
In a discussion with some colleagues, the idea of “tough love” came up. Is there room for tough love in schools anymore? Some teachers felt that there really wasn’t. They felt that the expectations now (with credit recovery, credit rescue and all manner of student success) lead to a sanitized feedback loop where no one admits there is dirt anywhere to be seen. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I can see where they are coming from.
So, I ask you, how do you balance being positive and constructive with providing honest feedback?
Hearing student feedback can be scary. You have to check your ego. I got a flurry of feedback from my most recent summer school students.
They repeatedly called me names:
“Weirdest teacher I have ever had”
“He was different.”
“Unorthodox, some might say a tad peculiar.”
“At first, the teacher seemed kinda weird, he had a teaching method that I wasn’t used to and at first I didn’t like it. Or him for that matter.”
I get it.
I’m a little out of the box for many students. What followed in their feedback is what allows me to continue exploring the ideas of relationships, exploration, creativity in the context of a ‘regular’ high school classroom.
“I’ve been inspired through curiosity to keep learning.”
“This whole course has made me curious and that’s what kept me going each day; I knew something crazy and unexpected was due to happen!”
“At first the teacher seemed kinda weird, But after a few days I started to understand why he did the things he did, and now he has one of my favourite teaching styles.”
“I don’t look at learning the same way. I feel empowered to do more.”
I’m not saying I nailed it. I’m not saying it was perfect execution and you need to be different to be effective. I’m not saying that these students were not just kissing ass for a few extra percent.
However, I take from this that standing out there, alone in a field is ok. It feels awkward at times. You open yourself up to much critcism and skepticism, but I’m okay with that. I’m willing to be that odd teacher that does things differently, if it gets students to look past the grade and into the heart of what learning is all about.
Being called weird, odd and peculiar is fine by me.
“Mr. Kemp is the weirdest teacher I have ever had the pleasure to learn from.”
I suppose when you are in the process of pushing an education revolution, you invite scrutiny. And so I do.
I invite scrutiny.
When someone questions the process I follow, I allow it. I accept it. I encourage it. Because often, it begins a conversation that is needed for my own process, but also to hopefully push the thinking of whomever is bringing the scrutiny.
Some colleagues think I should be afraid of opening my door and allowing students to express themselves without moderation. Hide what I’m trying from administrators and parents. They believe that it is too risky to get feedback unfiltered. They think that perlustration is a recipe for inviting trouble.
Seth Godin writes, “If you’re insulating yourself from these conversations, who benefits?”
But alas, it does’t worry me. I don’t feel threatened. I believe it is an open desire for scrutiny and authentic feedback that allows me to continue learning. It ensures that I am incredibly thoughtful about every step in the process, but it also allows students, parents, administrators and colleagues to be part of the student learning.
And so I believe ultimately, the kiss of death for an effective teacher is the thought that they have nothing left to learn. So, if you aren’t open to scrutiny, I have one question: What are you afraid of?
It’s easy to hear the good stuff.
“This course makes me feel alive” says one kid on the mid-term feedback form. Wow. It makes my day.
Another kid says, “I’ve never seen so much improvement in my writing then I’m seeing in this course.” or “This is so far the best course I’ve ever taken and I’m pretty sure alot of it is because of you and the way you’ve taught me to think.”
Again and again, I get all this brilliant positive feedback. Job done.
I take it at face value as proof positive that my methods work. That in my small way, I’ve figured something out.
Or have I, what does this feedback really say?
Are these students offering me praise and recognition reflecting accurately. Do they ‘feel alive’ because they get to Facebook and be on the computer, or have they found a love for learning?
Why can’t this positive feedback quell my need to scrutinize and question my practice? Is this a sign that I’ll never be happy?
On the flip side, I see the other face.
“If we had a chance to actually see what we need to improve on. If I knew what Mr. Kemp wanted me to improve on, then I could meet his expectations and exceed in this course.”
That feedback is obviously harder to take. I take it personally. But ultimately, it is fair. Ultimately, in my pursuit of flexibility and student-directedness, I have obviously dropped some formality that my student(s) still require.
And isn’t that the point. To build an environment where students have the relationship with me to tell me how I need to improve.
Sure, it sucks to get negative or constructive feedback. For it is much easier for me to be the scrutinizer.
And so I wrestle with both faces of feedback. One reminds me that I’m on the right road and the need to maintain requires a constant watch over the mechanics of the machine. Where the other reminds me that the path ahead is far from completed. The dusty trails still need work before they are flat road.
But at least I’m moving.
At some point, all this verbal feedback I’m providing for students needs to be written down. It needs to be documented. All this qualitative “data” that I’ve received needs to be synthesized, anesthetized, and quantified.
I’m at the point now where some leg work needs to be done in order for my students, their parents, administrators and my colleagues can start processing what we are doing in class.
I’m going to create an online (wiki) collection of feedback I provide. All written feedback, maybe some verbal anecdotes will be recorded on an individual wiki where only myself, the student and the parent have viewing and editing access. That way, there is a repository of the feedback and all members can be part of the ongoing learning dialogue.
I plan to “copy and paste” parts of written work by the student, with my comments as well. This way it will be directed, specific feedback.
My hope is that when mid-term report card marks are needed the student and I will already have established an online / synchronous conversation about their learning. Also, it will include all feedback, therefore the student can go back and remember what I said about their writing.
Now it is just to do the “up-front” work that is required.
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