Feedback should be constructive

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything really personal. At the risk of embarrassing myself and being vulnerable, here goes.

Some background information is probably needed to start this story… Let’s start from late 2017. I had just resigned from my full-time teaching post and was enjoying a lot of down time when a family friend approached me and asked if I would be interested in writing an abridged version of a popular children’s classic, using different text types along with activities, questions, teaching guides and lesson plans. It was a wonderful opportunity, so I agreed and since then, I’ve written six of these books for the series, covering half of the original novel. The teaching guides and lesson plans are still being developed but a few schools have already started using the resources. I was invited to teach the writing lessons for the first school that started using the books. The feedback was mostly positive with some suggestions for modifying the activities for less able learners. I am still working on this project and writing new content for the books.

Fast forward to this past week…

Another school has also been using the books to teach their P5 students. Originally, another trainer was supposed to teach the lessons but they had a personal issue they needed to deal with and opted out of teaching. They approached me and asked me to take over. I was given limited information and background about the school and the students. They gave me a brief outline of what they wanted to cover in the lessons and I had around two weeks to plan the lessons. I created a PowerPoint with all the content I wanted to teach and sent it to the person I was in contact with in the company, but was not part of the school. The only constructive comment they gave me was to add some more pictures and images to illustrate what was on the slides.

On the day of the first lesson, I was not greeted by anyone at the school. I was merely instructed to arrive directly at the designated classroom, set up and wait for the students to be taken there. As soon as the students arrived, I had to begin the lesson. There was barely an introduction. I’m sure half of them didn’t know what they were doing there and what I was doing there. I started with a simple ice breaker then gave them a Kahoot! game to play, with questions about the first few chapters of the book. This was followed by a short introduction to a food mentioned in the book and then an online word cloud and survey using Mentimeter. After all these interactive games and online participation, I started to get into the more explicit teaching of a recipe, first by skimming and scanning, and then looking at the features, language and vocabulary used in a recipe in more detail. I explained about the word choice, verb form, sentence structures, layout and format and asked them to read the recipe again identifying those features. I ended the lesson by telling them what to prepare for the next lesson and finished right on time. I thought the lesson went quite smoothly. Students were engaged, they smiled, they raised their hands and answered questions. They could even explain their answers. As someone who has never met these students before, I thought I had done a pretty good job. Well, that thought was quickly shattered. The person who had been contacting me and acting as the middle person between me and the school’s English panel, sent me a message. The message supposedly contained the English teachers’ feedback to me. I should also add that there were two teachers walking in and out of the lesson and neither of them had stayed to observe the entire 1.5 hours I was there. Their first comment was extremely negative – and in my 10 years of teaching, I had never been given such a negative comment – ‘The lesson was too boring’. Had I been blind and failed to see how bored the students were? Were their smiles smiles of boredom? I felt confused, frustrated and rather pissed off, to be quite honest. Was I there doing my teaching placement that they thought they needed to give me this kind of feedback? Do they think they have a right to appraise me or judge my performance? Do they not know who had written those books they were using? Do they think they could have done a better job and that I was wasting their time? Do they realise that they had chosen to hire someone else to teach their students instead of teaching the lessons themselves? To make matters worse, the person I was in contact with was not even present during the lesson, and neither was the English panel. I have no idea who those teachers were who observed the lesson and gave those comments. When the lesson finished, they simply took the students down without batting an eyelash at me or even saying goodbye and I didn’t even know if I could leave or not. I packed up my things and took the elevator down and just happened to see the teacher who was observing the lesson, and asked if I needed to speak to anyone about the lesson. He simply replied, ‘We’ll let you know,’ and got in the elevator and closed the door. I found this a little rude and disrespectful. I mean, if the lesson had been that boring and terrible, they should have spoken to me directly during the lesson or immediately after, but no. They refused to speak to me while I was there and spoke to someone else after I had left, and that person had to text me the comments. I don’t even know if that was a direct comment or who had said it. The whole experience made me extremely annoyed and frustrated.

In all my years of teaching, I have never received such a comment from my colleagues or superiors or even given such a comment to anyone else. Regardless of how you really feel about someone else’s lesson, you would never say this to another professional teacher. I honestly don’t think that the lesson had been as bad as they had described. I am not completely unaware of my weaknesses and I am not blind to students’ reactions and responses. I would know if I had taught a bad lesson, and I definitely have taught some bad lessons in the past, but that was not a bad lesson. I was fully prepared, confident and covered everything I had planned, paced the lesson perfectly and students responded and participated well.

It was also the first of three lessons. I paced the lessons and activities so that they would have more group work and interaction and produce their own work in the second and third lesson after they had been given the necessary information and input in the first lesson. How can you expect them to do anything without first teaching them what they needed to know? But those teachers expected all of that in the first lesson!

If you need to give feedback, be constructive and avoid using obviously subjective words. A teacher who is observing a lesson and not participating as a student would find many lessons ‘boring’. This is not a good reflection of students’ feelings. As a professional teacher, I’ve also had to observe other teachers’ lesson and give feedback. They were not always great, and there were times when I needed to give negative feedback, but they were always constructive. I had never used the word ‘boring’ because this word is neither constructive nor helpful and it only discourages an already exhausted and hardworking teacher who had devoted time and energy to plan and teach their lesson. I used concrete examples, highlighting the way a certain student had responded or how difficult it was to understand certain concepts without providing examples or whether a certain response was suitable or not, etc. I’ve also received negative comments but they were helpful and constructive and I was able to learn and improve from them. I never took offense or felt like they were unreasonable. I could recognise my own weaknesses.

There are bound to be lessons that are more fun and lessons that are less fun. We need to understand the purpose and learning outcomes of a lesson before making such comments. Some students think writing and penmanship is fun and interesting while others would find that boring. Even when you have a whole lesson of interactive games, someone may find those games boring. ‘Boring’ is not a valid, constructive or helpful comment for any context, not just in describing a lesson. I would also suggest that we all avoid using this word to describe a book or film as well because I know how difficult it is for someone to write a book or make a film. Let’s not crush and discourage others with this meaningless word! Remove this word completely from your vocabulary and be more specific, constructive and helpful! It’s not that we shouldn’t give negative feedback, we just need to be more skillful and considerate when doing so.

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