Saturday, February 8, 2014

On Feedback: All Things Being Equal, Not All Feedback Is

Aren't you interested in getting feedback?

I was asked this question in a conference session last weekend. One might think such a query would automatically evoke a positive response. But the truth is, I am not the least bit interested in feedback simply for the sake of feedback. After all, not all feedback is equal. Teachers should concern themselves with feedback, but we need to qualify and set criteria for receiving feedback.

For example, in terms of student feedback, I'm more interested in feedback from students who attend class, from those who attempt assignments, from kids who show respect to their peers and to me.
As part of my adjunct faculty position, I'm required to provide a course evaluation to students. I'm always eager to read their comments and ratings. Even when a comment seems unfair, which has happened a couple of times, I stop and think about the student's perception that resulted in that feedback. Once a student accused me of having favorites. I can see why a student would say that. I spend much time with students who text questions to me, who email their work for me to review prior to a due date, who come in for extra help. Those who don't do these things may think students who do are my favorites. I get that.

Last week a student in the dual credit class I teach commented that the course work is easy for _____. The student who made this comment fails to see the time the student whom she judged puts into the assignments. The student giving feedback also doesn't see the student she thinks has an easy time sitting in my room working through the tough issues long after others have left school for the day. All she sees are the "easy time" student's speeches.

A few years ago as part of our state superintendent's draconian Students First legislation, each district was required to craft a plan for eliciting feedback from parents. We've had our district's plan implemented three years now. Teachers choose five parents from whom to solicit feedback, and five are selected randomly. On average, two parents per teacher respond. Yes, two. That's how many I had. I only had two last year, too. The first year three responded.

How concerned, then, should teachers in my district be about parental feedback when only 20% accept the invitation to provide any? The subtext of this abysmal statistic is that the general feedback about public education being a failure may come from those with an axe to grind rather then from an objective representation of the population. A second possible way of interpreting this statistic is that more than 80% of the district's patrons are satisfied and feel no compulsion to complete the feedback survey. Indeed, there are other possible interpretations. But the point is that the feedback is relatively worthless, but it costs cash-strapped districts money to administer it.

Back to my conference session. It was part of the training I received at the NEA BL MTP conference in Washington D.C. last weekend (January 31-February 2, 2014). Along with a small group of other English teachers, I was told, "You all have problems with voice." This hasty generalization was offered by a session leader who thought English teachers would benefit from reading math lessons from two teachers. This made no sense to me. I don't know the first thing about math pedagogy, and I'm not the audience for math lesson plans on any site. Still, I was expected to give feedback on the lessons. I contend that no math teacher should ever give serious consideration to anything I have to say about their lesson construction, unless I'm editing for grammar and surface errors.

Conversely, I'm not interested in feedback about my lessons from math teachers. Nor am I open to carte blanche remarks about voice in my writing when I have been provided no specific criteria on which those comments are grounded.

One of the huge problems teachers face in American public education is the absence of meaningful feedback. Rarely do we receive feedback from experts in our curricular area. One of the great benefits of teaching in the Early College Program is being evaluated by an expert in communication and rhetoric. My supervisor offers both constructive criticism and meaningful accolades. I'm grateful for both.

So when it comes to feedback, it's not all equal, and we should consider both the source and substance of the feedback that comes our way. With the power of my voice, that's a message I'm voicing as loudly and as clearly as I can, regardless of the pushback, the feedback, or the backlash.

CC license via google images