On Receiving Feedback from my Students

One thing that I’m proud about coming out of my fellowship last year is the newfound confidence that I have as a teacher.  Perhaps it’s related to the validation associated with receiving such a prestigious honor as a Rowland Fellowship, but I believe it’s more likely that this new confidence is more a matter of learning to see my job, and my role as a teacher, in a completely new way than before.

Instead of seeing myself as an engaging performer (as I did very early in my career) or as a selector of well-chosen, engaging student-centered practices (as I did for the past few years), I’ve come to see myself as a student of my students, a constant researcher into how they’re doing, what they’re understanding, what sense they’re making of my instruction, and what they need to move forward.  In short, where once I was afraid of hearing students’ feedback for fear that I was not having an impact, now I see it as my job to constantly solicit this feedback in order to understand how best to reach them.  

In a way, I’m putting aside my own ego, asking myself to behave much more as a practitioner, a constant learner open to feedback and eager to “revise” my own teaching — rather than an all-knowing, perfect-the-first-time but fragile creator.  This is, funnily enough, exactly the same sort of shift I ask my student writers to make in my classes. How can I expect them to seek out readers’ opinions, embrace feedback, and constantly revise — without modeling the same approach in my own teaching?

In a way, it takes a kind of confidence to solicit student feedback (whether in one-on-one conferences, or on reflection letters at the end of a unit).  And yet, in a larger sense, it doesn’t. It’s simply a different approach. It takes time to get to the point in your teaching where you no longer care enough to desire the appearance of being a great teacher; instead you actually wish to be one.  You no longer seek the outward signs that you’re succeeding — students sitting and listening rapt, students laughing at your jokes — instead, you want nothing more than to see the actual signs that students are achieving.

And hearing that feedback from students can be so critically important.  This was brought home to me the other day when, teaching a group of juniors and seniors, I became convinced that the day’s peer writing groups, always a tenuous negotiation, were falling flat.  The groups were showing obvious signs of dysfunction: groups were finishing early, there seemed to be little discussion among students, and — here, in retrospect, it sounds ridiculous as it truly is, the looks on students’ faces did not betray the animation that I’ve come to expect from an engaging day of group work.  There were even a few students wandering between groups toward the end of the period, a sure sign to me, of students rushing through their work to arrive at social time.

I could feel myself getting mad, but instead of chastising the groups, I sought honest feedback.  I quickly created a Google Form and posted it on the class’s Google Classroom. With ten minutes left in class, I asked student students to answer the questions, which were neutral-sounding and open-ended: How did writing groups go today?  What could we do to improve them for future sessions? Is there anyone in your group whose contribution you would care to describe? I fully expected my students, always honest on such reflections or surveys, to be just as disappointed with the rudderless groups as they appeared to be.

Imagine my surprise when the comments from this group of blunt teenagers came back glowing.  Their groups were great. Feedback was intensely helpful. They appreciated the more hands-off approach I’d taken.  What had helped? They gave rich examples. What could be changed? Honestly, nothing. Today was incredibly helpful.

I was floored.  These were honest students doing an anonymous survey with no incentive to lie and no track record of doing anything but the exact opposite.  And yet all of their feedback was strikingly similar: they got a lot out of the peer work. And yet, everything in my twelve years of teaching experience told me that that lesson had been meager at best, a wasted hour.  And yet, under the surface, hidden from sight had been a rich dialogue (much of it conducted through online comments in Google documents), helpful advice given in quiet voices, and ample time devoted to each child’s work.  I couldn’t understand how I’d been so wrong about what I’d seen, and to some extent, I still can’t.

But that’s the way of learning in the classroom.  Graham Nuthall, a New Zealand researcher whose work I studied last year during my fellowship, spent a career trying to understand how and why students learn.  Eventually, he began to realize the importance of peer talk for student learning, and he got so desperate to understand peer influence that he received permission to place tiny microphones in high school classrooms to pick up even student whispers.  (Sounds shady, doesn’t it? Somewhere Richard Nixon was nodding with approval.) His findings were striking: even in apparently teacher-directed classrooms, students learn far more from their peers than from their teachers; much of what students learn from peers is misinformed or even downright wrong.  (Nuthall also discovered alarming amounts of taunting and bullying as well.) One of his conclusions from the study was that students live in three different worlds within the classroom: the public world of the teacher, the “highly influential” world of peers, and the student’s own private world and experiences.

But it’s hard for teachers to understand any of this without soliciting feedback.  The other day’s lesson brought that home to me. I’m glad I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I no longer care to appear to be a good teacher, where I’m comfortable enough to ask students what they’ve learned and what they haven’t, and to adjust my teaching to respond.  

I like to think that I’ve finally “gotten over myself” as a brilliant presenter or a master lesson designer.  I remember that in Phillip Roth’s book the Ghostwriter the aged writer / Bernard Malamud stand-in urges the young would-be author Nathan Zuckerman not to idolize him.  He says something like, “All I do is turn over sentences.” It’s that sort of hard-won humility about my role as a professional teacher, not a magician, that has allowed me, paradoxically, to take my teaching to the next level. 

It’s almost a cliche for teachers to claim that they “learn from their students.” And yet, as I’ve realized, if you want to figure out how to teach them, you’ve got to figure out how to learn from them first.