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On Being a Critical Friend (And Not A Hater)

by Jose Vilson on February 6, 2011

in Jose

Yes, Really.

9 out of what?!” I yelled out in the middle of a spoken word competition after I vehemently disagreed with both the poets and audience who sought it fit to give a tawdry poem about city life high marks. That was two years ago, and I thought I got rid of the hater bug by then, but I obviously didn’t. I wasn’t offering any constructive feedback, but felt the urge to sting the innocuous audience for the compliance with this insult to my time, money, and poetic senses. We elitists take our poetry far too seriously.

All joking aside, this little episode offered me a lens into what I believe about criticism and the functions of actually telling someone what you’re feeling right then and there. A few days later, our school had a meeting with a district representative who never ceases to find fault and obfuscates the process of reviewing schools at every turn. I got a headache from the amount of times I rolled my eyes. His group left me thinking about the trickle-down effect that sort of attitude has in the eyes of principals, teachers, staff, and students. There is only so much criticism schools can take before they shut the door to anyone else. These effects move from criticism and elucidation to straight up hate and condescension.

In a public service like teaching, the jobs are the model for thankless. Unless the teacher has reached a certain level of notoriety or respect, the default feedback when watching their lesson is to say, “That was alright, but here’s how it could have been better.” Colleagues, administrators, coaches, and third-party consultants have the same reaction in nuance and cynicism even when the teacher is desperately seeking progressive feedback. In both fields of poetry and teaching, I find that being a critical friend means helping individuals become better through a good balance of constructive reflections on what worked and what didn’t. Teachers in high-stress areas need encouragement for their professional efforts but also know a place for someone coming in to find something they can work on.

Here are three things you can do to improve feedback for teachers in your school:

  1. Come into a discussion with positive intention. As I mentioned on the FOT blog, walkthroughs in high-pressure cultures are the devil’s work. They’re usually not done to hold teachers to a high level of effectiveness, but to instill fear and gotchas. It’s a cynical approach to feedback. I’ve seen humiliation and classlessness during teachable moments between teachers and supervisors, and they lost the opportunity with their attitude. Don’t come into a discussion looking to ruin someone; look to develop them.
  2. Manage expectations. Pick one thing you think they can work on, and go from there. If all they ever received was positive feedback, you can probably add a few more areas of improvement. It’s a balanced approach, really.
  3. If you can’t explain the essence of “it” without big words, then you don’t really know it. I agree to an extent that any professional within their sphere should have a good understanding of the technical terms of their industry. Yet, educators aren’t the only people educators speak to. They have to speak to “the people.” Kids need to know. Parents need to know. Staff needs to know. Newer teachers need to know, and turnkey some explanation to the aforementioned members of the school community. Clearly.

The worst type of feedback I ever received? It was someone who barely knew the school and our math leader invited into the building. I invited her to my room during my second year of teaching. With Machiavellian language, she decided in her infinite wisdom to destroy any trust I had in both her and the leader by listing my faults in succession in front of the rest of the department. It almost felt like someone who was told beforehand to disregard her experiences as a teacher and play mercenary for someone’s full intentions.

She was there to play hater. Instead of taking anything I could have received from this esteemed visiting expert, I resented her presence. And sent her energy right back to her soon after.

Jose, who is definitely writing during the Super Bowl. He won’t stop …

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