Feedback

Because of the nature of my job as an educator I'm constantly assessing my students' work and progress. I've got to admit, I sort of enjoy playing Simon Cowell or God or whatever—bestowing labels of brilliance on some, and verdicts of condemnation on others. It's a real power trip.

However, I myself (as part of a bureaucratic institution) am constantly being assessed by peers, by administrators, and the most frightening of all, by students—the voice of the mob writing anonymously and honestly about their feelings. I've never been a fan of anonymous feedback, but one could make a strong case that people's true feelings are only be expressed under the umbrella of anonymity.

My general tack when receiving feedback is to delude myself into believing that positive stuff about me—my teaching style, my sense of humor etc.,—is true and that anything negative someone might say is false. "Everyone must think I'm terrific and doing a terrific job, and if they don't feel that way then they must be wrong."

Every semester I get a packet in the mail containing essentially what my students think of me in the form of course evaluations. They rank me one through five on multiple criteria. This data is assimilated into graphs and charts for easy consumption. But I pay little attention to the numbers, always flipping to the back to see what they've written themselves in the comments section.

Quite honestly I've had entire days ruined by some of the things they've said. I drink heavy (coffee) and let it all soak in. I tell myself they're all a bunch of bitter malcontents, but the words hurt because I sense some trueness (I do play favorites, and I don't return projects in a timely manner). The words of affirmation provide some ballast, but it's the negative feedback that keeps me up at night.

Here are some general questions to mull over in the face of criticism:

  1. Consider the source. Is it a valued voice?
  2. What are the motives of the critic(s)?
  3. Are there consistent points that come up again and again, and from multiple voices?
  4. Am I willing to listen and honestly assess, and even change, based upon the criticism?