The craft of feedback

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Morning debrief with Natalie, January 2016

My phone rings at quarter to midnight. I don’t have the sort of life in which anyone ever calls me so late, especially on a school night.  I am jolted out of sleep, expecting a nightmare of something-gone-wrong. But when I see who is calling, I smile my way to awakeness.

“Ok, so I know it is really late where you are, but I could not wait until morning to tell you how amazing this is….” and Natalie is off on a sing-song ramble through the January edition of the student paper I advise, which our editors published on the website a few hours earlier.  I am mostly quiet as she praises the front-page stories, layout, and design – and then I ask a question or two as she offers some feedback on content.

Natalie is in California, so it is not quite so late as here on the east coast. I start to feel like I’m on her time – more awake, less exhausted, as the anxiety of the last several days washes away. Every word of her feedback matters. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and I am taking notes.

We arrange for her to meet with the student team via video chat the next morning – ridiculously early her time, but she is so excited to talk with them that she does not want to wait.

Teachers get evaluated each year. So do most employees in most jobs. Whether we call it the “annual performance review” or the “seven touches model,” some sort of formalized evaluation process promises to help us improve our craft. The problem with the process is that too often, no one is excited about the formality of it all. Evaluators mull over much these evaluations add to their workloads, and how busy they are with observations, meetings, and paperwork. Teachers overprepare for observations, staying up too late the night before to plan for every contingency. Or – maybe worse – we shrug the evaluation off as a checkbox, a one (or seven)-and-done part of each year that does not relate much to our daily business. We grit our teeth through the process, and we head back to the grind when it is over.

If I sound cynical, it’s because I’ve been observing a parallel. We observe that our students complain about assessments, cram before presentations, and reduce learning to a grade. But have we considered how closely we model these habits to them?

Natalie’s feedback is different.

On-screen the next morning, she is in her San Francisco kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee and waving good morning to our staff. She starts with an overall assessment of the issue, then focuses specifically on each article. The student journalists approach the monitor first shyly, then enthusiastically, to greet her and answer questions when she discusses each story.

Much of the feedback is very positive, but not all of it. She asks some focused questions and calls out a few of our habits. At one point, I hear a student mutter, “Burned….” but he is smiling.

Natalie working with our staff, August 2015

Natalie working with our staff, August 2015

Natalie’s feedback is a warm and unsolicited surprise. She doesn’t have to be there on screen, before sunrise in California – she wants to be there. After all, building this paper is a journey she has taken beside us, over several years. She helps to train our staff each August, and she keeps in contact throughout the year. Last summer, she came in a day early to have dinner with our editors as they grappled over how to cover a controversy. By the end of what started off as a very tense day, we all had a clear plan – and we were able to laugh about it. As an adviser, I know that I could call her at midnight with a burning ethical question, and she would pull herself awake to offer me the best advice. Our student journalists have her email contact and an unconditional offer to help in any way she can.

Feedback is an everyday and constant element of teaching and learning craft. Practically speaking, if I am not on top of my feedback game each day in the ceramics studio, pieces fall apart. Pedagogically, the transformation of wet clay into finished work is a journey I take alongside each student. This doesn’t mean hand-holding – except when Ceramics 1 students are learning to center. Instead, I’ve learned that often my best strategy for feedback is climate control.

Demonstrate the need-to-know content or technique. Set the environment so that students are comfortable and confident asking for advice. Then step back and give them space to work. Stay deeply invested without hovering. Celebrate together when projects work out successfully. Don’t be ashamed about red eyes when something explodes or collapses.

But now that not all of my teaching is in the studio, I’m learning that climate control for feedback in other content is a lot harder than the strategies I’ve evolved in ceramics.

Close-distance learning + feedback in the studio

Close-distance learning + feedback in the studio

Some of it has to do with distance. I can’t offer feedback on ceramics from anywhere but the studio, and it’s far harder to do when students are not in the room. It may seem easier to mark up writing at home and hand back the papers the next day, and this is what my students expect. But marks on paper can feel authoritarian and much too easy to dismiss. Heck, I’m not even sure if they understand this sort of feedback. I recently asked a student if he understood what a teacher meant by a scrawled note reading ‘clarity’ in the margin of his paper. He looked at me blankly and shrugged.

Feedback is a very different process when I’m sitting beside a student reporter as we review his story, reading lines out loud, and resolving comments on the document together, one by one. It feels like what we do in ceramics: problem-solving together, looking at process and product from all angles. But how do we make the time to do this?

Then there is the issue of authenticity. When I know that an evaluation model adds to someone’s heavy workload, I’m timid about seeking feedback, and I don’t expect it to be offered freely. I don’t want my students to ever feel this way, like my primary motivation for feedback is because I have to offer it. When they get to know me, they know that I’m busy – but I never want my own workload to stand in the way of offering authentic feedback and support. This takes a type of radical presence in class. Put everything else away. Don’t look at email, don’t bring other work. Come early, stay late, get your hands dirty. Some days I’m good at this, and other days the distractions are just too overwhelming.

When someone takes the journey beside you, in close distance (even from the other side of the country) and with great authenticity, feedback is a joy. It’s relational and motivating.  Every reporter left Wednesday morning’s meeting proud of the January issue, and with ideas on how he could make next month better. Better still, authentic feedback is contagious. After sharing the morning with Natalie, I know I felt re-energized about offering feedback to others, in all of the ways I do this as a teacher, adviser, and colleague.

My favorite teacher feedback happened several years ago. A new administrator at our school dropped my classroom several times unannounced. This would have felt intimidating, except that shortly after each visit, he simply shared a note of positive and constructive comments, and a thoughtful question. The feedback was close, prompt, personal, felt unsolicited and unrequired, and seemed genuinely focused on growth. It was a strategy clearly grounded in a busy schedule, as none of the visits were long. But nothing about these visits felt “had to” – it all felt “want to,” and like part of a long-term journey. After each visit, I felt motivated and eager to try something new. The visits trailed off, but I wonder about the strategy.

How can we craft feedback so that it is delivered with Natalie’s enthusiasm, my admin’s close presence, and the authenticity we all deserve?

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