Listening to feedback: the line between self-reflection and self-doubt

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 20/08/2020

When I was a child, I always had this nagging feeling around adults: why was it that everything I said was met with a smirk, a knowing look or – sometimes – just dismissed out of hand? It’s like that when you’re a trainee in a school. You might feel like you can teach pretty well and that your classes are ticking along nicely, thank you very much.

For all kinds of reasons, the success of your placements comes down almost exclusively to your ability to demonstrate that you are able to listen to feedback. Pedagogically, the very least someone watching your lesson can give you is a new perspective on what they’ve seen. At the very least, they will be able to pose questions for you to reflect on, some of which might be more difficult to hear than others.

Fundamentally, feedback ought to be two-way, and collaborative. Sadly, this might not always be the case, so sometimes it’s about adapting to the situations you find yourself in. For me, receiving feedback is key because it offers you the chance to see things from the students’ point of view: it allows you to model for yourself what it is like to construct and play an active role in your own learning.

In some cases, feedback can feel generic and not really constructive. Worse still, you might even feel like the feedback that your mentor or class teachers are giving you isn’t relevant to what you’re trying to achieve.

But whether you like it or not, it’s important to demonstrate that you can take on board feedback with perspective. The trouble is that people can be giving you feedback from their own angles, and expect you to coordinate it in your mind to create what might end up looking like Frankenstein’s Monster, if you’re not careful. The key is what you choose to do with the information, and for you to be honest with yourself about what is best for your practice and the students.

I always think that the longer teaching placement, in particular, can feel a bit like you’re ready to go: you’ve got the basics, you’re over the worst of it, and you just want to crack on. That false sense of security – to varying degrees – is the same one that dogs teachers throughout their careers. The very best teachers, though, are the ones that tread that fine line between reflection and self-doubt.

That line is a tough one to tread: not least because factors such as physical or mental fatigue can colour your perception. Perspective is absolutely everything in this job. One thing that all successful teachers have is the ability to reflect. There is no such thing as an effective teacher that doesn’t understand the benefits of reflecting on their practice.

So what, exactly does all of this mean? The solution, I think, is honesty. Honesty begins with yourself in terms of how you feel things are going. This means looking past your frustrations and insecurities and being honest about where you feel you need to develop. The other side of this is being honest with colleagues that give you feedback: everyone should have the integrity and trust their own judgement enough to be able to explain, exemplify and demonstrate precisely what they mean by their advice.

Five questions to ask yourself when receiving feedback

1. How am I reacting to this in my gut?

As odd as this sounds, acknowledging our gut emotional reactions to situations is important. If you feel upset, frustrated, exasperated, irritated or just apathetic, then it’s important to recognise it. Once you do this, you can create space between your mind and your feelings, a sense of perspective, and be in a place to hear the feedback in the most effective way.

2. What truths do I need to acknowledge?

However irritating it might feel, acknowledging what you might need to develop is vital. Is there something about a class that bugs you? What is it? Is there an area of your subject knowledge which isn’t as sharp as you’d like? Acknowledging these types of things – and how they might get in the way of your development – is vital.

3. How can I turn this into something positive?

As annoying as this sounds, always try and turn feedback into something positive. Being relentlessly positive might feel counterintuitive at times, but taking away a learning point, or something to work on, is actually incredibly empowering if you give it a chance. Some of the most powerful influences on my practice started out as things which felt completely counterintuitive at the time: things like counting down from three for silence, or insisting on an orderly exit in a specific way. These are small things, but they can make a massive difference.

4. What tangible routes forward can I plot?

If you’re unclear about the specifics, be clear with the person feeding back to you: what tangible actions are needed to create the most effective next steps? Agreeing two or three specific points of action is a really empowering way of making this happen. Be really specific about how feedback links to other pieces of feedback you have received. Remember, the common denominator in all feedback is you, so it’s absolutely vital that you hear and receive feedback in a way that helps you to improve.

5. Where can I see this in action?

Try to use space in your timetable to see examples of what is being discussed in practice. There will be pockets of excellence in and around the school where you can see examples of best practice. Go and seek them out!

Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons is a head of department and author of The Compassionate Teacher.