Feedback, the Pandora’s Box

Something happened today. But I must warn the reader in advance – this is not going to be a self-indulgent post. I don’t know if I feel like writing it up at all, let alone publishing it. It’s about something nobody wants to experience – the feeling of failure, guilt, bitter disappointment and despair. But deep inside I feel that putting it down may help in the end. Because nothing else is helping.

Today I had my penultimate lesson with my final year students. For the last couple of months they’ve been preparing for their school-leaving exam which they are going to sit next week. This exam has two alternatives – the state version and the school (profile) one. Nine out of 13 students have been preparing for the state alternative, two for the school one and two are not taking an exam in English at all. I know they’ve been under a lot of stress recently (and our lessons have been terribly exam-oriented), so I wanted to make the last lessons as relaxing as possible. So for today I had planned to play a nice video about London, which we finally watched. At the end of the lesson I asked the students what they wanted to do in the final lesson and they suggested we could go for an ice cream the next day (i.e. tomorrow). I didn’t see why I should disagree.

By coincidence, earlier today my colleague had asked me if we could do a short feedback questionnaire before we watch the video. This is something all final year students do before they leave school. In this questionnaire they answer general questions concerning the overall atmosphere in the school and comment on the equipment, subjects and teachers. It’s anonymous but students write by hand so obviously it’s not difficult to find out who wrote what, especially in a class of 13. So the students know that everything they write may be traced back to their names. I don’t want to judge the quality of such a questionnaire but that’s the way it is and it’s not terribly important at the moment.

My colleague, who teaches the other part of the same class, had already collected the questionnaires on Friday in her group. Every teacher has the right to see the answers related to his/her subject and all the results are finally processed, evaluated and discussed. So yes, today we finally did peep inside…… and we opened Pandora’s Box……

I can’t cite all the answers literally but some of the comments were really nasty and rude, definitely far from constructive. Just a few examples:

What would you improve? I’d slap around the head teacher and sack X and Y because they are snitches….. (my name included, probably because of an incident when I caught one student playing truant).
Who was your favourite teacher? X and Y because they weren’t bastards.
Which lessons didn’t you like? X because it was crap and especially the teacher was a bugger.

One of the comments addressed explicitly to me: All the lessons were totally useless and if I didn’t attend an evening course, I would be totally lost….. Plus ‘the teacher ignored the two students preparing for the school exam and worked exclusively with those preparing for the state alternative’.

Well, wondering why my heart aches?

First, I thought I had a good relationship with all the students.
Second, I thought I did my best to prepare them for the final exam and because both versions of the exam overlap a great deal, I didn’t worry about those two (brilliant) students taking the school exam.
Third, I thought none of them would be capable of writing such rude comments. Why, they knew we would read them. Yes, I know what you think ….. they wanted us to read them.
Four, although most of the comments were neutral and some were positive (a nice teacher, interesting lessons), none of the students mentioned they had learned something at all!!!!!

Now, there are a million questions swirling in my head. First of all, is this kind of malicious feedback of any value to me and other teachers? And as Mike Griffin mentions in one of his posts: should any students be excluded from the opportunity to give feedback? What does this approach to feedback say about the students, myself and the society in general? Shall I dissociate from all the emotional impact it’s had on me? Should I analyse the situation and take it strictly rationally?

And the most acute question ……how shall I handle the situation tomorrow? We are going for an ice cream, remember?

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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4 Responses to Feedback, the Pandora’s Box

  1. Hi Hana, I really don't know what to say about this.

    I don't want to make any excuses for the students, but I really think that this just shows a lack of maturity on their part – they are still developing. I really think that they don't know what they are saying is genuinely harmful. I remember a similar activity that we did in my school at the end of the year. I know for a fact that quite a few students wrote false names, and wrote things that they really didn't mean. Why? I don't know exactly, but just like your students, it was exam time. Maybe it was a way to blow off steam.

    From the discussions that we have had online, I honestly can't believe that it really has anything to do with you or your teaching. While teachers can do their best to be kind and friendly to students, I think most students will still see teachers as teachers first.

    You also mention that most of the comments were neutral or positive, but none of them mentioned that they had learned anything. Well, to be honest, while I probably did feel I learned a lot at school, it wasn't until after that I really knew I had learned a lot – it just took me some time to realise it. I don't think that I really thanked any of my teachers, even though I felt thankful towards them. We are seeing something similar now in the UK after the death of the teacher in Leeds yesterday. Students are writing messages to say thanks to her, and that they wish that they had told her so before she was killed.

    I really hope that you don't take their comments to heart, and I hope that at some point in the future, they will realise that what they did was wrong. Perhaps you'll never hear it from them, but I believe that as they mature, they may even regret what they wrote.

    You mention Mike's post about feedback. Did you also read this post from him? http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/a-letter-to-my-high-school-spanish-teacher/

    -David

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Dear David,
    I'm so grateful for your comment. By now I've actually got all over it (at least I hope so). The despair was intense but it’s gone now. My colleagues and I discussed the feedback outcomes all day at school and like your comment, the discussions were very helpful. There are a lot of important details I didn’t include in this post, such as the fact that this class had been notorious for causing a lot of ‘evil’ at our school. And I mean ‘evil’ related to more than just being immature. But still, we seemed to work well together and there were no signs of hatred or the like, probably up to the moment when I dared criticize them and try to stop their undesirable behaviour (truancy).
    Anyway, today we went out as I had promised – I simply found it professional, and the only option. We chatted naturally, as usual, except for the fact that the boy who had written the nastiest words kept hiding from me and didn’t look me in the eyes. They mentioned the feedback questionnaires, reassuring each other that nobody will find out who wrote what. I told them calmly that they might be mistaken, but they didn’t really seem to care and we didn’t elaborate on this because I didn’t see a point. As I watched them chat merrily and light-heartedly, I suddenly felt very sad. But this wasn’t self-pity anymore; I felt sorry for them. I wished them luck with the exam and left, feeling as free as a bird….
    This incident has taught me one of the greatest lessons, and I need to process thoroughly. To look on the bright side, earlier today I saw some more positive comments from those students who were missing yesterday. I’m not totally hopeless after all…. :-
    Hana

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  3. venvve says:

    Hi Hana,
    Of course you're not hopeless – far from it! It's probably impossible to say exactly what prompted the students to make their hurtful comments, but I agree with David in saying it wasn't you or your teaching. Your story reminded me of a colleague who in a similar questionnaire was accused of having sexually harassed a student. This was some years ago. She was devastated because she had absolutely no idea what had prompted this kind of comment. The comment had obviously been made with the sole purpose of upsetting the teacher, and the (male) student never filed a formal complaint nor was there ever any talk of the teacher treating her students with anything but the utmost respect.
    What I'm trying to say is that when students make outrageous comments in these questionnaires (like calling for a teacher's dismissal or advocating violence – slapping the head teacher around??) I realize that it's very hard not to react emotionally, but it's important not to attach too much importance to it. In an ideal world (or in a movie) you'd be able to talk to these students and “get through” to them, make them see the value of constructive criticism, but in real life you're not going to see them again and they're not worth getting upset about. Which is, of course, much easier said than done, but I think it helps to sleep on it.
    Having said this, maybe it would help to devote a class around the time they're expected to fill out the questionnaire to giving feedback and making suggestions for improvement in a manner that isn't confrontational or hostile. But I kind of doubt that it would've helped in this case.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your sensitive and pragmatic comment, Vedrana. I like the distinction you draw between the real world and the ideal world. I think you hit the nail on the head; in real life things are far from ideal.
    Anyway, I've already taken some steps to avoid such a painful situation in the future. For another class (17 year olds) I created my own questionnaire, where I asked them the following questions: What I like about the lessons/What I'd like to change/improve/ What the teacher can do for me/What I can do for myself. It was NOT an anonymous questionnaire – I asked them to be honest but not rude (not that I thought they would). I got some great answers which will help me adjust the content and methods to the students' individual needs. And I'm planning to talk to the students on a regular basis, not just before they leave forever.
    Well, nothing new under the sun, you may say. This almost sounds like a cliché but at this moment it's so true and real, not just some theory I read about in a book on pedagogy. My conclusion: student feedback is valuable and helpful but it can be Pandora's Box under certain circumstances, especially if not designed and conducted professionally.
    Hana

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