Vulnerable Moments: Opening Your Classroom to Feedback
Written by Brette Garner
Seeking feedback on teaching can be pretty vulnerable. When we invite someone into our classroom, they could see and hear any number of things — the good, the bad, and the ugly. They might notice things that we don’t like, including some things that we weren’t even aware of. Students might do something unexpected, and the lesson might not go as well as we’d like.
Teaching is inherently complex and uncertain: Each lesson entails countless interactions between students and the teacher. This can make observations and feedback intimidating, even if we know that it’s also necessary for us to learn and grow as professionals.
For the last few years, Project SIGMa has been partnering with secondary math teachers to: 1) Ask what questions they want feedback on; 2) Videotape their classrooms, including students’ small-group conversations; 3) Review the video with their questions in mind; and 4) Provide feedback around their questions.
Basically, we’ve been asking teachers to get SUPER vulnerable with us.
When we interviewed teachers about their experiences being videotaped, a number of folks talked about vulnerability, and some even mentioned Brené Brown’s work. Brown is a psychologist who studies shame, that painful feeling that you are flawed and unworthy of belonging and connection (I am bad). She distinguishes this from guilt, which is a feeling of discomfort about your actions, thoughts, or circumstances (I did something bad). The difference is important, since there’s a lot of psychology research that shows how guilt can be a motivator for change, while shame inhibits change. If you did something bad (guilt), you can make amends or change future behavior. But if you are bad (shame), you try to hide your mistakes and avoid change — you might even think it’s not possible to change.
After diving into the Brené Brown corpus — including Dare to Lead, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection — and revisiting our interviews with teachers, I noticed four mindset shifts that can help teachers be more open and vulnerable to feedback. And even though these were themes that came out of interviews with our partner teachers, they’re also things that I have experienced as a teacher and teacher educator. If these resonate with you, I recommend checking out Brown’s books or TED Talks.
Unlearning perfectionism: Try healthy striving
As teachers, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves by trying to be good — or even perfect! — every day. To some teachers, observations (especially with video) felt like being under a microscope, where every flaw was magnified so that their shortcomings were on display. But perfectionism is a trap: There is no such thing as a perfect lesson, much less a perfect teacher. We all have good days and bad days, and we can always tinker with and improve good (and bad) lessons.
Instead of perfectionism, we should try healthy striving, recognizing that reflection and growth are natural parts of teaching. Classrooms are always changing, so we’ll never be “done” learning. Furthemore, every choice we make will be good in some ways and bad in others — so all we can do is strive to be thoughtful about our choices, trying to do the best we can, with what we have, where we are.
Resisting gremlins: Try self-compassion
Brown writes about shame tapes — the voice in the back of your head that keeps repeating something you feel shameful about — and calls them “gremlins.” These gremlins ruminate on that one mistake you made. They overemphasize critical feedback and downplay positive feedback. After observations, some teachers said that they kept worrying about “all the things that went wrong” and second-guessing themselves. Those were the gremlins talking.
But it’s important to remember that gremlins exaggerate and lie! To combat them, we should try self-compassion. Treat yourself with the kindness and empathy that you would extend to others. This includes reality-checking the gremlins — they’re probably lying — and acknowledging positive and negative feedback together. We wouldn’t tell a student to focus on the 95% correct at the expense of the 5% incorrect, and we shouldn’t do the same to ourselves, either.
Stop avoiding: Shine light on what is darkest
When we feel ashamed of something, we tend to avoid talking about it or getting help to fix it. We might tell ourselves that “that one class” isn’t going great, but it’s a lost cause (there’s no point in trying to fix it). We might even deflect blame onto the students, their parents, or external circumstances. And almost certainly, we avoid asking for feedback.
But if something isn’t going well, that’s even more of a reason to seek feedback from a trusted colleague. Feedback lets us shine light on the dark spots, which is the first step in finding a solution. This allows us to reflect on our own part in the situation and develop the skills and strategies that will help us grow as professionals. A thought partner can help us think outside the box to come up with a new approach, or reframe the problem in a more productive way. If it matters, it’s worth leaning in to the discomfort.
Building trust: Empathy supports connection
Brown writes about the importance of being vulnerable with those who have earned your trust. Trust is absolutely vital for seeking and giving feedback, but there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: How do you trust someone who hasn’t earned it? But how can they earn trust if you don’t give them a chance? Over and over in our interviews, teachers said that the risk of vulnerability was worth it because we (Project SIGMa team members) worked to earn their trust.
We built trust in a number of ways, but perhaps the most important was empathy. By listening to teachers, withholding judgment, and recognizing where they’re coming from, we built connections with our partner teachers. Importantly, we approached the relationship as a partnership, where we each brought different (but complementary) expertise and experience to the table. Finding a colleague who will respect your perspective and expertise is crucial for building a supportive environment for feedback.
Brette Garner, University of Denver