Asking for Feedback

During a session not too long ago, my German teacher lamented how hard it is for teachers to receive real feedback, feedback about and from students themselves. We see exam results, but numbers on paper say nothing about the kind of person someone becomes, or the factors that shaped them. Some of my students have kept in touch over the years, which I deeply appreciate, but most go off into the world and end this chapter with finality.

When I was training as a teacher, I wrote to the high school teachers who had had the greatest impact on me. I have since received messages like this and understand how special they are. These are young people writing to say, “This is who I’ve become and I’d like you to know.” That means a lot.

In an attempt to understand my students’ experiences and to continue to develop my classes for future students, I ask for an anonymous course evaluation at the end of the year. There are questions about which units and assignments students liked and disliked, aspects of the class that they would definitely change or keep, their most important take-away message, and anything else they’d like me to know. For the most part, there’s diversity in preference but some very clear messages come through. Sometimes I heed them and sometimes I only smile, trusting that I actually do know better than these young people, or can at least think further down the road.

I’ll say more about common threads in these course evaluations in a future post, but here I’d like to mention a piece of real feedback that has stayed with me and told me I was doing something right. I can clearly remember when educating people became my focus. Once I understand the content of a course, and this is true with every new course, the real work of raising good people takes precedence. I want my students to feel seen and heard, but this is rarely something we actually find out. Enter: Course evaluations.

A student once wrote that they appreciated the LGBTQ pride in the classroom, effectively removing a taboo. Wherever I have been allowed to, I’ve had ally stickers on the board, for example, and lately there has been a rainbow flag on the desk at the front of the room. Never have I drawn attention to them, because that’s not what they’re for.

Another student told me that they first felt deliberately included in a class when I overtly addressed one of the problems with psychology research on relationships. It relies overwhelmingly on heterosexual couples, with lesbian women a particularly understudied population. In this discussion of limitations of research, a student saw themselves and felt part of something.

Knowing the impacts of such small acts on students is critical to understanding how to build rapport with young people, how to create an environment in which the goal is to grow, which may look very different for different people. It also calls into question the small acts that have negative impacts, erode relationships, and also leave their mark on learning. The kind of feedback many teachers crave is the kind that tells us how we are doing in the deeply human part of this profession, the kind that is far more important than exam results or university acceptances. I learn from these course evaluations every time and every time I am a little nervous when handing them out. What will they say this year?

I was almost expelled in grade eight when, in response to a teacher demanding “the truth” about why our class “didn’t like her”, I raised my hand and answered. From that experience, I internalized a lesson: If you ask the question, you need to be prepared for the answer.

Thank you for a great year. Please let me know your candid, honest thoughts on the questions below so that I can improve this class for future students. Thank you!

And really, I thank you.

Weimar, Germany – April 2022

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