Feedback is a vital part of supporting student learning, so important that we need to be acutely aware that our feedback can be damaging to students if we get it wrong. At times our feedback to students is not always about improving their work, it can often be about just getting the work completed or telling a student where they are at on their learning journey. Unfortunately, there are times when our frustrations may get the better of us and we say things, perhaps, in desperation to give students the jolt they need to move forward.

With oral feedback, we cannot take back what we say, so we need to be even more mindful of what we say to students. As mentioned before on this blog, it is important for us, as teachers, to put ourselves in the position of the student and see things through their eyes to really begin to see the effects of our actions.

As a professional learning theme for the year in our school, we introduced the importance of feedback to our staff, trying to give a clear reason for why we were embarking on this learning journey. As a discussion point, we asked our teachers to discuss how they would feel if they received the following comments from school administrators:

  • “if your do not complete your student reports on time, then you will lose your job.”
  • “Did you not learn how to use an online gradebook in your last school?”
  • “We showed you where to access that document last year.”
  • “Writing up that assessment task is easy, it should only take 30 minutes.”
  • “If you do not wish to attend this professional development session, then it’s your choice.”

Discussion centered on how teachers felt stressed by these comments, that administrators did not understand, things are not as easy as they appear, there is not really a choice when given and the comments are patronizing.

We then tried to shift the focus to the student and gave teachers the following comments to discuss:

  • “If you do not complete this assessment task by the deadline, then you will fail the course.”
  • “Your teacher last year should have covered that with you.”
  • “We have gone over these key terms several times before.”
  • “Completing tonight’s homework task is easy, it only takes 30 minutes.”
  • “You can choose not to hand in that assignment, it’s your choice.”

What we got was a greater appreciation in the room about the way in which our actions can create stress for students. It raised awareness of the fact that we need to be careful in what we say, especially during times of frustration. We realised that tasks that may appear easy are not easy for everyone. We noticed that when we say to a student, there is a choice, there may not actually be a legitimate one. We noticed that by trying to emphasize the importance of something, it may actually make the situation worse for the student and stress them further.

Importantly, we did not ask the teachers in the room whether they had said any of these sentences or something similar during their time teaching. As leaders of the workshop, we did share that we have made mistakes with oral feedback before and how careful reflection leads us to avoid making these mistakes again. We felt that was a better way of dealing with the elephant in the room.

At some stage in our careers most of us, if not all, have said something to a student or group of students, about their work, that we wish we could take back. If we can just pause for a moment prior to delivering that piece of feedback or advice by looking at ourselves through the eyes of the student, we may just be able to stop a mistake from happening again and better safeguard the well being of our students.