The path of poor feedback

“If I have a performance issue, you should call me in, tell me and we need to fix that,” he was reported to have said in the video. (FMT, Nov 6, 2020)

Before I begin, I would like to pay my respects to the deceased. I hope you are in a better place now.

A couple of weeks ago, my system of social media numbness received a different kind of shock when I read the news about an elderly gentleman ending his life tragically after leaving behind a video of his last words. I thought nothing would affect me anymore online, but that footage left an imprint on my already growing concerns for the future of my students. His last words in the quote above claims that he requested to meet his superior but was ignored.

As I was reading the article, my teacher-brain instantly conjured up the confused reactions of my pupils that I have witnessed.

Their shivering pupils that avoid eye-contact…

The side-ways glance and sheepish smiles…

Their red cheeks of embarrassment, and jittery fingers…

Are these buffering symptoms a sign that my students are experiencing something like the elderly gentleman? Are my students experiencing something similar? It seems to me that their little defence mechanisms are employed to cushion the full impact of humiliating comments from their teachers.

When I think about evaluation, it entails meaningful feedback to the learner. We need to be able to provide feedback for our learners, the type of feedback that guides them, takes their views into legitimate consideration, which provides them with direction for improvement. For example, telling someone to unmute themselves in a zoom call to speak instead of saying “I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.” over and over again. Meaningful feedback could often be simple yet provides behavioural direction that the recipient can act upon.

I, too, am often guilty of providing poor feedback.

One of the most irksome traits I have internalised is this habit of asking children, “WHY?” “Why” is a deep question.. Like…

“Why didn’t you finish the homework?”

What do I expect the child to answer? The truth?

Or the truth with make-up and foundation that sounds nice to me?

Or do I just want an apology as accountability? 

In the event that the child tells the truth and replies, “I was watching TV and I forgot.”, I’d be at a loss for words. Insert “exasperated meme”.

Why does this happen? It’s because the response does not match our expectations of an appropriate answer. When we offer poor feedback like.. “Why did you answer it like this? tak baca ke?” or stuff that doesn’t help them, we are literally putting them in a state of helplessness.

I remember a particular lesson in school where the children were made to sing songs every week. One would assume regular singing would help the children memorise the lyrics, like how we magically learned our national anthems through routine weekly assemblies. However, in this particular class, there is little direction for the students, there is no improvement of input. The students use the same tattered pieces of lyrics each week with no modelling. No singing done by the teachers nor an audio recording.

Each week, they would get the same admonishments about how they never learn no matter how many times the teacher “trains” them. Here’s the issue. The schedule structure was perfect for allowing sufficient practice for the children. However, the execution was in dire need of reflexive practice. The same dialogue would be repeated year after year about how the children never put in the effort, the children never bothered memorising. Sadly, very few of the teachers themselves could sing the songs by heart. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black?

The children literally hated the class. The success criteria would often change.. if they sang too softly cause they didn’t know the lyrics, they were admonished. If they sang too loudly because they knew the lyrics, they were admonished. It put the kids in a limbo. If I may be dark in my analogy, I sensed a grim atmosphere about them as if they were walking into a trap of Russian Roulette.

How did we fix it? More importantly, how did we fix it without jeopardizing the professional bond between teachers? A few teachers troubleshooted the issue and offered to help in the most cordial way, “We know you’re busy, teacher, we will help you. Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.” Then, these interpersonal gymnasts picked a good time and sat the kids down. Gave them fresh sheets of lyrics and modelled the singing themselves. The children were able to perform well in two weeks and displayed a significant sense of engagement and achievement.

I believe that imprisoning children with the chains upon our professional autonomy is equivalent to blowing out all the candles because all the wax is melting. Of course, even I disagree with the analogy that teachers are self-sacrificial candle waxes lighting the way for the nation. However, the point of a candle is just that, to light something up. If I’m going to be burned out and overworked, I might as well do my bit to save children the mental anguish of learned helplessness.

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