“Let me tell you what I think.” Did that scare you? In many industries, and education is no exception, “feedback” is sometimes treated as the eight-letter “f-word.” But why is feedback so intimidating and is it worth taking the time to change our reaction to feedback? The simple reason feedback is so often feared, avoided, and dismissed is because, generally speaking, people don’t know how to give - or receive - feedback well.
In my estimation, there is no more important skill for an educator, or any professional for that matter, than his or her ability to seek, welcome, and use feedback. One helpful source of good feedback data is surveys, which if designed well can provide valuable information and insight. But we must be open to what we can learn. Much has been written about feedback, including in the 2014 book Thanks for the Feedback by the authors of the best selling book Difficult Conversations, that provides helpful perspectives on remaining receptive. So how can survey responses provide a useful source of actionable feedback for educators and how might we go about reframing feedback to decrease the anxiety it generates?
The Customer Service Business
I’ve been criticized by some for suggesting that educators are in the customer service business. Why might this idea be so hard to swallow? Mainly because customers can be pretty demanding. As authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen aptly point out, there lies a powerful tension at the center of receiving feedback. Most of us sincerely want to learn and grow and recognize the necessity of feedback in that process, but we also want to be liked and accepted as we are.
When we open ourselves to feedback in a space as personal and impactful as education, we become incredibly vulnerable. Teaching is not like most vocations. Teachers aren’t producing widgets, selling product, or running call centers. Teaching is fundamentally relational, multidisciplinary, and often misunderstood. Many of our “customers,” i.e. parents, feel they know better than the teacher what is best simply because they have gone to school themselves.
This idea puts some burden on the providers of the service, too. When we as educators look at our relationships with those we serve as a service, we want every interaction to be an opportunity for fostering goodwill and a happily anticipated repeat transaction. Parents and students may have to use our product, but we are all better off when they are delighted about doing so.
It wasn’t so long ago that parents had few choices when it came to where their child would attend school and how their children would be educated. And for most people, a lack of choice wasn’t an issue. However, today’s parents demand greater options and private as well as public entities have evolved to provide those options for a more demanding clientele. As options have increased, so too has the need to consider the quality of the product. This shift makes the quality of education a value proposition that public schools need to take seriously.
Whether it be pressure to attract and retain families for districts that are funded based on enrollment, or the need to pass local levies and taxes to supplement ever decreasing funding levels, schools are increasingly challenged to prove their value to their community and to ensure the service they are providing meets the expectations of their “customers.” It may be an uncomfortable reality for some, but it is a reality nonetheless. Regularly seeking meaningful feedback from parents, students, and communities is an obligation of schools today. When used well, this feedback can be the fuel that drives necessary change within our service organization, and ultimately serves our customers better.
Perception Data is Different
Educators, like many of us, feel comfortable with quantitative data that is discrete and measurable, like achievement data. However, feedback data is all together different. While it can be reported in measurable quantities like “percent favorable,” the basis for any feedback data involves perception that is wholly individual and contextual. There is no true reality; perception IS reality to the person that is perceiving it. The problem is that many people try to read feedback data as though it were discrete. It’s not. Perception data is often most helpful in the aggregate. Too often, we focus on the “outliers” of feedback data because it’s easy to be distracted by the really bad or really good reviews.
For example, a teacher could seek feedback regarding the quantity, quality, and mode of his or her “communication to parents” and discover that generally speaking, parents enjoy and appreciate the communication from the teacher, but wish he or she provided even more of it. This is a good example of how a teacher might understand and use feedback data. What can happen, however, is that one parent might respond to an open-ended question criticizing the teacher because the parent didn’t know about the field trip volunteer opportunity and the parent couldn’t join their child in this once-in-a-lifetime experience and the teacher’s lack of communication is to blame. What is the teacher likely to remember? Not that parents generally appreciate his or her communication and want even more of it, but that this one parent will never forgive him or her for missing out on the field trip that was in the newsletter, but the parent didn’t see it.
What’s the lesson? For me, it is two-fold. First, we shouldn’t give too much weight to open-ended responses when reviewing feedback data. We should expect open-ended responses to provide color and flavor to the aggregate results and nothing more. Second, if a response appears to be an outlier, either too positive or too negative, treat it as the outlier that it is. If several of the responses come back critical, then we probably have an issue that needs attention. If several of the responses come back exceedingly positive, then there’s reason to smile.
Empower the Receiver
The most important step to decreasing anxiety around feedback is empowering the receiver to determine how to use it. Micromanaging the analysis of survey data and determining what conclusions a person should draw as a result can lead to frustration, distrust, or disengagement. When school sites, teams, and individuals are given access to the data and encouraged to make meaning of it themselves is when the real magic can occur.
As receivers, when we realize that we have the power to use the data as we see fit, the fear of being vulnerable to judgement begins to subside. An important mindshift is in knowing that the person doing the judging doesn’t have the power simply by providing their feedback; the power is in how we choose to receive it. Feedback also leads to insightful “how might I/we” questions that allow the receivers to dig deeper into ways they can adjust their practice - maybe things they had thought of before and now have actionable results to spur on growth and change.
Practice Giving Good Feedback
I would venture to guess that most of us don’t take the time to provide feedback unless we are upset, often really upset, with the service or product that we receive. I would like to challenge all of us to commit to being better about providing feedback when asked. Few of us have time to respond to the litany of requests for our feedback. Does anyone really know anyone who has won $500 for filling out the survey on the bottom of a receipt?
I would like to challenge folks to think of giving feedback as offering a gift, rather than a sword. When we reframe the how and why we provide feedback, our feedback becomes more useful. If our intention in providing feedback is simply to throw a dagger, then we can’t expect that feedback to result in any meaningful change. And if feedback doesn’t result in change, why give it? When giving feedback, try to visualize an action the receiver could take based on your suggestion. Know that your experience is unique, and uniquely valued, and your perspective is genuinely sought by those asking for feedback; providing useful feedback takes some time and thought but is worth the effort. Think about what other factors are affecting your perception of the questions or the target of the questions. A receiver of your feedback can only change the things within their control; consider what you are asking the receiver to do and if it can reasonably be accomplished. Remember that we all have blind spots, so giving constructive criticism gently and with respect will set the tone for positive change instead of defensive retreat.
Feedback exists whether we ask for it or not. In my district we provide surveys for all stakeholders at a set time every year, as all organizations do, but in life we ask for and receive feedback all the time. How was your day? What do you want for dinner? Why did you hit your sister? When will you go to bed? Does this outfit look okay? Our lives are a constant feedback loop and we can make that a gentle and productive give and take that leads to growth on both sides, or we can dig in and fight to win every battle. I heartily suggest we take the first approach. Let’s learn to participate in the give and take of feedback with a spirit of collaboration - the giver and receiver are engaged in a symbiotic balance involving the constant trading of roles and both sides are necessary if we are to make the positive change desired.
And if you are a parent in the Menlo Park City School District, please take the time to respond to your survey by January 31. We value your feedback!
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.