The Rivers School
The Courage to Hear Feedback
Feedback is a word we use a lot in school. But what does it mean, really? And, more importantly, why would anyone want to receive any?
Here’s one way to explain it to middle schoolers: when we write an essay or perform onstage or give a presentation, the people we share it with can FEED us information — their response can give BACK ideas that can strengthen our work. Feedback involves putting yourself out there and then opening yourself up to hearing how others respond.
When we have the courage to listen to feedback, we can gain valuable data that we cannot get any other way. I use that word “courage” deliberately, because it’s not always easy to hear feedback.
As I tell my students, if you have ever felt nervous before getting back a test, looking at comments on a paper, hearing a judge’s evaluation at a competition, reading a peer review, meeting with a teacher or coach to go over your work, or reading quarter comments, you are not alone.
It is totally normal to have these feelings.
Very often, before we receive feedback, we have one of the following gut-level reactions.
A. You have feedback for me? I’m scared to listen to what you have to say. You are probably going to tell me that I’m terrible at this.
B. You have feedback for me? Why should I listen to it? My work is FINE just the way it is.
These seem like opposite reactions. But they have something in common.
Both reactions prevent us from really hearing what others have to say. When we resist hearing feedback because we don’t think we need to make any changes — or we are scared to make changes — we are throwing away an opportunity to grow.
So how do we get past these gut reactions? What’s a better response?
We are always works in progress. That’s the beauty of being human. We are never fully finished — and thank goodness. Learning and growing is hard work. As one psychologist shared in a TED talk, she often hears adults say, “I don’t want to try, because I don’t want to feel disappointed.” They don’t know what our students have learned about growth mindset and neuroplasticity: that our brains are responsive to effort. With practice and tenacity, we can develop strong neural pathways. We learn to say, “I can’t do it . . . yet.”
When you approach feedback with this mindset, you might discover that you feel grateful that someone took the time to consider your work seriously and share their response with you.
Let me tell you a story from my days as a Rivers student.
When I was a junior, my English teacher asked us to write a poem. I had never written much poetry, and I didn’t really know where to begin. But I really admired my English teacher, and I thought this would be a chance to impress him — to show off a little — so I spent hours carefully crafting a few lines of verse. I tried to pack it full of metaphors and similes, alliteration and assonance, rhyme and rhythm — all the terms we had studied in class. I was sure it was a masterpiece, and I was equal parts nervous and proud when I handed it in.
A few days later, he passed it back. And when I looked down, he had scrawled one comment on my paper — something like, “This poem has promise, but it needs much more work. Come find me, and we’ll work through it together.” Well, I had absolutely no desire to come find him. I was embarrassed and maybe even a little angry. I was so sure I had written something great.
After I’d avoided him for a few days, this English teacher did what any great teacher does — he found me. And he patiently coached me as I took my little poem to the next level. It wasn’t a masterpiece yet — and never would be — but that wasn’t the point. I was learning the process of writing poetry, and I was lucky enough to have a teacher who cared enough to stand beside me while I figured it out.
This (and experiences like this) shaped my understanding of teaching — he fed me, and it makes me want to pay back his kindness by paying it forward to my students.