One of my favorite education books is The Courage to Teach. In that text, Parker Palmer explores teaching as a daily exercise in vulnerability. As teachers, we expose ourselves, and often the content we love, to an at-times unforgiving world. Difficult students, dud lessons, doubting colleagues, short-sighted initiatives, all exacerbated by the challenges of our lives outside the classroom, can eventually harden a teacher. And that skepticism can make it a lot harder to take the risks necessary to get better.
So finding the courage to continue to care deeply, to continue to seek feedback, can be challenging. But I’ve found, as scary as it may be, that student feedback has been an important catalyst for reflecting on and improving my practice. Hearing directly from students also aligns with my own deepest motivations. More than test scores, or my desire to introduce students to great novels and great questions, I teach so that students feel someone believes in them and they feel empowered to learn, grow, and succeed. Measuring success on that mission requires hearing directly from students.
My first venture into gaining feedback from students took the form of an end-of-course survey. To select the questions, I drew on Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in the Bathroom and my own curiosities. The students’ feedback was helpful. I didn’t have to guess how they felt the course went; they were able to tell me. I was impressed by the specificity with which students could recall individual lessons and incidences from class, and the value of their suggestions for improvement. It was wonderful food for thought as a reflective practitioner.
I had students respond anonymously, so they could be more honest, but this year I’ll give students the opportunity to provide their name. I hope that knowing the source can help me contextualize the feedback for specific responders, but I also want to offer anonymity if they prefer.
About half the questions were open response and the other half asked students to respond with their level of agreement across a likert scale. It’s no surprise that I gained much more actionable feedback from the open response items. The levels of agreement provided a good snapshot, but I was left wanting. For the outlier students in either direction, I wanted to know why. What was it that made a positive or negative difference for that individual?
The survey was definitely a step in the right direction, but reading them in June was also a little sad. I could make changes for the next group, but I was left thinking, what if I had known earlier? What if I had known and been able to engage in conversations about alternatives?
Student-Led Focus Groups
My desire for more of a conversation — a back-and-forth exchange of perspectives with students — led me to the decision to have students lead a focus group on my instruction and debrief the feedback with me.
Toward the end of the first quarter, knowing I would be out for the next class, I briefed my classes on the plan. I told them that I was interested in hearing from them about how class was going, that I wanted to keep improving and become a better teacher for them, and that their thoughtful input was vital. Then I asked for volunteers to lead conversations with their classmates the next day, when I would be out. I spoke briefly with the volunteers and answered questions about the process: I directed them to collect student-responses, look for trends in the conversations, and during their conversations push for suggestions and solutions from their peers.
I left the substitute with a half-sheet to give students to complete before beginning their other tasks. It had the following questions:
- What is something that’s been going well for you in this class?
- What is something that hasn’t been going well for you?
- Has there been a time in class when you felt disrespected? What happened? How could it have been handled differently?
- Have you found anything about this class frustrating? Can you think of a way that it could be improved?
- Do you feel that you are becoming a better learner in this class? Explain.
I left directions to allow the student-leaders, halfway through the period, to group up and lead conversations around these questions. The student-leaders led their conversations and collected their peers’ responses. A few days after my return, we met during a lunch period to discuss their feedback.
The conversation was extraordinary. That’s not to say that it was all positive. There were a lot of positives, and there were questions, there were challenges, and there were moments of surprise, when I could have and should have been better, that were disappointing. It was honest. It was real. And it was invaluable towards helping me become a better teacher. Thankfully, Teaching Channel was in the house to capture it, so video snippets will soon be available.
What was, perhaps, most impressive was the maturity and insight with which the students handled the conversation. They were nuanced in delivering feedback from the many and the few. They were sensitive to competing pressures. And as I explained my reasoning and choices, they were understanding, but still pushed me to seek solutions. A few times I was truly at a loss for how to address an issue, and they were creative and stepped in to provide solutions that I have since put into action. I shudder to think about what it would be like if the class train kept rolling down the tracks without me having this insight into the student experience the student-led focus group strategy offered.
Not to be overlooked is the importance of modeling. One student noted the impact of my simply being open and asking for feedback from the students, and what that said to them about continuing to learn and grow.
Do you tap students to gain feedback on your instruction and classroom environment? What strategies do you use? Could you implement a survey or focus-group into your practice?
Sean McComb teaches English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County’s STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with him on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.