I Want to Hear What You've Got to Say

Every year every teacher and student dreads the last weeks before the holidays. Once the grades are made, all potential motivation vanishes and everyone just waits until it’s over. This is interesting because it shows the pretense we hold up that we learn important things in school. If they were so important, it wouldn’t matter if there are grades or not, but the last weeks always unmask how everything is governed by grades, thereby taking away any interest students could have in a subject. But that’s a different story.

There are only three ways to survive the pre-holidays misery: watching movies, playing games or doing something really special that still motivates the students. Some teachers do real lessons until the very end, guaranteeing that no one will ever like them. The last of the three options is rarely used (as far as I know, I’d be happy to be corrected) and admittedly is not easy. No one really wants to do anything because school as it is supposed to work is over with the end of the grades. So you basically have to force them to be interested in a topic that is not graded later or they won’t even look twice at it. I often do film analysis (as opposed to just watching any movie), creative writing (which often doesn’t work), a TV show (In Treatment is perfect for higher-level students) or music videos (maybe I’ll write about them in another post). Or something else. Coming up with something is really a challenge and it can easily fail.

One more thing I like to do right before the holidays is feedback. Either I let the students grade me as a teacher (which works great in lower classes) or they have to evaluate the topics that came up during the year. Both require that the students give real feedback, that they have the option to tell the teacher what they really think of the lessons. I always ask for honesty and mostly this is not a problem. One thing I learned is that students are very willing to tell you what you do wrong. This feedback has two functions:

1) I get feedback, meaning I can reflect upon what I’m doing and try to improve. I think nothing has helped me more in my job than getting those comments from students. For one thing it helps to see where you do things wrong or even more which topics really don’t work. For another there is no better motivation than to hear that you do things right! I will always insist that teachers are there to serve the students, not the other way around, so it is extremely important to hear how they feel. I don’t think you can be a good teacher if you don’t listen to your students. You spend so much time with them that the best way for you and them to get along is to actually get to know each other and find out what you like and don’t like. If I am actually a good teacher, it’s largely because of my students. You can’t do this job alone or you’ll end up alone.

2) Students can give feedback. They are so used to not being asked, not being cared about, not being seen or heard, that they enjoy being able to express their opinion very much. It gives them back some of their power, control and individuality they mostly had to give up since they entered school. They feel respected again, as if their voice truly matters after all. They also feel like they can influence the lessons (because they can!), which is also why it’s so important to let them decide from time to time what you do in class. If we want students to be independent and self-confident (which I don't think our school system really wants), than you have to let them speak up. By the way, it also helps to compliment them then and again, and not to remind them repeatedly how stupid and worthless they are.

Of course, all of this only works if you as a teacher are also able to be honest and not to pretend anything. There are so many insecurities in the relationship between teachers and students that don’t have to be there and feedback lessons really help to reduce them. There are all those taboos, most of all the first thing I was taught at university: “You can’t be friends with your students!” The main and only argument for this is objectivity, which leads us right back to the problem of grades on which the whole system is based. Again, I think this is nonsense but don’t tell that to other teachers. In fact, whenever I tell (almost) any teacher about those feedbacks lessons, they get a certain look in their eyes. It’s a mixture of incomprehension and fear. They don’t understand why you would do this voluntarily. Sure, there is the risk of being criticized but I would argue (maybe with some arrogance if you want) that if you are afraid of criticism, your fear is probably justified. But do you really prefer not wanting to know what you do wrong and keep on doing it than trying to change that? Is ignorance really that much bliss?

To come back to the actual feedback, if I ask the students to come up with categories they want to grade, it’s always the same ones. What’s important to them (no matter what age) is humor, preparation, fairness, interesting lessons, motivation, coolness (yes) and the student-teacher-relationship. So (as al-al-always), mostly aspects our school system doesn’t really care about. I mostly score pretty low on authority, punctuality and handwriting. I’m actually working on punctuality while there is no hope for my handwriting and I don’t intend to improve my authority since I’m keeping that low on purpose. Which is hard to understand for most students and is a constant discussion point. There is nothing students are more conflicted about than authority. They think they need a teacher who has authority but they don’t actually like it. This constantly comes up on those feedback sheets. “You’re bad at authority but that’s a good thing!” is a common comment (the same goes for punctuality).

In the end I can only stress again how important feedback from students is in school, for everyone. As a student, you have nothing to lose because no teacher who does feedback will use it against you (at least they shouldn’t!). As a teacher, you also have nothing to lose and anything you do lose is probably worth losing anyway.

The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out What you on about? I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones I'm stronger now, I'm ready for the house Such a modest mouse, I can't do it alone, I can't do it alone - Vampire Weekend, Step (2013)