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June 3, 2021

The Psychology Behind Receiving Feedback

Feedback is the cornerstone of education. It is a catalyst for learning that both educators and students require to be successful. However, even though educators know the correlation between feedback and growth, many of us have difficulty receiving it and giving it. If we know it is so essential, why is hearing about our performance such a delicate dance? 

The truth is that we often find ourselves trapped in mental distortions. Fear, anxiety, and even anger can unknowingly be at the core of our thought patterns leaving us with missed opportunities for professional growth.

Here are some of the most frequent traps we can fall into when receiving feedback.

We take it personally.

Many times we feel as if we are being personally attacked. Instead of considering how valuable the feedback being offered could be, we hear a message communicating we are not good enough. It’s possible to become so emotionally attached to other’s opinions that we hold our self-worth hostage, letting our value rest on the perceived success of our teaching abilities.   

We operate in a world of all or none.

We see feedback as all good or all bad and nothing in between. This generalization of constructive conversations leaves us without details as to how to self-improve. We merely walk away thinking we passed or failed. This distortion causes people to only focus on negative or positive comments, leaving them without a map of the strengths that need to be built upon in the future for them to grow as an educator.


We deflect.

Hearing that you may have been able to do something better can create a feeling of embarrassment or insecurity. For some teachers, it’s easier to detach from that discomfort by blaming people or circumstances. We may blame our students, colleagues, or lack of resources that are out of our control, as opposed to concentrating on the elements that are within our control.

We use others as measuring sticks.

When we feel that we have not performed to the best of our abilities we often look at others to measure our value. Insecurity can cause some to compare themselves to others in order to show how much better they are. “I can’t believe the principal said I could work on improving my classroom management when the science teacher down the hall clearly has no control over her class.” Others use insecurity as a fuel to validate self-deprecating thoughts. “I can see why my principal thinks that I need to work on delivering interventions; I am obviously the least qualified person to be filling this position.” 

We think we can read minds.

Humans often try to read between the lines, which can be to our detriment. Assumptions, most often negative in nature, can lead us to walk away from meaningful conversations with a completely different message than what the person we were meeting with intended. This distortion consists of snap judgments that are unspoken and unproductive.  

Why do we fall into these distorted traps?

The brain is often at work while we are unaware of the process at play. Fear, anxiety, and anger all involve the release of stress hormones and neuroreceptors that impact your cardiovascular and digestive system, while potentially inducing fatigue, headaches, irritability, or depression. These emotional states can also wreak havoc on our processing as they weaken the connections to our prefrontal cortex where rational problem solving occurs. 

More importantly, we cannot underestimate the power of our brain to instinctually focus on our failures. We all have our own narrative about our worth and ability. This causes us to filter events and perceptions that validate what we think about ourselves even when it is negative. Essentially, our brain rewards us for being “right” about “not being good enough.” In fact, our failures are so hardwired that we will see any opportunity that might potentially be a recurrent failure as a threat evoking us to respond with our primitive fight or flight response.  

How to get the most out of the feedback you receive?

Be action orientated:

Don’t expect to become a great teacher without continued sacrifice and struggle to learn and grow in your craft. To do this you must keep your mind on what you can control and take action. This may include finding a trusted mentor, seeking out your own professional development, asking to observe others that are highly respected, and of course asking for feedback! 

Seek feedback:

Teachers often have scheduled observations and professional growth meetings with administrators, but how often do we request others to observe our lessons and provide feedback? When you get in the habit of asking those you respect to deliver honest communication about a risk you are taking or a struggle you are having, you are putting the power of growth in your own hands. This sense of ownership can be the empowerment you need to get over the discomfort of hearing various perspectives about your teaching. 

Discomfort equals growth:

Educators often talk about the discomfort of sharing their weaknesses or shortcomings with colleagues or administrators. Many assume that discomfort is an insecurity centered around failure. The truth is there can be no progress or growth without discomfort. Complacency is a sign of someone who has ceased reaching for the next level of expertise. Let the new language of discomfort be a consequence of risk. 


Disarm and self-reflect ahead of time:

Remember that staff providing you information are focused on the events or context of which they observed, not whether you are a good person or an adequate teacher.  Release yourself from thinking that the person giving you feedback is an adversary and embrace their council as a team member. It can be helpful to grant yourself time, prior to a scheduled meeting, to reflect and jot down goals or areas of improvement to consider during your discussion. Generating these critiques of your work ahead of time will make it feel less personal when potentially hearing it from others leading the way for more collaborative problem solving. 

Ask clarifying questions:

Often we opt to limit our questions because of a variety of reasons. When we decline clarity we open ourselves up to assumptions that spark self doubt or uncertainty. It is appropriate and best practice to listen and ask questions about either comments that you have received or what your colleague or administrator observed. Make sure you leave the conversation having 100% certainty of what suggestions were offered and what action plan you can initiate.  

Be aware of the messages your body is sending you:

Sometimes it takes a moment for the mind to catch up to the body. You may find yourself slipping into fear, anxiety, or anger before your mind has time to realize the signs such as increased voice volume, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing. Knowing the physiological signs that occur when you enter an emotional state is critical because you can increase your response time to ensure that conversations are productive and healthy.  

When you’re ready, cue the tapes:

Video is a great way to get feedback in private, allowing yourself to be vulnerable to what you see. So much of our day is unnoticed to us that video allows us to get a full picture of our craft in action. I suggest watching the same footage multiple times with a different purpose in mind.  For example, the first time you can view and listen to the quality of your questioning. The second time you may watch to observe student responses. The same 30 minute snapshot can provide invaluable information. Insight ADVANCE has a video coaching platform, ADVANCEfeedback, which allows educators to utilize video in a variety of meaningful ways that are impactful and encourage professional growth.  

If you arm yourself with the separation between words and worth you will begin to take control over your continued growth. Be fearless as you remind yourself that we are all a work in progress. Also know that progress does not have to be painstaking.  Transformation can be a positive experience when you become aware of your distorted thoughts and seek honest, helpful feedback that makes you a better version of yourself.  When all is said and done it is better to have an honest critic than a false friend.


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