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April 7, 2021

What’s Been Bothering Me Since 1974

About six weeks ago, I let off some steam and told you all about a teaching norm that drives me nuts. Well, here’s another thing that has bothered me since l974, when I started teaching: How are teachers supposed to get feedback on their work?

I think about all the things I have learned to do in my life:

Cooking: Imagine if you never got any feedback on your cooking? Mine would still resemble that first inedible dinner I cooked for my college boyfriend’s father: gray roast beef; limp vegetables, watery potatoes. I get embarrassed all over again, just thinking about it.

Speaking Italian: With no feedback I’d still be standing on a street corner in Rome repeating over and over again: “Dove la fermata for autobus settantte sette?” Because Romans were kind with their time, and so pleased to help someone trying to learn their language, they stopped, said the sentence for me, made me repeat it until I got it right, gave me the answer, made me repeat… that my skills grew because I had one experience like this after the other.

Then there was attempting to learn tennis: I got a lot of feedback. The most influential piece was from a real friend after a full weekend of playing tennis dawn till dusk. She said, “Have you thought about golf?” I gave it up—sometimes we are meant to.

When I think back to my own teaching and visit with teacher across this country, I am struck that some idiot set the system up so that we get almost no feedback. I talk to teachers every week who say they never see anyone else teach in their building, their district, their state. They also say that while lots of people may walk through their classrooms, they seldom get real feedback on what the observers saw.

How are we supposed to get better? In recent years, I have read a couple of things that have made the need for regular and concrete feedback so clear to me. The first is Jim Collin’s book, From Good to Great.

In it he describes the companies that stay on top as well as those that hit the top and gradually lose their prominence. One of the most important characteristics of those who remain on top is that they seek tons of feedback on their products, their performance and on new innovations in the making. They assume that feedback will make them better-rather than hearing it defensively.

Atal Gawunde wrote another book, Better, that explored the ways in which people get better at their work. Shortly after I read the book, I read an article of his in the New Yorker about his own attempts to get better as a surgeon. I definitely want a surgeon who is attempting to get better, don’t you?

I want the teaching profession to be one that promotes and helps teachers to get better every day. After all, every year, we get new students and they are different from the students we’ve had before, bringing new challenges, problems and enthusiasms.

I joined Teaching Channel precisely because I thought that together, after watching films of great teaching in action and discussing it right on the film sites, we would be able to craft a national discussion about what constitutes great teaching. None of us wants just one way of teaching and none of us wants to get to the end of our careers with a gnawing sense that we could have been better than we were if only we’d found the means to get more feedback.

I hope you’ll join me, along with your colleagues, in engaging in real discussions about what you see in our films. I believe it will make us all stronger—and as we prove the benefit of learning from one another, we might just be able to change the conditions in which we work so that we are enabled to grow and as a result to better support the kids who show up in our classrooms.


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