Because I argue that teachers need to reflect more on their own practice, I make it a point to take some time to reflect after each workshop I give. So, that night, when I arrived back to my hotel room, I spent a few moments reflecting on how the day went. I thought it hadn’t gone badly. In fact, most of the teachers were attentive and very few seemed off task. There were one or two things I thought I needed to tweak but overall, I felt that the teachers’ behavior had signaled that they enjoyed the workshop.
Then, I took out the feedback forms I’d collected. My usual practice was to divide them into two stacks – good and bad – and if the good stack was larger than the bad stack, I counted the workshop a success. The comments that day ranged from “Robyn’s a terrific trainer – she explains and elaborates and she’s personable,” to “Never invite this woman back. Why was I taken out of class for this? Now my kids are behind.” At the end, I had about 50 positive forms (20 which were effusive), and about 5 that were negative. “Not bad,” I thought to myself as I started gathering the forms. Only, something was nagging at me. I went back to the negative forms and was struck at how passionate they were. “They are probably just bitter people anyway,” I rationalized and reached for the stack of positive responses to reassure myself that I had indeed done a good job. As I reread them however, I saw what the people were actually saying. They really liked me, that was clear, but I couldn’t gauge what they had actually learned.
I picked of the negative stack again and flipped through them. Again, the complaints were not about the material; they were about me. I re-read all the feedback forms and realized that very few of them talked about what the participants had learned that day. Most of them were responses to me or to the quality of the presentation. While it made me feel good that they mostly liked me, what good was liking me if they hadn’t learned anything?
That night, I reorganized the presentation so that the participants spent less time interacting with me and more time interacting with the material. I cut out a section in the middle that, on further reflection, seemed confusing, and I included more case studies that asked teachers to apply what they were learning. I restructured the workshop so that it took teachers through the four stages of rigor in the same way that I was advocating they take their students.
The next day, after the workshop, I nervously collected the feedback forms. That night in my hotel room, I spent a few moments reflecting on what I had done and then reached for the forms. I was surprised at the difference in the responses. Like the day before, the positive responses far outweighed the negative responses but the type of responses was vastly different. They ranged from “Wow! It was like somebody tore the scales off my eyes. All this time I thought I got it but I didn’t. You forced me to look inside and re-evaluate rigor,” to “I do not agree that everyone who enrolls in a pre-AP class belongs there!” In both cases, the responses had more to do with the content of the workshop than they had to do with me.
On the plane home, I thought about how often I had done the same thing when I was teaching. I had been more worried about whether the kids liked me and enjoyed the class than I had been concerned whether they actually learned anything. I was reminded of what Parker Palmer discusses in his book The Courage to Teach. He says, “This fear is pathological. It leads me to pander to students, to lose both my dignity and my way, so worried that the sloucher in the back row doesn’t like me that I fail to teach him and everyone else in the room.”
It’s a truth I circle back to time and time again. Kids and adults can fool you. They can act interested, nodding their heads and pretending to take notes when their minds are really a million miles away. They can behave as if they like you,(indeed, they genuinely might) and yet not learn a thing from your class or workshop. The real test of whether we are good teachers or leaders is not whether they like us (although we hope that they will). The true test is whether they learned anything and whether they are better off from having interacted with us. When we try to succeed at anything else, we will most certainly fail regardless of how good the feedback forms are.
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