What White Educators Can Learn from "Thanks for the Feedback"

By Michael Brosnan

On a recent flight, I sat next to a school principal en route to a conference on the West Coast. He was reading a book titled, Thanks for the Feedback, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, busily underlining passages and making notes a yellow legal pad. Once in a while, he’d stare up at the ceiling or out the window as if contemplating a passage and what it suggested about relationships in his school. Being nosey, I couldn’t help but ask about the book.

Turns out, this principal had a number of issues to address at his school. Thanks for the Feedback, he said, offered helpful insights into the process of change, specifically about how to work with faculty members, all of whom bring their varied experiences, personalities, opinions, and agendas to every meeting.

So, of course, I had to order the book as soon as I got home and find out what all the fuss is about. Thanks for the Feedback was first published in 2014, so I know I’m a bit late to this party and there’s a good chance many of you have read it already. But if you haven’t, I wanted to note a few ways in which the book can be helpful to educators today — particularly regarding conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In general, Thanks for the Feedback not only helps us understand why some of us — well, most us, actually — resist both criticism and change, it also helps us develop the skills to better understand ourselves, the motivation behind any feedback we receive, and how we can use feedback wisely for our personal and professional gain.

As we know, certain kinds of feedback can be tough to take. Sometimes it comes in the form of praise and appreciation, which of course is wonderful — and needed. But feedback in the form of criticism, corrective evaluation, and even supportive coaching can be destabilizing. It can momentarily rock our world. Few of us are glad to be told we need to do things differently.

One of my favorite passages in the book is the following, highlighting the range of initial responses to corrective feedback:

“Bryan blames others; Claire switchtracks; Anu cries; Alfie apologies; Mick chatters; Hester goes silent; Fergie agrees while quietly resolving never to change. Reynolds lawyers up, emotionally speaking, and Jody becomes awkwardly friendly. And at least sometimes, Seth panics.”

If you don’t see yourself here, I imagine you can easily add a line that underscores your habitual reaction to criticism. For me, this observation strikes at a truth about our instinctive responses. It explains why, in organizations such as schools, efforts to make broad scale changes — say, requiring all white educators to engage in ongoing cultural skills training, or asking English teachers to teach a more culturally diverse range of books, or asking the history department to rethink how it addresses colonialism — can be so hard. It explains why it’s particularly difficult when one is called out for doing or saying something racist, intentionally or not. 

I’ve read numerous articles and have listened to speakers address the problem of resistance to change, but few have taken the detailed next steps to deconstruct the process of giving and receiving feedback in a way that is both supportive and helpful. Thanks for the Feedback does take these steps so we can better understand ourselves, understand why and how we resist (collectively and individually) and what we can do about it so that the act of receiving feedback is beneficial.

I understand that the feedback we receive from family, friends, colleagues, bosses, and others is not always helpful and not always offered in the spirit of support. In truth, the authors make it clear that there are times when it’s fine to reject feedback. Sometimes the “problem” really does lie with the one offering criticism. There is, as it turns out, an art to giving valuable feedback (see the authors’ earlier book, with Bruce Patton, Difficult Conversations). But I think we would all admit that there are aspects of our lives and work that we can improve upon. Authors Stone and Heen believe that, with practice, we can at least appreciate the offer of feedback and, better yet, find our way to a response that improves our lives and work.

Here’s a question for white educators. Say you’ve been teaching for ten years. Your evaluations are mostly positive and teachers in the next grade appreciate how well you’ve prepared students for their classroom. Your school has made a push to be more culturally responsive. You’re glad for this initiative and have supported it in faculty meetings. But a new schoolwide research project reveals that, in fact, students of color in your class on average receive lower grades than white students and that parents of color feel you tend to marginalize them and their children. The division director invites you into her office for a conversation. You have always had a good relationship with her, but this conversation is tough. She says that she’d like to strategize with you to figure out why students of color are either underperforming or being graded more harshly in your class and what you might do to improve relations with their parents.

So… how do your react?

Do you say, “Great, I can’t wait to get started on figuring this out! Can we meet tomorrow afternoon to analyze what I’m not doing well and strategize how to connect with parents better? I’d like to see the data sheet, too, and any comments you have from parents.” Do you get defense, blame the students for not engaging well in class and criticize the parents for not being more direct with you about their wishes? Do you blame teachers in the earlier grades for not preparing the students of color well for entry into your classroom? Do you start composing your resignation letter in your head and plan to look for a job at a new school that night?

Stone and Heen have a great deal to say on the matter of how best to take in feedback that feels harsh and how to respond in a constructive way. The book, in fact, runs over 300 pages, so it’s not possible to cover it all here. For all of us, I think it’s worth reading the book with pencil in hand — and find time to discuss core lessons among the faculty in large or small groups. But here, I’d like to highlight some specific advice that can be helpful in this particular conversation.

For one, we should remember that any critical feedback is not the sum total of who we are. In this case, the teacher has many valued qualities. What he or she struggles with is an area in which many white Americans struggle — seeing their implicit bias and how it impacts their lives and work. Assuming that the division director’s data are accurate, the teacher would be wise to keep an open mind, listen, and weigh options about how best to improve practices related to students of color and their families.

First, some general principles.

When all of us face feedback, we have a tendency to respond in predictable ways. The more we understand our personal patterns, our typical responses, the more we are able to control them. By noticing them, we can limit their power. So, if we’re the type who gets defensive at criticism, we’re not likely to respond open-mindedly when we’re told we’ve exhibited some implicit bias in our classroom that is hurting students of color. Stone and Heen would say that if we can notice this pattern, we can sit with our feelings longer and come to defuse them.

What also matters is the story we tell about ourselves. If we are educators who pride ourselves in our progressive views on education, but are then told we’ve exhibited implicit bias against students of color, the misalignment between self-image and feedback is disorienting. But if we slow down and listen openly, we can work through our initial reaction, gather more information, understand what is going on — and then embrace a growth mindset that will make us better and more equitable teachers in the long run.

Teaching is simple to describe. Every school has a short mission statement that clearly explains the school’s desired outcomes and guides every teacher in his or her work. But the practice of teaching is extremely complex because of the multitude of factors at play on any given day, any given hour. This is why teaching is so difficult to master. Even those labeled as master teachers will tell you they are learning how to improve their craft every day.

Given the nature of the profession, it’s so important that teachers learn to remain open to learning, to feedback, to professional development, to coaching and peer support. Remaining open to feedback, especially when that feedback challenges your professionalism on some level, is very difficult to take in. The authors dig deeply into all the ways in which we can shut down, or turn the tables on our critics, or dismiss them. As human beings, we are susceptible to all of these reactions. Sometimes we’re right to have them. Sometimes we’re not. As educators, however, we know we must learn how to manage them. Our professional vow, if I can call it that, is to serve every child in every classroom as well as we possibly can. There are always limits — mostly in the form of time — but the emphasis is on meeting the challenge with heart and skill. And this applies not only to the children in schools, but also to our relationships with parents and colleagues.

From where I stand, one of the greatest challenges for schools of late — beside resisting the neoliberal forces aiming to turn schools into corporate-run charters — has been about adapting to an increasingly diverse student and parent body. There’s good news in this. It means, perhaps for the first time in our nation’s history, we are trying to make our schools as equitable as possible across race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other differences. However, for white educators, which is most educators today, it has been difficult to hear that, collectively, we haven’t been serving students of color as well as we should — or as well we want to serve them. To open up to this feedback is to admit that we embody certain implicit biases, or that we don’t have the sort of cultural knowledge and experiences to teach and support students of color to the same degree we teach and support white students.

Thanks for the Feedback doesn’t address this issue directly, but its lessons directly apply.

What I like about the book is that the authors are clearly on our side. Their goal is to help us learn to help ourselves. Specifically, they want us to develop the skills so that we can use feedback well in our personal and professional lives. In some instance, this may mean we dismiss the feedback completely. In some instances, it may mean that we acknowledge the feedback but aren’t ready to deal with it because we have too much on our plate at the moment. In some instances, it means we open a dialogue to ask more questions and better understand the feedback — where it’s coming from, why we’re hearing it now, and how we might respond.

It’s easy for me to write this blog about the value of taking in feedback. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to take feedback. In fact, I’m among the world’s experts in refusing to hear anything I don’t want to hear. Reading Thanks for the Feedback, however, I began to think back on how I got involved in writing about issues of diversity in education. And what I recall are all the people who — through various forms of caring feedback — helped me see what I couldn’t see for myself. There were times when I felt defensive. There were times when I felt embarrassed. There were times when I shut down or dismissed a critic. But now, looking back, I’m deeply grateful for all of it. And I think I did learn the value of listening, of remaining open to the hard stuff.

Now, of course, I see clearly how uninformed I had been about race matters in America. I don’t pretend to be an expert now. But I try to be more humble and to accept that there are plenty of people who can teach me to improve, personally and professionally. I do this because I want to be better at what I do, because I want schools to be better at meeting their stated missions for all children, and because I know the world needs us to both embrace and justly support the great diversity of human cultures and experiences. This, for me, is at the heart of any conversation on human progress.

 

Michael Brosnan is the senior editor for Teaching While White.