A few years ago, I had, as we all do at one point or another, a teacher who wasn’t my favorite. My learning style didn’t work well with their teaching style, and I didn’t feel like that class did as much good as it could have. But then, at the end of the year, that teacher did something I didn’t quite expect: we were given feedback forms, so the teacher could know what was effective and what wasn’t. I was stumped. I had decided, quite stubbornly, to dislike that class. And now? Well, now I had a grudging respect for that teacher. It takes a lot of strength to ask a bunch of teenagers to criticize you. In the end, that one little feedback form made me feel more seen and heard by that teacher.
And there’s a reason for that. When teachers ask students for honest feedback, they are demonstrating a willingness to listen, creating a culture of healthy communication within their classes. It’s imperative that now more than ever, classrooms remain a space where both students and teachers can communicate honestly.
In a normal classroom setting, teachers would be giving their lessons to students in person, where they are able to gauge more or less accurately whether or not students are engaged, paying attention, and communicating with their peers. But in this new age of tiny, pixelated faces—or better yet, disembodied voices coming from black squares embellished with unknown names—teachers can’t observe students’ body language. The common hesitation to participate means that teachers are at a loss for figuring out what their students think.
Often, students have useful feedback or criticism that is valuable for the betterment of the class. Learning to communicate that feedback “gives [students] an opportunity to practice a skill that may be one of the most important collaborative skills in the real world,” says Franklin biology teacher Anne McHugh, “because everything in the real world is a group project, in some way, shape or form.” Being provided opportunities to share feedback not only helps students practice this, but it lets them know that teachers are open to receiving feedback in general. When students feel that they can trust their teachers enough to share their honest criticisms, the door of self-advocacy is opened for those students.
That being said, it’s hard to be open to criticism, especially on top of how difficult it is to be a teacher during this time. In-person connections are virtually (ha, ha) impossible, curriculums need to be adjusted to online school on top of the valuable work teachers are already doing, and the strain that this time of isolation places on mental health has not escaped teachers. Most problems students may have with their classes are not the fault of their teachers—they are primarily situational. But responding to these problems effectively requires an excess of communication, especially when teachers and students are all working towards the same goal. It’s easy to forget that essentially, we are all on the same side—and for goals to be accomplished during this difficult time, it’s imperative that students and teachers are able to work together and communicate.
It can be difficult to swallow your pride and truly listen to criticism. I know it’s always hard getting a less-than-perfect review of my schoolwork. But ultimately, that criticism allows me to learn and better my work in the future. Teachers employ this for their students, knowing that giving feedback is a critical way for students to learn. But we aren’t the only ones at school—perhaps teachers should consider opening themselves up to honest student feedback, in order to make the classroom a better space for everyone. A study by Harvard Education outlines the best ways to solicit and implement student feedback, which centers around creating a safe environment where students can be honest and give useful feedback without over-criticizing their teachers for things out of their control.
31 out of 33 students in an anonymous survey indicated that they would be willing to give honest feedback if presented with an anonymous form, most being more reluctant to reach out and give necessary feedback to teachers by themselves, feeling that they might not be heard or not wanting to bother their teachers. Only 3 students participating indicated that they felt comfortable reaching out to all of their teachers, unprompted. Asking for feedback and emphasizing its importance allows students to overcome that feeling and know that their feedback is valued. It can be difficult asking a bunch of teenagers to criticize you. But creating a culture of communication will ensure that students and teachers alike are able to be open about their classroom experience, and that kind of open communication is something we should all strive for.