Finding Freedom in Feedback

By: Rachel Harker

“I want to provide 80% of my students with feedback at least once a week.” I reviewed my goal for that school year again and again. This is manageable, I thought. I knew how I would track who was receiving feedback and how often, and was certain this would mean so much to my students and ultimately make me a better teacher.

Enter: reality. “Great job!” I’d write at the top of papers in the prettiest pen colors. “Good work!” paired with a sweet smiley face that communicated how proud I was of the work they were doing. This went on for weeks until I realized it was the fourth week of school and I had yet to provide one piece of meaningful feedback to a single student and I most certainly wasn’t tracking a single thing. We got to our first essay and I found myself working so hard, striving to provide 80% of my students with feedback. When I hit the mark, I patted myself on the back and felt as though it was a job well done. Finally. I had done that thing I told my administrators I would do.

Essays were passed back, students looked at the notes and comments I had left for them, then slid their essays into their backpacks, never to be seen again. I cringed as I watched some toss them in the trash on their way out the door. The remarks I had worked so hard on? Meaningless to most of them.

It didn’t take but a week for us to go back to the usual routine: give assignments, students do it, “Good job!” at the top of the page, pass back papers, fill the trash can. Again and again. By the time I got to the end of the semester I realized that the feedback I was providing them was as useless to them as it was to me. Where was I going wrong? It finally hit me like a ton of bricks that it wasn’t the feedback or the students, it was the work I was giving them.

I found myself assigning activities and homework that were neither meaningful nor helpful. I was not expecting much from them, and they were not giving me much in return. I had to be honest with myself and accept the fact that what I was giving them was truly, in every sense of the word, busy work. I had some reflecting and refining to do, but I was not sure where to even begin. The whole thing seemed insurmountable, but also sort of insignificant. I knew feedback was valuable, but was it necessary?

As I was moving through these different thoughts, questioning the value, reflecting on how I could do a better job, I began reading Dr. Jon Eckert’s Just Teaching. I wasn’t but just three pages in when I found his thoughts on feedback to be just what I needed to hear. He succinctly describes feedback as “the lifeblood of teaching and learning because it is the conversation between teachers and students that helps us all grow…feedback is where we see the fruits of our labor” (Just Teaching, p. 3). If I wanted my students to do better, I also had to do better. I had to prioritize the work they were doing and be intentional about the way I was communicating back to them via feedback.

As teachers, we need each student to know that we care about them and value the time they are spending in our classrooms. I vowed to be intentional about providing each student with opportunities to practice and apply what they were learning in a way that made it easy to see where I could offer more support or extension. This meant I had to go back to the drawing board and reassess the questions I was asking and the tasks I expected them to complete. I had to become more deliberate in the work we were doing together and how I could use that work, paired with the feedback I provided them, to help them grow.

I have since nixed the busy work and dedicated time focusing on the quality, not quantity, of work my students are doing. For both my students and me, I have found that we are working so hard, but in a way that feels effortless. Providing feedback no longer seems labor intensive. By viewing it as an avenue for communication between teacher and student, I find that providing feedback is lifegiving, rather than draining.

Students need to know that their teachers appreciate and value each one of them for the unique knowledge, experiences, and perspectives they bring to the classroom. By taking the time to provide each student with feedback, teachers are more likely to mold students that are better, well-rounded individuals with an eagerness to learn and the motivation to put in effort they might have lacked before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *