Giving Novice Teachers Negative Feedback After Teaching Practice Sessions – Part II

It is over four months today since I last posted an article on the blog. 2015 was not particularly what I’d call a smooth year due to a lot of reasons; however, since it is important to focus on the gains rather than the losses, despite the bumps along last year’s path, it’s time to roll up our sleeves again and get ready for a new year! I’m still enjoying some much deserved vacation, but reflecting on our beliefs and practices is (or at least should be) a non-stop force, that powerful thrust which pushes us forward.

My previous post (September 20, 2015) was on giving novice teachers negative feedback after a teaching practice session  (usually during pre-service training courses). It presented some suggestions on how to go about this not-so-easy task we teacher trainers often have to carry out. By and large, the post included such things to be considered as the trainer’s preparation prior to the feedback session, his/her behavior during the session and some post-session tasks trainees could be given in order to help them reflect on their teaching. Today I’d like to go a bit further and expand on the topic a little. My attempt is to answer and deal with an equally (at times more) difficult situation, which can be awkward and cause resentment if not dealt with in a careful and appropriate way.

The idea for this follow-up post stemmed from a comment and suggestion by Marcelo de Cristo, whose words I take the liberty to use hoping to trigger some initial thoughts and ideas. He said,

“What to do when the trainee’s and the trainer’s perceptions of their lessons differ?’, e.g. when the trainee begins the feedback session by saying how great the lesson was, how the students had fun etc?” (perhaps as a defense mechanism?) when in fact it was one of those lessons full of “things to work on”.”

Though (and fortunately) not so often, the situation described above can and will happen to all professionals engaged in teacher training and lesson observation at one point or another. Because I’ve been doing this for quite some time now, I’ve had this experience a number of times and I am thankful for all the lessons learned regarding giving feedback.

Experience tells me that some of the reasons that may cause a trainee to have a completely twisted view of his or her teaching practice in a specific situation (i.e. an entire lesson or a large part of one) could be one (or the combination) of the following factors:

  • Fear of failure – This includes failing the course and perhaps not getting the job; failing to meet the trainer’s/the students’/their peers’ expectations.
  • Feeling inferior – Sometimes due to limited mastery of language skills; low self-esteem.
  • Feeling overwhelmed – Unable to grasp the contents of the input sessions; unable to cope with the pressure
  • Premature exposure – The trainee was not yet ready for teaching practice sessions, which might have taken place too soon*.
  • Ego defenses – Defense mechanisms are unconsciously activated to ward off anxiety and all the unpleasant feelings brought by it.

After looking at these somewhat overlapping factors, you have probably realized that the last one is the result of the previous four, that is, defense mechanisms play a key role in clouding the trainee’s view of his or her performance. The unwary trainer might take such a distorted perception as the teacher’s complete lack of understanding and misuse of techniques, their inability to grasp key concepts presented during input sessions, and perhaps more importantly, their inability to receive feedback and put it to use. This said, how does one let them know that they are losing sight of the big picture?

Firstly, the thing you need to have in mind is that anxiety must have taken over, so what I find important at this initial stage, when the trainee tells you that his or her lesson has been the best so far“, but in fact, it was far from being what was expected of him or her, is to help the trainee reduce their level of anxiety. As suggested in my previous article, try to alleviate the trainer’s overloaded shoulders by shifting the focus away. Easier said than done, this might be achieved by telling them, among other things, that you’re glad they feel that way, for example. Remember this is a time to lower affective filters and reassure the trainee. Ask them some more questions about specific things the class/the students said or did that might prove the success the trainee claims to have achieved.

The next very important thing you don’t want to do is to confront the trainee, which could result in unwanted negative outcomes and even resentment. After reassuring the trainee with encouraging words (eg. by saying that going to the front of a class to teach when you have little or no experience is a very brave act), you could invite other trainees (if you are doing this in a group) to contribute their feedback about the students’ demonstration of how (un)successful the lesson was. If you feel they are shying away for fear of ‘stepping on their colleague’s toes‘, you could make an initial comment that will likely and hopefully signal to them something in the lesson that didn’t go so well as the trainee had previously stated. If possible, choose a strong trainee to direct your comment/question to. Here’s an example, “(Name of trainee)I felt that the students were still unsure as to what they were supposed to do when you told them to start the task… Did you feel the same too? After this trainee’s response, which could be negative or positive, you could then involve other trainees by simply saying, “How about you, (Name of another trainee)?”. After listening to no more than three trainees, as this could be too much depending on the feedback you get from them, turn your attention back to the trainee receiving the feedback and ask for him or her if he agrees or disagrees (partly or entirely) with the (hopefully) divergent opinions.

You can repeat the procedure described above to focus on (previously chosen) areas which are more critical and as such deserving of special attention. However, it is important to have in mind that the trainee might feel he or she is being put on the spot, so make sure you don’t overdo it. Other unfavorable components of the same lesson which need work on are likely to resurface and be dealt with in other classes.

Finally, some people are more open to criticism than others, so by relying on common sense you will know when to put a stop to it and move on to another trainee. And above all else, keep a friendly tone of voice and a relaxed look and posture and don’t be judgemental. I believe it is not only what you do, but more important maybe is how you do what you do.

* More common with trainee teachers with very little or no experience in teaching.

Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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