The No-Easy Task of Giving Novice Teachers Negative Feedback

Today’s post is about giving negative feedback during pre-service teacher training courses for novice teachers. I am quite sure that a very large number of this blog’s writers – if not all of us – have, at one point or another, been involved with the difficult and highly demanding job of training teachers. Not only because of the broad knowledge of methodologies and teaching techniques the work of a teacher trainer involves, but also, and perhaps equally (and at times more importantly), the extraordinary ability to reassure trainee teachers and make them regain confidence in themselves after a couldn’t-have-been-any-worse type of (mini-) lesson they have just taught.

At this point, if you happen to be nodding with a half-smile in agreement with my assertion above, you have probably already been the incredulous witness of such an awkward occasion, when you thought to yourself, “What am I going to say during the feedback session?” If, however, you are just sitting there in awe, with your mouth hanging open, you may not (yet) have had the chance of being a passenger on this roller coaster, whose ride can at times be smooth (as much as a roller coaster will allow), but more often than not wild and adrenaline-boosting.

So, how does one go about giving ‘negative’ feedback? Is there a course that prepares trainers to do it the right way? Is there a right, ideal way? I don’t think so. Naturally, we all concede that there are some principles, techniques, and even ‘rules’ with which we should acquaint ourselves and comply before stepping into the shoes of a feedbacker, but that is by no means to say that having a hand on these prerequisites suffices. The role of a trainer giving negative feedback is much broader and much more complex than simply applying previously gained knowledge on the subject. One very simple reason for this is that people are different from one another and the same person you gave feedback to last week might be a different person the next time you have to give them feedback again. Below are a few rules of thumb I use when giving negative feedback. There is nothing new in this top-down approach to giving feedback. These are just a few things that have successfully helped me achieve a positive outcome.

Part I: Getting ready

It is important to keep in mind that anxiety readily shows through the body: It affects your breathing, your posture, your patience, the way you look at people and the way you move your body, among other things. In order to avoid such things as having a look of disapproval, restless legs (or general restlessness) and a threatening posture (by leaning your trunk forward), you might want to be by yourself for a couple of minutes so that you can re-member your body and soul. What I usually do is sit in silence with my eyes closed, my head hanging forward and my arms hanging relaxed alongside my body. First I pay attention to my breathing for a while; then I focus on what I need to do and also on what I shouldn’t do. This takes no more than five minutes.

Part II: Focusing on the individual, not on the teacher

You could start by asking your *feedbackee to give you his or her overall impression of the experience of being the teacher (thus shifting the focus from the trainee as a teacher to the trainee as a person). I frequently ask them, “So, what was it like for you to be the teacher today?“, or “How did you feel being the teacher today?“. I feel that asking trainees a question related to their personal feelings as individuals in the experience rather than professionals tends to decrease the ultra high level of anxiety such a moment normally produces.

* I deliberately chose to use this word after reading @johngcanning’s tweet, “Is feedbackee a word? If not I have invented it“. John Canning is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK.

Part III: Eliciting general positive aspects of the lesson as a whole

I find that a nice question to ask the teacher in this part would be, “What did you like about your lesson today? Or “What do you think your students liked about your lesson today?” Here again, the primary objective is to help the teacher lower their level of anxiety a bit more. It is also very important that you keep a friendly tone of voice and maintain non-invasive eye contact.

Part IV: Tapping into the not-so-bright side

At this point the teacher might have become ready to start expressing their own perceptions of what went not so well in the lesson. You could ask them what they would change/do differently if they had to teach the same lesson to the same group of students again. Depending on the answers they give you, you might want to encourage them to go further by asking them why they would do it. This moment can be a great opportunity for you to have the trainee themselves become aware of what went wrong and why.

Part V: Inviting reflection

Naturally, because of the fact that you are dealing with novice teachers, there might still be a lot of other aspects of the lesson that did not go so well as they could have. In order not to overwhelm the teacher with a high number of “things to work on”, you could make a priority list of more serious problems you would like the trainee to work on. One thing that has often worked for me is to invite the teacher to reflect on some ‘unfavorable’ events that took place during the lesson. One way of doing this is by describing some things they did and how the students responded (eg. “You asked the whole class a general question about x, but no one answered. Instead, they kept quiet and avoided eye contact with you. Why do you think that happened?”). Then tell the teacher you would like them to take the list home, think about the event, why it happened, what could have been done to prevent it happening, and what they would change if they had to do it again. Finally, another meeting could be scheduled for you to listen to the teacher’s reflections and help them pinpoint the problems.

I believe that I descriptive-reflective approach to giving feedback tends to yield a lot more in terms of teacher development if compared to a more prescriptive approach, in which the trainer tells the trainee what to do. Memorable learning, as I see it, has a lot to do with learners being given the chance to discover things by themselves. Guidance, rather than preaching, might be the key.


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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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