Seven years ago a colleague and I got this feedback from a participant in our writing scoring workshop:
Suggestions For Improvement
I now understand why there are funding cuts in our district. The fact that our taxpayers’ money is spent on Starbucks bears for your decorations is infuriating. I was distracted the entire time thinking about your selfish and pointless spending. I will not recommend this class or these presenters to anyone!
Yes, once upon a time my coaching colleague had a large collection of Starbucks bears that her family and friends gifted her each time a new one came out. The day before our presentation she said, “I’ll bring my bears tomorrow and we can set one at each table. Teachers work so hard, maybe it’ll bring a smile after our long days.” Those bears did bring some smiles, but they also brought an out-of-nowhere slam. When participants don’t come with positive presuppositions or willingness to ask questions, sometimes it results in toxic evaluation comments.
I often share my Starbucks bear story with coaches who are reading their course evaluations for the first times. Some of them are like me. I can read 99 positive comments, but the one disgruntled one leaves me stewing, “What could I have done to make it better?” While I’m glad that I constantly seek improvement, I also need to make sure I’m not too hard on myself.
Here are some things to consider with class evaluations:
1. What did most people think?
In this case it really is important to focus on the majority. Did they walk away with inspiration? New ideas?
2. Is the critical feedback within your control?
I’ve had people complain about the temperature of the room, the parking, my outfit (I’m not kidding), the other participants, the time of the day, month, and year…the list goes on. If those things are within my control, I need to consider it, if not, I need to breathe and let it go.
3. Is the feedback reliable or just plain mean?
While the anonymous nature of our web-based educator evaluation can give me honest feedback, it can also be destructive and demotivating. Not everyone lives by the T.H.I.N.K. acronym (Is it True, Helpful, Important, Necessary and Kind?). A couple years ago I was reading harsh words about new things I was trying in professional development. For awhile I felt anxious about experimenting and trying different approaches. Then I realized maybe I needed a break from reading those less-than-accepting evaluations. Asking for exit slips from teachers at the end of the professional development was giving me far better information than the anonymous circuit where some people–not all, but some–sought power by being critical and sometimes cruel.
4. Is it funny? Or will it be funny like Starbucks Bears in seven years?
I look back on things I thought were going to be debilitating when I was 16, 21 or 32. And now? A lot of them are pretty funny stories (and GREAT writing fodder). If I can remind myself that whatever is hard in the moment will probably become a good, and possibly funny story, I gain a healthy perspective and don’t take myself or my circumstances too seriously.
5. Who will listen?
I have an amazing team. Coaches in my district listen and have empathy for each other. I have several people I can go to if I get slammed in evaluations. They help me determine if it’s important to consider or if it’s important to release. Find that person or colleague that you can debrief your feedback with. Find someone who really knows how to listen (not make it about them with statements like “I know just what you mean, one time I…”) and not minimize (“That’s nothing, I…”). What a gift to be able to ask someone, “Can I have a moment? Will you listen?”
6. Are you willing to change?
There are a couple classes that my colleagues and I have down. Our content is necessary, our delivery is appropriately inquiry-based for adults and our pacing is succinct. I rarely even download comments from those classes. It’s like over-revising a piece of writing, there comes a time when it’s OK to say, “This is right and good as is.” If I’m not willing to change parts of my class or course, there’s really no need for me to read the feedback.
We did end up using those Starbucks bears again and began with this disclaimer, “Please know that these bears are the personal property of our colleague. They do not represent mishandling of professional development funds. They are simply here to remind us to smile.” One woman laughed out loud and said, “Why would anyone ever think you’d buy those for a class?” And we chuckled and said, “You’d be surprised.”
*The image is not an official Starbucks Bear, but this teddy’s expression was so perfect I had to capture it.