Reflections / Stories

Trainer’s integrity, or the Power of participant feedback

IntegrityOne trainer in training wrote to me in response to the feedback from her participants at the end of the course. The letter was quite emotional, and I could read between the lines how hurt she felt after reading a couple of people’s criticism. She said she felt much less motivated to continue training and asked me what I usually do if I get negative feedback from the people I work with.

Perhaps it is time to bring some light into the idea of collecting feedback in our line of work. The whole concept of feedback is rooted tightly with the course principles and values, and feedback is used to help participants (or more precisely teachers on the course) to reflect on the lessons taught or observed and to learn from those experiences by thinking back into what worked in a lesson, and why, and what was less successful, and why so, make conclusions and outline a plan of actions for future. The feedback is given by peer participants and trainers, both written and oral. A simplistic but overall true explanation, I think. Now, the same applies to us trainers working on the course: we are looking back at our input and feedback sessions, course design, etc. in order to create better courses in the future and most importantly to keep the successful parts of the course. Such feedback is given by peer trainers (informally) and participants (in the middle and at the end of the course).

There is a belief (which I support too!) that learning from positive experience and making conscious decisions on what to keep doing in the future helps both teachers and trainers shape their own unique style and that the awareness of what works well and a habit to analyze what strengths you already have brings a lot of joy and motivation to a teacher.

I am wondering how much we trainers actually believe that collecting feedback on what worked well (or very well!) is important for our profession. What I often see at the end of the course is rushing through the participant feedback about yourself and even skipping the parts that ‘work’, trying to find any hints of dissatisfaction or questions, or criticism, or advice, and then making a note about that, and thinking (or even talking!) about a possible reason that someone made that comment… Well, it would be a lie to say that I never do that myself! Also, to be even more open, I can share one thing about my own way to reflect on those comments: I write them down and think about them at the beginning of another course and then search for any ‘signs of improvement’ in the feedback at the end, etc. A couple of examples:

From the very first course as a trainer in training: ‘You are a good teacher and will probably become a good trainer in the future; You were a good assistant of X‘ (the head trainer on that course)’

From my first course abroad with native speaking participants: ‘As a non-native speaker of English you sometimes did not understand our idiomatic expressions

On another course in a team of trainers: ‘Your style is the most strict (than the other trainer’s) and your comments are even severe sometimes

And on another course: ‘You are too soft and gentle, and you can’t say directly what I need to work on’

(can also bring many more examples)

My questions to myself are:

  • Is focusing on ‘mistakes’ an effective way to learn and reflect?

  • Is it true that ‘learning from mistakes’ brings more efficiency into any profession?

  • Can we really balance the ‘positive and negative points’ as teachers often call them?

  • Is there a way to learn to be more ‘neutral’ to the feedback we (humans) receive and not to take them to heart?

  • Is it possible to only get positive feedback from the participants, and how ‘natural’ is that?

I can’t say that I know the answers to those questions. I can share some thoughts and feelings and then together we can probably see more light on this (or not!) I guess the challenge of our job is extreme energy investment during an intensive course, with working days far longer than 8 hours a day, nights planning and marking assignments, etc. By the end of the course I have a kind of ‘sensitivity time’ with a state of ‘very open heart’, as I call it, when I have already done what I could to help people teach better, and observe their final lessons on the course, read their portfolio assignments and think about more global plans of action and the right words on final interviews with them. At this point, especially when I am running the course all by myself, I really need a bit of support, or confirmation that I am doing it ‘right’. Again, it is just a feeling, not a literal need in a hug or a kind word. At this time I like to read a page or two of a book that I really like, or a quote, or talk to a colleague on Skype, etc. Recently I was re-reading Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to teach‘ and was reminded of the importance of teacher’s integrity and identity, and that there is no perfect lesson or a course, but only unlimited openness to learning and reflection and again learning.

How is this connected to receiving feedback? I guess that perhaps a reminder that our participants are not here to just hug us but help us become a better trainer is one possible idea; another thing for me would be a reminder that you can’t be loved by everyone and that the job we are doing is endlessly rich in new learning ‘quests’ and puzzles. Being a trainer, or a teacher, can sometimes make you feel that you have known all or almost all possible ‘situations’ and that you are now a completely confident professional. Or sometimes you can be on the opposite end of this line and think that the job is too demanding (exhausting, etc.) that you can never be ‘right’ for it.

One more book that often helps me balance these feelings is ‘A Country Doctor’s Notebook‘ by Mikhail Bulgakov. My favorite example is the morning where the main character (a country doctor) feels that ‘he knows this all’ and can help any patient with any question or concern. On that same day a woman brings a small kid and asks what to do with his swollen eye. The doctor advises to consult professors in Moscow (the disease he had not known before), and that the boy might lose his eye. The woman leaves. She then comes back in a month or so to bring the boy with the healthy eye and to let the doctor know it was a simple blister of some kind ad nothing serious.

Back to our trainer thinking: I find it fascinating how too much confidence or too much doubt can make us feel bad in the classroom, and how much we actually depend on our feelings in this job.

Finally, coming back to ‘practice what you preach’ idea: perhaps focusing on what positive things the participants have to say about the work on a course and a bit of reflection on what they felt less successful is the best formulae (and another step to support our integrity)?

Posted by Zhenya

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