(Constructive) Criticism

by SarahRook

Coming out of Swat, I really do feel like I know how to take criticism – most of the time, at least.  At Swarthmore, the kind of criticism I got kind of depended on what I was doing. If I was working up to my elbows in clay, and had just finished something that I wasn’t sure about, the critiques I got tended to be focused on pushing my work farther, higher, deeper, wider, bigger.  If I was scratching out an answer in an Engineering problem set for the eighth time, the criticism tended to be a shove in the right direction – look at page 142, you’re going to need that equation.  No, that’s not right, figure out the tension again, go from there.  If I was writing an education paper, critique came from needing more sources, explaining a point more clearly, tying together what I was doing, digging deeper into the why and the how.  Criticism in the real world, in my real world.  Well.

I was asked in my interview for this position, whether or not I could deal with constructive criticism.  I answered yes.  I’m a first year teacher, I know that I am not going to do everything perfectly.  I also knew that Swat gave me a pretty good background, that I understand and relate to kids really well, and that I love kids, and watching them start to understand something.

That answer has come back to mock me a couple of times.  The most recent was this past Friday.  The supervisor for my school/center is a lovely person – but nearly every time we talk, I end up on the defensive.  Is this good, to get me to reexamine my priorities and my actions and my thought processes?  Yes.  I can equivocally say yes.  Is it good, that every time it happens, I feel a bit like a whipped puppy when I’m finally allowed to go back to my students, working with my assistant in the next room?  Well.  I’m not a huge fan.

This whole week went well.  The kids were attentive, enjoyed the activities, started teaching each other the sight words of the week, played math games and treated the books well.  We got to enjoy the beautiful weather every day (whether crisp and freezing or warmer and sunny) and naptime was redolent with snores.  Rather than our individual break-lunches, my coworkers and I had lunch together on Friday, and got to talk about all the things we wanted to do with the class.  For the whole week, my children heard, they listened, we worked on bringing our noise level down. (We are loud.)

My typical calm-down-sit-down management is to ask, in a relatively normal voice, for them to join me on our circle-time rug.  Generally about half the class gets the memo, sits down, criss-cross-applesauce, and chats with their neighbors until the rest of the class sits down.  I praise those who are sitting, and the rest sit down.  I praise those who are quiet, and the rest quiet down.  If a student is having difficulties with this, I ask them to sit at the table and observe until they are ready to join us again.

On Friday, my supervisor came in to make smoothies.  She was late, and I had pretty much given up on her coming in.  So I got the kids cleaned up from snack, and we were sitting down to a book when she comes over, gives me a mango, and tells me to talk to the kids about it.  Ok.  I can follow directions, sure.  We talk about the color and the size and the shape, make predictions about what color it will be on the inside and what the seed will look like.  I’m losing them, I can feel it.  A couple going at the back,  chatting about something clearly not related to a mango.

Given my druthers, we would jump up and do a movement activity.  They’ve already been sitting longer than I’d like.  But she looks like she’s just about got things ready – tablecloths, and cooking utensils, and extension cords, and the kids turn and look and don’t turn back.  Ignore my asking them to turn around.  Carry on with their conversations.

She walks over, lectures my class about listening, about being rude, about being loud, about sitting improperly.  They turn, straighten, go silent, and stare at her.  She then turns them back over to me with a face like I’ve just shown that my management is as poor as she suspected.

And do I work on my classroom management, all the time?  Yes.  Because I know that it is the weakest part of my teaching.

But it is not as bad as the face I am getting, or the slow drawl of her telling me that she will be coming into my classroom more often, to help out, to make sure that I am doing my job properly.

I tell myself I do not mind her coming in, and setting my routine on its head, and taking over.  It is a lie.

I tell myself that I have  had a conversation with her where I do not feel bad afterwards, and have been able to hold my own.  This is the truth, though it has only happened once.

I tell myself that I do not mind constructive criticism.  I truly believe that I do not mind constructive criticism, and take it to make a different sort of ceramic sculpture, a solution to an engineering project, a better, clearer, more cohesive education paper.  I need to make sure that this holds true for me in the real world as well.  I know that she has good intentions, that she wants me to be a good-better teacher, that she is brusque with everyone.  I just wish that all the criticism I got felt like it was constructive, rather than demolishing.

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5 Comments to “(Constructive) Criticism”

  1. Your description reminds me of my ethics teacher in high school. When she would correct us (and we were wrong), she would do it in a way that made me, at least, feel dumb. As someone whose self-image is built around intelligence, this was pretty harsh on me. However much I may have learned from the class, I came away from it disliking both her and the topic. Normally I love learning just about anything, so this was pretty unusual.

    This was in contrast to another high school teacher, who, no matter how foolish your mistake may have been, corrected you in a way that felt caring, and motherly. That’s the sort of teacher I imagine you as, Allison. You’re one of the sweetest people I know, and if I were in your class, it would break my heart to disappoint you. Don’t let this person get you down; I know you’ll be an awesome teacher.

  2. Agreed. It sounds as if she may have some good ideas (as you mentioned, she has more experience) but it’s possible she’s one of the people who thinks there’s only one right way to do things. And it IS hard to take the kind of criticism when it feels less constructive and more just…critical. You are a sweet, wonderful person and I just know you will do great!

  3. That’s a tough one to navigate. I often find myself responding to someone else’s style – so if she’s giving you short and direct criticism, is there a way to give her short and direct criticism, without overstepping your boundaries? And without being demolishing to her, either. To put it another way: maybe you could find an opportunity for you to model the sort of feedback you’d like to be receiving?

  4. This is a tricky situation. I myself have not navigated or experience administrative evaluation with tons of success or positive feelings.

    I hope things improve in your relationship with your evaluator. Maybe if you think things are going better than she is seeing, more observations will let her see that.

  5. I’m not sure if I would classify this as “constructive criticism.” Just because her method worked in this one situation does not mean that it is the correct way of capturing the students’ attention. It seems silly for your supervisor to think that she has taught you about classroom management when she does not know the dynamics of the students. Also, there is a difference between a strategy working once and an effective strategy; you (or any other adult) could go into pretty much any classroom and raise your voice/yell at the students and they would all pay attention immediately – I imagine it is the fear of the unknown that is so effective.

    I completely understand where you’re coming from, and I think that if you were given true constructive criticism, then it wouldn’t be so uncomfortable. Constructive criticism shouldn’t be about showing you how something should be done, it should be about working with you to improve your classroom management skills.

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