Acceptance of Feedback – Lessons in Teaching: Week 7
As i mentioned previously, this year I am going back to school. Not to take a course, but to teach a course at my alma mater, Fanshawe College. I did this about ten years ago and thought it was interesting, so I couldn’t wait to do it again. Also, after a friend mentioned that their child wanted to learn Python, I developed an introduction to Python for high school students that I teach every week. I thought it would be good fodder for the Security state. So whenever I have something interesting to discuss, expect to find it here.
This week was mid-term week, so grades were due and exams were taking place. It was also the start of reviews here at Tripwire, so pairing the two got me thinking about effective reviews. Feedback is such an important part of growing up, but for some reason most of us hate giving it and even more of us hate receiving it. If I’m honest, negative comments make me angry. I know it’s a part of life, but I don’t handle it well. I think the same goes for those I have worked with, those I have managed and those to whom I have taught. Negative comments never turn out well.
When someone receives negative feedback, they may feel cornered and become defensive, arguing their position or justifying their behavior. I’m a very straightforward person, I’m not a fan of flowery words or sugar coating the truth. I have spent years receiving the same comments in my reviews year after year. “If you ever want to manage people, you have to learn to communicate better.” “You have a bad reputation because of the severity of your criticism.” I shrug my shoulders. My reasoning: “Don’t make mistakes if you don’t want to be criticized.” Oh be in your twenties again. After all, I’ve only heard this once a year… why should I care? As I got older (and hopefully wiser), I also took a number of management and leadership courses that still preach effective feedback and open communication. The problem is, no matter how effective feedback is, no one ever teaches acceptance of feedback. It took me a long time to get to the point where I accepted comments from others and I’m still not happy when it happens.
From the beginning
I think the problem with accepting feedback begins before entering the workforce, even before entering the post-secondary education system. Parents isolate their children from all negativity. I have heard all kinds of horror stories over the years. Parents who accompany adult children to interviews or call the company when they cannot find a job. Parents who call high school, or worse, college, when their kids aren’t getting the grade they want. Parents who keep teachers from failing their children and force them to move on to the next class. Anything negative directed at students and their parents, with armor, comes to their aid. We should consider correcting this behavior before correcting our negative reactions. It’s not the end of the world if a child fails and it’s not up to a parent to make sure they succeed, just be there to support them.
Get off the soap box
Where am I going with this? I was a little disappointed when submitting my students’ grades. Students over 60% simply get an “S” for Satisfactory while others get a “U” for Unsatisfactory. My sister called while I was submitting notes and when I told her the format she asked if I was teaching kindergarten. I’m sure a psychologist or educational expert decided this was the best approach, but I wonder if this person knew what these students would encounter when they graduate. A real world with real feedback. Not only were my only rating options a U or an S, but I was allowed to choose from about 10 predetermined single line comments that were ultimately attaboy / attagirl or “book a meeting with me”. It wasn’t particularly valuable feedback.
At the start of the year, I had to define the program outcomes (goals) for the course. At Tripwire, like many companies, we set goals that we discuss with our managers. We are then assessed against those goals and our core corporate values. I can’t help but wonder how much better it would be for students to do the same. What if students had to set their own goals for the course and teachers provided the values (or concepts) they wanted to communicate? What if instead of an “S” or “U”, students were graded based on these defined goals and concepts? It would be a lot more work for the professors, but I think it could prove invaluable for the students. Imagine how better prepared these graduates would be to receive feedback in their careers.
Join the dots
When I started working, I spent 6 months in IT without any return. At that point I took a job with VERT and the performance reviews took place after about 4 months. My review was, “Well, you haven’t been here that long, good job so far.” It would take 16 months of work before I got my first real performance review. At Tripwire today, employees have 90 and 180 day reviews and regular individual reviews. We have a culture driven by feedback. While performance reviews and feedback processes can always be improved, the process I am experiencing now is significantly better than when I started. However, even when I started out, I felt I received better feedback than today’s students.
So, like all of my posts, here is my list of requests … this time as an actual list:
- Parents: Leave your kids on their own after high school. If they’re mature enough, do the same in high school. If ever a teacher suggests they be held for a year, listen… they know about education.
- Students: be open to a performance review. Ask your teacher if he would be willing to give you one. You might need to figure out what this looks like, but it’s not all about getting the best grade. Also be prepared to receive negative feedback when entering the workforce, expect people to be polite but critical, especially when you are just starting out.
- Post-secondary institutions: Consider preparing your students better for feedback, so that they are better prepared for life after school.
- Teachers: Consider implementing performance reviews, be aware that grades alone may not be enough.
- Employers: Remember that you come across employees who haven’t had proper feedback before, who haven’t had their performance evaluated. Make sure you have the support you need to provide and manage feedback.
When I proposed this series, I expected to write about cybersecurity interactions with my students. Cool things I taught them and cool things they learned and, in turn, taught me. Turns out the tech side is pretty straightforward and I’m sure the editors at State of Security are wondering why they decided to release it, but I mean how happy I am that they are and how I’m happy to keep it. go until the end of the semester. It turns out that the more I talk to my students, that they don’t struggle with technique, they struggle with everything else.
In college, I had a series of courses called “Management” and the goal was to teach “soft skills”. Since these classes had nothing to do with my concentration, I did what I had to do and that was it. I think that instead of teaching these soft skills in specific classes, students would be better served to incorporate these concepts into all classes. When I think about those skills now, I think about how much better I would have been served in the early years of my career if I had known then what I know now. Not everything can be taught, but we can definitely improve it and, in part, I hope this series helps.