How to deal with constructive criticism

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Feedback is a fact of life for a new teacher. Helen Beckett helps you handle the good and bad varieties

If there's one thing that will help newly qualified teachers get through their induction year successfully, it's constructive feedback. But with criticism coming from all directions - colleagues, parents and pupils - it's hardly suprising that the hapless new teacher sometimes just wants to take cover.

Constructive feedback can help a new teacher to develop their performance in the classroom. Delivered in the wrong way or with the wrong motive, though, feedback can descend into bullying. Left unchecked, a new teacher's morale and performance may plummet and in the worst-case scenario, may quit teaching.

"A fellow NQT who was a charismatic personality in the classroom was repeatedly told that she would not make a good teacher," recalls former teacher Angela Singleton, now training consultant with education ICT supplier, Ramesys (recently acquired by Capita). The friend persisted despite the putdowns and was promoted to head of ICT after her first year as a qualified teacher.

Helen Mathieson, headteacher of Treviglas School in Newquay, praises modern induction in most schools as the "acceptance of accountability". "Constructive criticism is an essential part of this and should be like a professional conversation, not a judgement," she says.

Tina Lamb, training partner at the Impact Factory, agrees that the new teacher's best bet is to create a conversation out of feedback. "Use questions as a way of keeping it a two-way exchange so you're not just on the receiving end," she counsels. For example, you might ask: `Is this a situation you've seen before?' and: `Is there a lesson I could observe?' You'll keep the conversation open and avoid going on the defensive."

Cary Cooper, at Lancaster University endorses this approach. "Remind yourself - and admit to your mentor - that you are new and have lots to learn. The minute you defend yourself, you are on the wrong tack," he says.

If feedback is unremitting and negative, there are tactics that can stop it becoming a barrage. "If someone is talking at you, you can interrupt them with an agreement. It can be quite banal or small such as: `I agree: I hope we don't have to speak about this next week'", says Lamb. Of course, if feedback is consistently negative or belittling, you need to take it up with your union.

Another method recommended by the Impact Factory is the "verbal drop- shot", good, perhaps, for the parent who has dropped in to deliver some unsolicited feedback. Try saying very little, even when it's your turn to speak: "I have spoken to her. I will see what I can do."

Most schools encourage feedback from their pupils. Ideally, students will have been trained how to do this objectively and will critique the lesson, not the teacher. New teachers should be protected from `free-style' criticism but when the odd comment does arise, there are methods to hand (see box). The best way to prepare for constructive criticism is accept it as an essential part of your professional development, says Ms Mathieson.

"There are some new teachers who think teaching is about being nice to children. It's actually a high-level exercise in practising pedagogy."

TES agony uncle James Williams on some situations when criticism wasn't constructive

The stroppy student

"That lesson was useless and I think you're a rubbish teacher." The best way to turn this around is to focus on the pupil, rather than the subject. "Not everyone likes every subject - what do you like?" is a good way to begin.

The helicopter parent

An NQT wrote to me about a parent helper whose own daughter was in the class. Mum constantly criticised the NQT's methods. The NQT took it up with the head and the parent was asked to help in a different class.

The bullying teacher

When feedback is only negative, the criticism is not constructive. Try this in reply: "Thank you, I'll reflect on that. Could you also let me know what you think I'm doing well so I can apply this to the areas I'm not so strong in?"

`Rate my teacher' comment

Ignore and pretend it is inconsequential. The school can contact the site and request removal and if that does not work the local authority should get involved.

Get advice from James Williams at

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