How to Distinguish Between Substantive Feedback and Hate Speech

Tips for new teachers on how to deal with "one-star reviews"

Have you ever purchased a Kindle book? If so, you probably checked out the reviews. When a book has mostly four- and five-star reviews, you probably don’t pay much attention to a few one-star reviews, do you? And if you’ve ever actually read such a one-star review, the reviewer usually isn’t providing any substantive feedback. They’re usually bashing the author for having a different point of view on some trivial point. How is this related to your job as a school teacher? Well, we all have to learn to discern from the inevitable one-star review whether there’s anything substantive that can help us improve our craft. Are they solid critiques that can help us improve? Or are they just haters happy to be outraged about something? Here’s how you can tell…

No News Is Good News

Hundreds of students come through our doors every school year. In my decades-long career, I have taught thousands of students how to do arithmetic, algebra, statistics, and calculus. In spite of the sheer number of students we impact, we seldom hear a positive report. Why is that? That’s because we’re professionals doing our jobs. No news is good news in the education business. And if you’ve never gotten a one-star review, your students may not be getting challenged enough.

Unlike Amazon.com, teachers do not actively seek positive reviews for the work we do. So when we get one, it really makes our day. Why? Because no one calls or emails the principal to say what a great job they think we did. We’re professionals, and that’s our job. The principal usually only hears the negative. And depending on his or her level of confirmation bias about a given teacher, the complaint sometimes gets more traction than it should. So when no one complains, consider it a 4-star or 5-star review.

Consider this… Most people either love or hate the New York Yankees. They could never have so many fans without a fair number of detractors. I could never have gotten thousands of followers without having a handful of detractors. There’s the trade-off. Like the Yankees, you won’t have raving fans without having your haters. And we all know the expression — haters gotta hate. There is no yin without yang. Sunshine is followed by rain.

Distinguishing Constructive Criticism from Hate Speech

Substantive feedback typically revolves around subject content and concerns are related to the student’s assimilation of that content. Look for “What can Suzy do to learn better?” type question, as opposed to a “What can you do for Suzy?” We work hard to present content that appeals to a variety of learning modalities. When constructive criticism enables me to make distinctions, I am grateful. This is constructive feedback that not only  makes me a better instructor, but more importantly better serves my customers. However, not everyone in the crowd loves every teacher’s style. Some students are not just interested in what we have to sell regardless of the way it is marketed.

Another telltale sign of bogus complaints is that the complainant will not communicate with you, the teacher. Rather, she goes over your head. Or the worst, they troll Facebook with mysterious passive-aggressive comments looking for sympathizers. Maybe you’ve experienced a combination of the these tactics. In any event, neither serves the needs of students. To a seasoned professional, this is just noise — part of the admission price into the helping professions. I suppose these courageous complainers feel better when the off-loaded some blame, but again the students are not well-served by such antics.

Another third hallmark of bogus complaints is the clandestine investigation. Sometimes, a sensible leader has to acquiesce to their demands without ever consulting you, because they know they’re dealing with fake issues. They understand the difference between legitimate concerns and hate speech. Sometimes, squeaky wheels just need a little oiling.

Keep this in mind when you get that inevitable one-star review, especially if you’re a new teacher. As a newbie, it’s hard to shake the feeling that everyone doesn’t just love you and think you’re great. But with the proper frame of reference, critiques can be properly characterized as bonafide substantive feedback, or just noise-making haters. Your students are better served, and you will learn more from the former. If at all possible, train yourself to ignore that latter.

Just remember, stay flexible on the details, but remain stubborn on your vision.

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