It’s not as bad as you feel it is!

This morning, awake too early and browsing twitter, I read Nathan Hall’s tweet expressing an all too familiar response to student comments.

Nathan's tweet

It brought to mind Stephen Brookfield’s (1995) notion of the ‘perfect ten syndrome’ and the desire to get positive evaluations from all our students. We want to be good at what we do so it’s important to know that our students think we are doing a good job. But, it seems we don’t weigh all evaluations equally because, as he points out, ‘All those evaluations that are complimentary are forgotten, while those that are negative assume disproportionate significance’. (p. 17)

Why is this? Do we believe that the negative ones are written by students with ‘heightened powers of pedagogic discrimination’ and the positive ones by ‘students who are half asleep’? No. But it still seems that feelings of incompetence and guilt win. I’ve since found out that we might naturally have a negativity bias where negative things affect us more than positive things of an equal nature do. (It’s a survival thing!)

Nevertheless, we can try to remember, as Brookfield points out, that given the diversity in many classrooms, taking into account personalities, backgrounds, previous experiences, learning preferences and so on, ‘no actions a teacher takes can ever be experienced as universally and uniformly positive’. Stephen Kemmis and Tracey Smith (2008) highlight that it is a difficult task to always work in the best interests of each individual, “What it might be good to do in the interests of one student may be different from what would be in the interests of another. (Should I move on to the next topic because Jenny is bored, or wait until Johnny has understood clearly?)”. (p. 18)

It’s good and useful to get feedback from students. It can highlight areas of our practice where we have misjudged something or been misunderstood. We can learn from it. Unfortunately, while we might know that we shouldn’t let the one less favourable comment get us down or worry us too much (and I’m not saying that Nathan has!), it’s not so easy to actually prevent it affecting us negatively. As Stephen Brookfield goes on to say later in the book, ‘Even after several years of collecting, analyzing, and reporting back students’ critical incidents, I still die a hundred small deaths each semester as I read descriptions of distancing moments and unhelpful actions.’ (p.139)

But, perhaps it’s good to know that it happens to others too and that we’ve this thing called a negativity bias to deal with as well. It helps me, I think.  So, thank you, Nathan 🙂

Update: Many thanks for Mike Griffin for sharing this cartoon as a perfect illustration.


Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher

Estroff Marano, H. (2003) ‘Our Brain’s negative bias: why our brains are more highly tuned to negative news’ in Psychology Today

Kemmis, S. and Smith, T.J. (2008) Enabling praxis: challenges for education

Negativity Bias. Wikipedia article.

4 Responses to It’s not as bad as you feel it is!

  1. nathanghall says:

    What a great post, Carol! As you stated so eloquently, it is human nature to try and ‘fix’ everything, even it is unrealistic to even attempt it. In this situation, I know it is just a misunderstanding, but due to the anonymity of the situation (and rightly so), I am unable to address it directly with that person. I just need to leave the negativity behind and take the message of the comment with me to deal with things more appropriately in the future.

    “Live and learn.”

    Thanks for the post and allowing me to be a part of it!

    • Carol Goodey says:

      My pleasure, Nathan! I’m glad you approve.

      That sounds like a frustrating situation. You’ll have to find a way to work in addressing it in a future session 😉

  2. Daljit Kaur says:

    Enjoying your new posts, Carol. I think we all focus on the negative feedback, but as long as we can act on it then surely it brings about a positive result. In future, we should try to spend time reading positive comments too. We often read the first few lines or see lots of smiley faces/high scores, recognise the feedback as being positive and then put it aside.

    What do we do if a student comes to us because they did badly in one section of a test or messed up in a small part of some activity? Of course, we get them to focus on their strengths and then address the areas to work on. Why don’t we do the same ourselves then and give some quality time to reading about the strengths our learners tell us that we have. I guess it’s because we see it as our job to teach well and produce learners who are progressing, but we’re somehow failing the whole class if one or two highlight some issue/s.

    It’s always difficult to address everyone’s needs, but that’s why we need to have ‘negative’ feedback. Otherwise, how do we keep progressing as teachers?

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Thank you, Daljit!

      Very good points. I particularly like what you say about needing to have negative feedback so that we can keep progressing. That’s something to keep in mind.

      It’s also good to think about it from learners points of view and how they view their abilities and progress. I might introduce them to the ‘negativity bias’ sometime!

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