“Take What Works, Leave the Rest”: Navigating Student Feedback as a Source of Shame

It’s (not) the most wonderful time of the year, and I am not the only one feeling this way, as discussions with my colleagues make quite clear that we are all over-committed and over-scheduled at this point in the semester. And, as James Lang’s most recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes clear, April is one of the busiest (if not, the busiest) months of the academic year.

While I appreciate Lang’s analysis of this hurried season, he does not mention the most anxiety-inducing aspect of April for me: course evaluations. Indeed, as a non-tenure track faculty member, April is anxiety-inducing because of course evaluations and me anticipating how my students will respond to my classes, especially what many of us might consider to be the “final outcome” of our success as teachers. What is more, these course evaluations are the only thing we currently have to measure effective teaching, and unfortunately for many of us on temporary contracts, our renewal offers are wholly contingent upon these teaching evaluations.

Although these issues of job insecurity and holding a tenuous place at the university exacerbate the problem, April is anxiety-inducing because students’ evaluations of my courses are a primary shame trigger for me. Before I begin discussing how student feedback functions as a source of shame, first, a primer on how I discovered this finding for myself. Since September, I have been on a journey with Brené Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability. I almost exclusively listen to her books on Audible during my commute to and from work, and this therapy has been incredibly beneficial for my recovery from my traumatic experience with having a panic attack at a major academic conference the week following my dissertation defense. This week while reading a student’s final reflection essay for my composition course, I have discovered that soliciting colleagues and students for feedback on my classes is not just anxiety-inducing; it functions also as a major shame-trigger for me.

Too simply put, each time I solicit and receive feedback on my teaching from either students or colleagues, I feel like my self-worth is on the line. My shame gremlins are, of course, currently having a field-day! On one shoulder sits the gremlin that says “you’re an awful teacher regardless of what students say.” He typically appears when a student’s expectations for my class are not met. On the other shoulder sits the other gremlin that says “you won’t maintain this performance for next semester”; he appears when a student explains that my class met or exceeded their expectations. Still, yet another gremlin pops up and proclaims, “This student’s comment is only a fluke, and it won’t last!”

My self-talk during these moments used to be “I can do better with X” or “I definitely need to get better at Y.” Although this might seem to be a healthy diagnostic of my curriculum, it is important to know that my default is to perform, perfect, predict, and please. So, while my self-talk might seem healthy at first, it hinges upon a perfectionist and overachieving ideal which do not exist and render my self-talk not healthy at all. As Brené Brown explains in Daring Greatly, healthy striving can be generative, but perfectionism will always be destructive and dangerous.

To explain further, and to account for a more accurate picture of my classes, most students (about 80-85%) write in their final reflection essays and course evaluations how the class met or exceeded their expectations. But, because I struggle with perfectionism and being an overachiever, I always have a tendency to focus on the 15-20% of students who did not have their expectations met for my course. Before my journey into therapy, I used to joke that course evaluations were a gauge for “did students like me?!” This was really my previous understanding of course evaluations (and I would argue that many if not most also see course evaluations in this light). And to some extent this still rings true.

But, now, after months of therapy and educating myself on tools for navigating emotional reactivity, especially shame-triggers and the anxiety that is produced during these moments, I understand that course evaluations are really an exercise in whether or not a student’s expectations have been met. Brené Brown points out in her research (drawing from Anne Lamott’s advice on writing) that “expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Ironically enough, during the first day of class, the first thing I have students do is compose a free write about their expectations for the semester. After students finish, we discuss their expectations, and I include my own. Together, after we share aloud our expectations, I request that students literally and figuratively detach from their expectations by ripping them into shreds (yes, really!). Here, I wish to signal to students that we have a tendency as a society to establish and attach ourselves and our self-worth to unrealistic expectations. As a teacher, I see this a lot with students and their emotional attachment to their work; these unrealistic expectations typically manifest in the form of every student wishing to receive an “A” in the class based upon “effort” rather than the quality of work produced. These social and cultural expectations attached to academic performance are incredibly dangerous because they are often unrealistic. But, more so, they stem from issues of worthiness, as students believe their self-worth is on the line.

With time and incredible amounts of therapy with Brené Brown’s research, my self-talk now is “just take what works, and leave the rest.” I repeat this mantra as I am reading students’ final reflection essays and course evaluations. Another feedback mantra that I have started to practice is detaching emotionally from the curriculum and to see that these comments might be better framed as suggestions and considered “opportunities for growth.” Better yet, another mantra is “don’t shrink, don’t puff up; stand your sacred ground.” This is also helpful for navigating and receiving student feedback, especially when we receive and interpret this feedback as a shameful experience like I do. Most importantly though is that I have come to realize that my self-worth is no longer on the line, that my self-worth is much bigger than one class, much bigger than one semester, much bigger than one academic year, and definitely much bigger than one set of course evaluations.

So, what strategies have I used for cultivating shame resilience when receiving feedback? To begin, a piece of feedback doesn’t have to be included in your next class. And, certainly, a piece of feedback from one student does not mean that you must completely revise the entire curriculum to appease that one student despite what the shame gremlins are saying. Second, again, “take what works, leave the rest.” Next, focus on the positive things that students and colleagues say about your teaching by re-framing the negative aspects of the comments as “opportunities for growth.” Fourth, practice emotionally detaching yourself from your work, as this is key for survival and stress management in academia. Fifth, again, “don’t shrink, don’t puff up; stand your sacred ground.” Granted, this is much easier said than done, but this is a practice that requires repetition and countless hours. Next, I have to consider at what point am I ready to receive this feedback. When my heart starts to race as I sit down to open the course evaluations submission site, I know that this is not a good time to review them because I am emotionally hooked on what students think of me. I also find it incredibly important to practice self-compassion and self-empathy during these times, as self-compassion and self-empathy are imperative for talking down the shame gremlins and the shame that is triggered by such moments when we feel as if our self-worth is on the line. Eighth, strive for practicing gratitude in the face of shame and defining what you are grateful for in this moment. Ninth, practice letting go of perform, perfect, predict, and please, as shame thrives on all four. Next, it is important to maintain calm and practice stillness during these hectic moments, especially in the classroom when our anxiety and our students’ anxieties collide. Finally, building shame resilience against such triggers means letting go of controlling the final product or outcome of your teaching. The final product or final outcome is more than simply course evaluations and final reflection essays, as the final outcome won’t possibly be measured for years into the future. Above all else, keep in mind that our self-worth is much bigger than our jobs in academia.

While my discovery this week of how my teaching functions as a major shame trigger for me, especially course evaluations and soliciting students for feedback, I would venture to make the argument that most people’s professions are a major shame trigger for them. In our society, we are largely defined by our professional identities. But it doesn’t have to be like this, as cultivating shame resilience is key for navigating the obstacles that come our way, in particular valuing our self-worth and leaning into our values.