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The Feedback Mechanism

Learn how seeking constructive criticism from more experienced teachers can improve your teaching skills.

By Sara Avant Stover

teachers

At one point several years ago, Elena Brower, Anusara Yoga teacher and owner of New York City's Vira Yoga, received letters of constructive, critical feedback from two of her teachers—both on the same day.

While this initially ignited her inner critic and bruised her self-esteem, she soon came to realize how fortunate she was to have received such wise and attentive care from her trusted mentors.

"It ultimately brought more clarity to my teaching and gave me more respect for my teachers and more trust in myself," Brower says.

Certainly, opening up to observation and evaluation can make even the most seasoned teacher a little uneasy. But when done skillfully and with the highest intentions, the benefits far outweigh the butterflies.

Learning how to ask for and receive feedback may be one of the best things you can do to evolve as a teacher.

Why You Need It

"Any teacher dedicated to growth must continue to seek out feedback," says Dave Farmar, a certified Power Vinyasa Yoga teacher in Denver and a teaching assistant to Baron Baptiste and Seane Corn. "The journey should never end."

Good feedback will not only inform you of how students are (or are not) experiencing your teaching, it can also keep your presentation from becoming stale and trite.

Abby Tucker, an Anusara Yoga teacher at Yoga Kula in Berkeley, California, acknowledges that we all develop habits, whether that's repeating phrases, getting stuck in the same sequencing, or using a "singsongy yoga teacher voice."

"Having a mentor or a more senior teacher watch your class and give you sweet and specific feedback will give you a framework within which you can expand your teaching and take it to new levels," Tucker says.

Depending upon what resources you have on hand, there are a few different options for finding the right person to observe you. As a preliminary step, invite a trusted and skilled peer or colleague to participate in your class and offer feedback afterward. This will let you become more comfortable with being observed and help you refine your teaching before going through a more thorough feedback process.

If a senior teacher in your tradition lives near you—or, even better, works at your studio—ask him or her to either take or observe your class. If this is not possible, record a video of your class and send it to a willing senior teacher for feedback.

How to Ask for It

If you do invite one of your teachers or colleagues to class, they can either participate or sit on the sidelines and observe. The two tactics will offer you valuable yet slightly different feedback results.

When classes tend to be on the smaller side, both you and your students may feel more comfortable if the evaluator participates in the class. In this case, he or she can offer more experience-based feedback on how your language, sequencing, and assists affected them. For larger groups, your guest will be more inconspicuous and can sit as a pure observer, thus taking in the bigger perspective of your overall presence and delivery throughout the class. Whether you are being observed while teaching a small or large class, introduce the evaluator to your students.

You can also get feedback more casually. Brower urges teachers to simply ask for it from students. Be sure to choose your words carefully, though, for the way you ask can deliver varying results.

Farmar warns that asking a general question such as, "What'd you think of class?" may elicit vague comments, including "interesting sequencing" or "I like that song you played at the end."

To avoid responses that begin with "You should" and "You shouldn't," Farmer suggests probing your students with more experience-based questions. Asking, "What did you experience when I said this or that?" will evoke descriptive responses rather than flat-out advice.

For example, Farmar recalls his early teaching days, when he asked one of his peers how his language impacted the student experience. He learned that using simple, direct speech ("Step your right foot forward" rather than "Try stepping your right food forward") helped students trust and relax into his guidance more easily.

Brower has found that asking for feedback from colleagues whom she respects assures that she won't simply receive "categorical approval" but rather "real, constructive criticism of how and what I'm offering."

In all cases, seek out feedback from those who want the best for you.

"The role of anyone giving feedback is to remember it is not about them and what they know," says Tucker. "Offering feedback as a mentor or teacher assessor is about improving the level of teaching."

How to Receive It

Before you ask for feedback, make sure you are ready to receive it.

This is a process that Tucker knows well, as feedback is an essential component of the Anusara Yoga tradition. Teachers who wish to teach Anusara must meet a range of criteria, including having a senior teacher observe and evaluate a class.

"To get feedback, and to have it be beneficial, you really have to be willing to hear what is being offered and to open yourself to the possibilities that come with that," warns Tucker. Anusara Yoga calls this opening to Grace.

"You also must be strong in knowing that you are well schooled and have the highest of intentions, and that any feedback you receive gives you an opportunity to refocus and reengage in your teaching in ways you might not have thought of on your own."

Humility and gratitude, coupled with this willingness and confidence, will make the offering taste much sweeter.

"Upon receiving feedback," Brower adds, "simply say, 'Thank you.' Never qualify what you've done or said with any explanations. Just learn from it and be grateful that someone cared enough to help you."

Tips for Getting Skillful Feedback

When you're thinking about looking for feedback, consider these suggestions from Tucker:

  • Ask a teacher in your system or at your studio, whose opinion you respect, if they would be willing to come evaluate your class. As this takes up a lot of time and effort on the part of the evaluator, it's appropriate to pay them for that time at their usual hourly rate for private lessons (or another agreed-upon amount).
  • Band together with a peer. Go to each other's classes on a regular basis and commit to giving honest and specific feedback to one another.
  • Look for a formal mentor. Connect one-on-one for a defined period of time.
  • Ask your studio to set up annual or semiannual master classes or teacher practicums. A senior teacher at the studio or an outside invitee could come in for an afternoon to listen and observe teachers and offer insights. The group should be small so that everyone has a chance to practice teaching and be heard by the senior teacher.
  • Record your own class and take it later on at home. What did you do well as a teacher? Were you inspiring? What could you have done better? Did you talk too much? Did you have students hold poses on the right side much longer than on the left? Did the sequence effectively get students into the pinnacle pose? Are there phrases you use over and over again that have lost their effectiveness?

At every stage, stay open, inspired, and curious. Never let being a teacher override that which brought you to the path in the first place—your studentship.

"Teaching is an art that must be continually cultivated and refined," Tucker adds. "But, most of all, it's a joyful journey!"

Writer Sara Avant Stover, who lives in Boulder, CO, teaches yoga both locally and internationally. Getting feedback from her peers and teachers always improves her teaching (and brings butterflies to her stomach!).
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