Meeting in the Middle

The art of giving and receiving feedback as an NHS, NJHS, or NatStuCo adviser can be difficult to master. However, if your chapter or council is to be successful, it is of the utmost importance to develop this skill and implement it on a regular basis. Feedback can be valuable in a variety of ways, such as encouraging conversations that foster collaboration and influencing decisions that benefit advisers and students alike. We recently convened a roundtable with the staff at Sartartia Middle School in Sugar Land, TX, who focus heavily on giving and receiving feedback. As you read this conversation, think of ways you can make their advice work for your chapter or council.

Participants:

Melissa King-Knowles, principal

Jessie Carlen, NJHS co-adviser, teacher for Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) and Teen Leadership

Ashley Rosar, teacher, NJHS co-adviser

Michelle Thrower, teacher, student council co-adviser

Brenda Tomasello, teacher, student council co-adviser

Reid: I’d like to start by looking at the big picture. How do you create a culture where feedback is welcomed in your school? What steps can advisers take so that students feel comfortable providing feedback to and receiving feedback from advisers and fellow students?

Tomasello: In our particular situation at Sartartia, we have an “open floor, open door” concept, and we’re fortunate enough that all of our students really feel pretty comfortable with giving us feedback, whether it be on an event that we have given, or on how things should work during a meeting. They’re pretty open to letting us know how they feel.

Thrower: I think it comes from repetition of giving feedback all the time. We are asked as staff to give feedback all the time; the parents are asked to give feedback all the time, in our clubs we are asked to give feedback all the time, in our classrooms they’re asked to give feedback all the time. So, they’re very comfortable—even when you’re not asking for feedback—with really giving you feedback when they see that it’s needed. I think it just has to almost be all the time, a regular thing.

Carlen: We started off with over 200 kids in NJHS this year, and we have another 400 applicants for next year. With that sheer number it can be daunting, and we do a good job of … getting the word out, bonding with those kids in any way we can, and then offering as many collaborative opportunities that we can, be it posters, or our fundraisers, or any of our service activities. That culture is important as well.

Rosar: We also ask our group members for feedback on fundraisers that we’ve done and different service projects they would like to see done. In their reflections, when they do service [projects] and their service hours are due, they have to reflect on: Did they like that service project? Would they do that service project again? So, [we’re] just getting their feedback on different types of service that they have done.

King-Knowles: The only thing I’ll add to that is that I know what these ladies do, and I’ve seen them in action as they work with the students—so much of this is about building that rapport and establishing trust with the kiddos. I think, in order to have fluid, consistent, and authentic feedback, that part is vital. So, the advisers, both in their classrooms and with the organizations that they sponsor, make themselves very approachable to the students. They’re genuine in their responses, they’re positive with them, and I also think that they model. It’s good to hear constructive feedback sometimes, and by responding in a calm or receptive manner, we model how to receive it. It’s interesting how having the opportunity to share that constructive feedback can actually provide students that sense of ownership and voice into the next steps. I think that’s also really key.

Reid: You mentioned that all of your teachers make themselves seem approachable. How do you do that?

The staff at Sartartia Middle School: Michelle Thrower, Brenda Tomasello, Melissa King-Knowles, Jessie Carlen, and Ashley Rosar.

Rosar: At NJHS, when we have our first meeting, we introduce ourselves. We share information about our own personal lives and our children. We also like to do “Minute to Win It” games, different sorts of competition-type stuff. Some of our service projects would be larger, and then some of them would be smaller. So, for example, we would go to Houston Food Bank and take a smaller group of students, maybe 20, and it would be on a Saturday, and we would get to bond with them through service. Jessie and myself, we both do service. They can see us; we are real people, too. And that’s important, so it’s not just us telling them, “Do this. Do this. Do this.” They actually see us doing it with them. I feel like that’s really important to build those relationships.

Thrower: In student council, we do Ropes [a team-building opportunity for student leadership groups at the school] at the beginning of the year. They get to play the games with you, and they get to have fun with you, and again, see that you’re a real person.

Tomasello: It’s also an event off campus. It’s wonderful to be in a different atmosphere, taking the kids, like you say, off the campus and bonding with them in a whole different setting.

Carlen: It’s also important to be vulnerable. Not only do I teach students that it’s OK to have failures and learn from those mistakes, but I own that as well. When I’ve messed up, I’ll say, “This is my bad, guys. I apologize.” We’ve got to make some adjustments, be flexible. You’ve got to lead by example, and that’s not easy all the time, but when they see that you’re human, they feel more like you’re approachable, more connected to you in that way, and they can identify with that. I think that helps a lot at the middle school level.

King-Knowles: I’ll just piggyback on a variety of the different pieces that the ladies have discussed here. Yesterday, I was collecting feedback from some of our eighth-grade students. A couple of them happen to have Jessie for either Teen Leadership or PALs. Part of this effort ties to our district’s approach to “If you see something, say something,” and the safety concerns that are on the forefront of all of our minds right now. They talked very openly about the fact that they feel safe with her because she shares herself with them. Because she has opened herself up, and she shares parts of her that go beyond the classroom. Or, very specifically, she talked about what her experiences were like as a middle school student herself. And that was a great “aha” reminder for me—we have to let them know: Middle school was not easy for us as adults, either; even though we might come across as more confident and comfortable in our skin now, maybe we weren’t always that way ourselves, you know?

Reid: Personalizing feedback—especially in larger chapters and councils like you have at your school—how do you handle that? How do you tailor the message to specific students, especially when you have so many?

Thrower: We use a little bit of technology in student council. We use Remind, we use Schoology; we only meet every other week, and [those resources allow] us to communicate with the students in a way that’s sort of personal when they’re not there. We also use our officers. Our officers feel so comfortable sometimes that they create surveys and things and say, “I created this survey to get information from the council,” and that’s how they reach out. Then I’ll post that for them.

Rosar: In NJHS, because our group is so large, it is very difficult to have face-to-face meetings. We had four face-to-face meetings, just to kind of touch base with them after the first semester. We use Remind, but we also utilize Schoology—that’s our online platform—and we post articles and reflection questions about our pillars, and we have our students log in and they have to provide feedback on a particular topic. Then they have to respond to two other students and give those students feedback on their response. In reading their responses, it really seems to be working.

Reid: And on the flip side of that, how do you go about getting feedback from the student body at large?

King-Knowles: As the principal, I collect feedback from students through the use of campus-wide/grade-level surveys at least three to four times a year. I speak with smaller groups of students in follow-up conversations to glean clarification and details. We provide another method of feedback through access to anonymous comment boxes placed around the school and the online forum “Let’s Talk.” I also consider feedback through more informal means—visiting with students during lunch, for example. I am eating lunch with sixth graders in our courtyard tomorrow as a result of some concerns they expressed to me earlier this week during lunch. It really is about utilizing both formal and informal means with consistency, then ensuring follow-up occurs.

Reid: Let’s talk about timing. Are there particular times when, or circumstances under which, it is best to give feedback? What is the best way to deliver feedback when emotions are running high?

Rosar: If you’re in a whole group and you have maybe one particular student who’s heated about something, I think it’s important to listen and to take it in, but I also think it’s important not to react in the moment. I think maybe you think about it, and let them think about it, and then come back together to talk about it, because sometimes a lot of things can be misconstrued when you’re in the heat of the moment. I think it’s important to step back, but definitely listen to what they’re saying, because what they have to say is valuable.

Carlen: I know my reaction can be different in the moment. After I’ve had time to process, my thoughts can change. I think perspective and putting yourself in their shoes can help create a more appropriate response, especially when we are dealing with as many hormones as we are at this level. I think it also depends on the kid and the situation, because one student can take a quick piece of feedback differently than another student would.

Thrower: Say something just went wrong for a large group. I think if you’re eliciting that information from them to figure out what happened, I think that it’s always best to have students self-reflect before they reflect on the group or reflect on each other because, just like you would when you’re writing an essay or anything like that in the classroom, it’s just always good to analyze what you did and not point the finger at others first.

King-Knowles: When you think about some of these emotions running high, I think being able to anticipate and be proactive [helps us to] think through what we know about our students and where they’re at physiologically, social-emotionally, anticipating that and providing opportunity for voice. What I have found here at school is that it has helped tremendously to allow my clubs and organizations to go through processes that allow us to hear their feedback. So, we weren’t necessarily having to combat things like walkouts (that are disruptive or poorly planned) because we addressed things early on and built in time to honor their ideas and work together so that we could show solidarity and express thoughts and opinions. I say “we”—obviously, as the staff we’re limited in being able to express our thoughts and opinions about these topics while on the clock—but to provide students that opportunity is incredibly important.

Reid: Should the feedback delivery method vary between high school, middle school, or elementary school students in your opinion? Do you have any specific tips or advice for those who are in the middle school space?

Carlen: I would say keep your feedback specific. It’s very easy to overwhelm a student—or a colleague even, but especially a middle school student—with too much information, too much feedback, or too much criticism. I think you have to think about what your goal is, identify that goal—what you want to happen, the desired result from that conversation or that feedback—and focus on that and keep it specific. I think that’s huge. It can derail quickly if you don’t keep that focus.

King-Knowles: I think sandwiching is really important. Focus on a couple of things … First, share something positive you’ve observed (have a specific example you can refer to). Next, provide the constructive feedback, and follow that up with another positive, especially something like, “I believe in you. I know you’re capable of this.” When we do that kind of bolstering at the end, it also helps students at this age, specifically, to be able to receive the constructive component.

Carlen: But the positive has to be genuine, because at this age, they are very, very smart and they pick up on that fakeness. They are quick to point that out.

Rosar: When we had our face-to-face meetings, we needed to go over some of the not-so-fun stuff in the beginning, and we made sure at the end we went over some of the more fun stuff, and we also let them know that we were proud of them. Because we started with 203, we currently have 185, and we’re proud of those who have continued to do service and continued to show up to their meetings and have continued to volunteer for different service projects. We wanted to definitely make sure that they knew we are very proud of them.

Reid: How can you judge whether the message has gotten through to a student or group? How do you know that the message is not only heard, but digested? When is the best time to revisit?

Thrower: I think for student council, I tend to use my officers and what they’re hearing and what the students are saying to them, because the students are even more comfortable with them and coming to them. So, they can judge what’s going on with that even better than we can. They bring a lot of the information to me and Brenda.

Rosar: At NJHS, we use our officers a lot. They have given us a lot of feedback because there are so many students. So, that was part of that face-to-face meeting that we needed to have, based off of some of that feedback. We’re not perfect; there are always different things that we can change. With a large number of students, you’re very limited in different things that you can do. We’re going to see in this next month whether that feedback was taken to heart, our feedback to them.

Carlen: I like to watch in the meetings, especially in the face-to-face ones. Ashley does a lot of the talking and I do a lot of watching, to gauge reactions. When I see those kids in the hall or in class, I’ll say, “Hey, did you have a question about this? Did this make sense? Did you have any concerns about it?” [It’s] having that follow-up with them sometimes. Maybe I’ll overhear them discussing something, and I’ll step in and say, “Hey, I’m eavesdropping a bit. I’m sorry, but I would love to talk about this or be included in this if we can fix it, or if we can make it better; I’d love your suggestions.” I think just being aware of what is going on, making sure the blinders are off is really important. We may have a message, and they receive it very negatively, and we can see that all over their face. We have to put our own personal thoughts aside to figure out a solution. We definitely have to adjust the way that we approach it.


Ashley Reid is senior managing editor of Advise.


Using Feedback to Foster a Collaborative Campus Culture

Melissa King-Knowles, the principal at Sartartia Middle School, wrote a great guest blog post on this very subject.

Give it a read at the NASSP School of Thought blog: https://tinyurl.com/kingknowles.