Feedback as a gift

I was at a great workshop a while back and one of the presenters talked about how you can take feedback as a negative or as a gift.

The comment got my brain reflecting on my experiences at McMaster, partly because feedback is a big part of being a university student.

Being a university student was a gift; a multilayered, surprising, challenging, amazing gift.

So there’s feedback. When I first began, I took feedback hard. In the lower year classes, feedback was often a mark only. There are hundreds of students in each class and if there are no teaching assistants doing the marking (and even if there are), there simply is not enough time to give in-depth, meaningful feedback to all students. Even in some of the upper year classes, I did not receive significant feedback. I found it hard to get a mark and not know what I did right or wrong to deserve that mark. I was clamoring for more.

Then life and readings and assignments took over, and I moved on.

When I hit my final year, some events occurred that opened my mind. I had done an independent study and received an excellent mark. I felt good about the mark because I had worked really hard and the prof is someone whose work I really respect. I was confident he did not hand out marks.

During the feedback session, the prof spoke for more than 30 minutes about all the things he disagreed with, that he didn’t like or that I had wrong. As we headed towards 45 minutes of this, I stood up and said I had to go. Not because I had anywhere to go, but I had to stop hearing criticism. It was soul crushing.

Maybe he did hand out marks?

I was enrolled in one of his courses that fall and I paid closer attention to how he worked – how he gave feedback. It was months before I realized what had actually happened: despite being having come to an invalid conclusion in my study, I had presented a really strong argument for my perspective. Being wrong is not always “wrong”.

The second example of my shift in feedback came when I handed in a proposal for a final course project and the prof – a different and equally brilliant prof – told me I was headed down the wrong path and directed me to a pivotal article. That reading allowed me to crystallize my thoughts and my direction. I ended up with my highest mark in university on that paper because I was able to improve when I opened myself up to the feedback (and the feedback was truly constructive).

And then, there’s the gift part.

I went back to university to complete my degree, to have the piece of paper that I somehow thought I was not complete without. The gift of those 3 years is that the paper is nothing compared to the moments and the learning and the relationships and the vision I have of myself. Everyday was life-changing, even when I was too tired or too stressed to see that.

It is like every experience of university was a type of feedback. It helped me realign my thinking and my being.

It’s not only about the lessons learned. The people I was surrounded by helped me by allowing me to bounce ideas around and have them share their worldviews. They made it impossible for me to see anything in the world in black and white ever again.

I am so lucky to have had that gift, those moments, those experiences. The paper I got is not my trophy – although it is a beauty.

It is those moments culminating in the shifted way of being; that is what remains and what matters in the end.

Living in the moment

“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

Betty Ford Botanical Gardens, Vail, Colorado

Yesterday really was a “favourite” day.

In working with students with autism, we often need to build a student’s repertoire of language by scaffolding skills. We use visual symbols and, if the student is verbal, teach them the corresponding words as we show them what the symbols and words mean. For instance, when we show them the visual for “dry hands”, we do the activity. Sometimes, we have multiple steps for activities (taking off winter clothes can involve a ridiculous amount of symbols/words!). The process is long, but over time, it is hoped that the student may themselves either point to the visual symbol to request an item/activity, or they may use the words alone.

I have been working with a particular student for 4 months on requesting preferred activities, such as “go upstairs” (which really means go upstairs for a walk), or “go sensory room” or “snack”. For the past two weeks, this student has been under the weather, but still coming to school and consequently often exhibiting challenging behaviours. Yesterday, not only was the student back to their typical happy demeanor, but the student also made a request to do something we had never done and used words in a series that had never been modeled together. This is such a significant step.

It literally was the most exciting thing to happen in a very long time.

So when asked “rock baby, sensory room” (meaning take the toy baby to the sensory room and rock it in the swing), I took my student’s hand and rushed to the sensory room and helped make sure that request was fulfilled.

And while “rock baby, sensory room” was happening, I sat in another rocking chair in the sensory room and let some of the challenges of the last two weeks melt away.

Sometimes, like in the photo above, it’s important to look at the little things that work together to make things beautiful.