Constructive Criticism is an Oxymoron

dollarphotoclub_48267466-copyThis week at work there was a major blow up between 3 first grade teachers and the music teacher. For many years there has been a certain degree of dissatisfaction among the teachers with the way the music class is run, but nothing has ever been said directly to the music teacher about it. Three first grade classes attend music together, totaling almost 60 kids. To say it can be challenging to keep them all focused and paying attention is an understatement. Unfortunately it is made more difficult by the music teacher not being prepared and talking too much in between songs allowing time for many of these 6 year olds to become restless and begin talking to one another. That leads to the music teacher becoming angry and then becoming angrier when the first grade teachers are talking to one another and not monitoring their classes. It is a vicious cycle, a catch 22. The “blow up” began with the music teacher throwing out 2 of the first grade teachers, yes, kind of like high school, for talking during class. The third to go was me. Then the real problem was when the music teacher embarrassed one of the teachers (not me) in front of the 60 students and that teacher started to cry. No need to watch reality shows on TV, one was playing out right before my eyes in our school. The crying teacher headed straight to the Principal’s Office which led to the music teacher being called in a few hours later.

Why am I telling you all this? The music teacher is a neighbor of mine. She came and knocked on my door over the weekend to apologize to me and talk about the “incident.” It led into a discussion, and I found myself telling her what I really thought, (when will I ever learn) trying to watch how I was presenting what I was saying, but there seemed to be only so much I could sugar coat. I tried to explain the reason the 1st graders ended up talking was because there was too much “down time” and when she keeps interrupting the music because a few kids aren’t paying attention it only makes it worse. I did not mention that I think she is unprepared, allowing the kids to lose interest. I told her I was not telling her this to be mean, but rather in the hope the class might be “revamped” to work for everyone. She then referred to my words as “constructive criticism”, which I objected to, as I didn’t feel I was criticizing her, but I guess I really was. Somehow because I felt I wasn’t coming from a place where I was trying to be mean or hurt her then therefore it wasn’t criticism. But it was. I know for myself that if I want to change and grow I need to explore my reactions to things, the reason behind my actions, and be open to guidance from people and their suggestions to help me achieve this change. Perhaps it is different if one seeks out this help and then can accept it with an open mind, as opposed to someone (me) offering their perceptions of a situation and how it might be changed without having been asked. (to her). I repeated more than once that I wasn’t telling her all this to hurt her, but she made it pretty clear she was taken aback by my words. She did thank me for my honesty as she does want the situation to change and knows it can’t continue as it has been going.

Was it constructive? Is there ever a place for telling someone what you really think in the hope that things will change- that they will change- or does it end up just doing more damage in the end? I welcome your thoughts!

30 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism is an Oxymoron

  1. Tough situation in what sounds like a disfunctional class. It’s hard to believe she threw out teachers in front of students. That should never be an option.
    Sometimes “constructive criticism” or however it’s defined may not be initially accepted but once that person has time to digest it away from the face to face embarrassment, they may come to embrace it.
    I think you did the right thing. Something had to be said by someone and since no one else took that position, why not you?
    She approached you. It might have been different if it was the other way around. I suppose time will tell whether the situation improves or continues to unravel. But my guess is she has some other apologies to make before any kind of healing is possible.

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    • Today was the first time we had music since our conversation. The music teacher approached another teacher after speaking with me to get suggestions about how to make the class better. There was progress in today’s class. The music teacher took the suggestions we had made and did change this a bit. We will see if this continues in weeks to come, but we were glad to have a productive music session.

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  2. Giving feedback “constructive criticism” only work if the recipient has an open mind. I find all too often that is not the case. I do it anyway because the reason for it is to help the other person and/or to help others.

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    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts- I appreciate it- and in the end the conversation was intended to help better a situation that was not working. The open mind is key to growth, I agree.

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  3. It’s funny how people think we criticise when we just try to be helpful. Today, many -too many- don’t really want to hear what we have to say, they just want to talk.

    I prefer to know what people around me are thinking…only then can I continue to grow.

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    • Thanks Bridget- that is how I feel, I don;t go around giving unsolicited advice when not asked- i respect people have different ideas about doing things, but in this case where the situation is out of control and stagnant I just felt I had to say something

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  4. I hope she will see it as a help and she will try to make it better…. I feel sorry for the teacher who cried in front of the students… that was probably not a good thing what this 6 year old kids saw that day…

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  5. These vine of conversations are part art, part science. You never know the other person’s journey, that series of experiences that shapes the person and their reactions to your words. It’s a delicate path to gently share what needs to be shared, while maintaining safety. That, in my experience is the ‘art’, introducing observations, reading reactions, backing off, and read reading the issue in a slightly different way. The key is checking your intent. What do you hope to accomplish through the conversation? A book I have found very useful, in business and home is ‘Crucial Conversations’. It’s a

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  6. When I teach my students about constructive criticism, first I demonstrate destroying something (like a Lego structure or block structure) and I use the words destroy and destructive. Then I should building a structure and use the words construct and constructive. Then we discuss how destroying something is tearing it apart and constructing wintering is building it up. We discuss for sometime, including the feelings attached to reach. Then my classes rule is that they have to say 2 positive things followed by one constructive criticism (as in critique) which could be worded as a question (what would happen if you…) or I would really like to see…! That makes constructive criticism a lot little to take. The key is to remember that if it’s offered in the spirit of making something better.

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    • Thank you Corina- I love what you do with your students and will keep that in mind for the future- and the fact that the feelings attached to reach are discussed is so important to it all too. Thank you for sharing with me- helps me for the future, and to understand it better

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  7. I’ve had pretty good luck in telling people the truth IF they really WANT the truth. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not. And sometimes, it’s your obligation to tell the truth because if you don’t, no one will. And in this case, the kids will in the end, pay the price. There’s only so much sugar coating you can do before it stops being what you should say and becomes something else.

    This woman actually came to you, so maybe she does want to know what is going so wrong.

    You don’t have to be mean. Just be honest. “You know, whoever you are, these are very young children. They’ve got really short attention span. Expecting them to sit there and focus is unrealistic. You probably need to rethink how you deal with this age group to somehow make them WANT to participate.” Or words to that effect.

    There really is such thing as constructive criticism, but the listener had to recognize that there’s something she/he doesn’t know that you may be able to help her with.

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    • Thank you thank you Marilyn. I was hoping you would reply as I feel you always offer an honest opinion and tell it like it is. What you wrote is exactly what I said!!!! I am not sure she is capable of changing after so many years of doing it the same way, but I just could no longer stand by and say nothing

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  8. I think constructive criticism is a valid thing. It does hurt at first, but if the receiver is truly trying to improve, they will take it in the spirit it was given and can use it to their benefit. I hope the music teacher does really learn something from it and tries to understand that teaching to six year olds is totally different than teaching 11 year olds!

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    • I too am hoping she took it in the spirit it was given, but I am also not sure she will be able to get past a lot of what I said. She was really surprised and taken aback as her focus was the teachers talking and not disciplining the kids, and I went and changed it around to the kids wouldn’t need disciplining if you were keeping them engaged. I just felt it’s still a long year ahead and things had to change, and the older I get the less afraid I seem to be about being more candid sometimes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about constructive criticism being valid. Greatly appreciated

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  9. I think you were correct to speak to her frankly, albeit with caution for the language you were using. Constructive criticism is a good thing in my mind. Learning how to take it, and give it to others in a kind way, helps us all to grow and evolve. It was inappropriate of her to speak to a colleague in front of the students so rudely she caused her to cry. What a terrible thing to witness. What I don’t understand is why the principal hasn’t said anything to her by now. The teachers shouldn’t have to do human resources management.

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    • Thank you for your input- I did try to be kind but somehow it still did sting for her. The Principal did speak to her- right away- but the focus was on why she threw 3 teachers out of the class and what led to her berating a teacher in front of a group of students. She then went to apologize to the teacher. There was no discussion about the music class management when they met, that topic I brought up when she came to me as that is really what was at the root of the whole mess.

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      • It sounds like maybe she’s going through something personal that’s spilling into her work. The truth usually does sting, but it’s important to hear.

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      • She has a lot of issues outside school, but it is also just being stuck in that rut of continuing to do what you’ve done for years never seeing maybe how it could be reworked. This week things improved, so she did take to heart what was said.

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  10. Having been a Toastmaster for many years where, after giving a speech you are evaluated by your peers, I know how difficult it is to offer ‘constructive criticism,’ which is why Toastmasters never uses those words. They call it ‘room for improvement.’ And it is pretty much just they way you talked to the music teacher: you told her what you saw from your perspective–never saying, ‘you do this’ or ‘you shouldn’t do that.’ It was all about what YOU saw and what YOU thought might help the situation. No matter what, some people have a hard time accepting criticism or room for improvement. But you know, she came to you, so maybe she really did want to talk about the incident, but didn’t realize that a lot of the fault came from her. Tough call; tough conversation to have.
    Lisa, the kids sound like a piece of cake compared to these teachers! The school year is young; good luck with the rest of the year.

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    • Lois thanks so much for your feedback- I did focus on how I was seeing it, and talked about my own growth through the help of others. Thanks for the validation. This situation had been brewing for months and when she showed up at the door I just knew I would not be able to say nothing. The kids are great overall- but it is not the world I grew up in- there are a lot more kids with different learning and behavioral issues- shorter attention spans- what worked 20 years ago does not necessarily work today.

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