As a teacher, I’m a nurturer. So I was alarmed to read about a study highlighting the negative effects feedback can have. As Ed Batista writes in Harvard Business Review, “Recent neuroscience research has shown that our brains and bodies can respond to certain interpersonal situations the same way we react to literal threats to our physical safety.” In other words, when receiving feedback, we feel threatened akin to someone threatening to mug us in a dark alley. After reading this article, I immediately wondered, “Is this how students feel receiving feedback in my class?”

To counter this feeling, I’ve found Brené Brown’s recent bestseller Dare to Lead to be a good guide. Four key phrases from her book help me give students feedback on their behavior and work in a manner that leads to respect and community — and nurtures relationships for everyone’s growth.

1. I’m curious about… or Help me understand…

Too many times amid the day’s exhaustion, teachers can reprimand students without seeing them as individuals. Instead, teachers focus on the rule or the disruption or misjudge the intent. When I was a first-year teacher, I was giving an in-class writing assignment, and a student walked across the room to sharpen his pencil. He somehow managed to drag and stomp his feet at the same time. I stage-whispered to him, “Pick up your feet, Tyrone; we’re trying to have quiet!”

That night I received an email from his mother, explaining that he didn’t mean to make a noise during the assessment, and he was terribly sorry. His shoes, she said, were too big because his feet were growing so fast, and she decided to give him a pair of slightly-too-big hand-me-downs instead of buying new shoes he would soon outgrow. Reading these words, I felt my cheeks heat up, and I knew I owed Tyrone an apology. Middle school boys begin growing at an accelerated rate — suddenly pants are too short, shirts don’t tuck in, and shoes pinch feet. Had I spoken to this young man privately and asked him to help me understand this behavior, I would have understood what was happening. While we certainly made strides in understanding one another as the school year progressed, I didn’t help the relationship begin with my accusation or tone.

2. What “done” looks like

Brown describes asking participants at a conference to submit stories for a role-play activity, and what she received — many slips of paper stuffed in an envelope — wasn’t what she envisioned.

Naturally, teachers have been using “paint done” for a while. We’ve shown exemplars and models to let students know what to aim for in their work. As we become brave and vulnerable in changing our curricular assessments to reflect a more open environment, we don’t have student examples to show. I know this from experience. Last fall, I asked students to complete a new writing assignment and bring it in the next day so we could work on it together in class. What I received was not what I expected. Admitting to my lack of clarity, I asked a few students in each class to “paint done” for me. “How will you know when you have finished?” I asked. They explained not only the length and appearance of their work, but also elements within the assignment that we needed to proceed with the unit. The completion rate jumped from about 25 percent to about 85 percent.

Brown writes that by asking others to “paint done,” we increase “curiosity, learning, collaboration, reality-checking, and ultimately, success.”

3. The story I’m telling myself…

“In the absence of data, we will always make up stories,” Brown writes. Consider why we think a student might be struggling in class. Without any data — including time allotment outside of school, prior success in the subject, motivation to do well, frequency of fights with parents — the stories we tell ourselves are as imaginative as our brains can handle.

When Tyrone dragged his feet across the floor, he had no way of knowing what story I would tell myself about his misbehavior. He could have hoped that I would respond with more compassion than I showed, but he would never know what I was actually thinking until I shared it with him.

Likewise, students today — especially our adolescent learners — are so wrapped up in their own experiences that they don’t take into account how teachers might interpret their feelings, and they shouldn’t be bothered with this! When we want to check our understanding of a situation with our students, we can begin by sharing our own perspective and sensemaking. When a student consistently misses work, our conversation would likely change if we said to the student, “The story I’m telling myself is that you were too busy last night to complete the homework sheet.” How much better would our schools be if we took this step to open up our own understandings to students? 

4. If you’re not in the arena, I’m not interested in your feedback.     

There is no shortage of stories about teachers frustrated with administrators who are too disconnected from the classroom or were never in the classroom to begin with. According to Brown, these leaders aren’t “in the arena.” They aren’t getting messy or remembering the everyday complications of teaching. They’re unable to empathize with those they aim to lead. 

How might this translate to the classroom in relationships between teachers and students? Teachers may not be learning long division for the first time, but they could empathize with the difficulty of learning something new. When I began graduate school, I was reminded of the necessity of reading in a quiet, distraction-free area. For me, this means no television in the room, and I work even better if my cell phone is across the house. I benefit from writing a terrible first draft, before moving on to revising. It helps my students to know that I, too, struggle with writing — and I’m a writing teacher! Sharing in the struggle of these moments makes giving and receiving feedback easier. A welcome bonus: It helps me connect with my students on a deeper level.