Foot Feedback

FootprintsScenario 1: Mohan tells you he has an appointment tomorrow at the financial aid office, scheduled for the middle of your class. He adds that he is sorry that he couldn’t get the appointment at any other time. The next day, he arrives at your class on time, slips out to go to his appointment, and returns quietly half an hour later.

Scenario 2: You explain an activity, divide the class into groups and ask them to get started. Amos, instead of going to his group, goes to the back of the room to get a cup of coffee, leisurely adds cream and sugar, and stands, taking his first few sips, looking at the notice board above the counter.

Scenario 3: You give the class a couple of writing prompts to choose from, facilitate a group discussion about each, and set them to work. Mark has trouble getting started. You talk to him about possibilities, ask him some questions that you hope will provoke a response, offer to type while he talks the story, and ultimately go for a walk outside the classroom with him, to try to get some distance. Nothing works. He goes home without producing a story, and you end the session frustrated and wondering what you might have done differently. He doesn’t come back for the next class, or the one after that. When you call, he says he has been sick, and he’ll be back “tomorrow.”

Foot Feedback

All of these scenarios show students providing foot feedback, that is, a non-verbal indication to the teacher of the student’s level of participation/resistance and comfort/discomfort with what is happening in the class.

I know how hard it for some literacy or ABE students to give me verbal feedback, so I have learned to appreciate foot feedback, and to use it to my benefit.

Scenario 1: Mohan

I feel relieved and a little surprised that Mohan organizes himself to attend as much of the class as possible. I half expected him to use his appointment as an excuse to cut the whole class! I take the opportunity to tell him that I am impressed with his commitment, and elaborate on what I see in his study skills and student skills that will benefit him in every class he takes.

Mohan’s foot feedback shows me that he is engaged in the content of my class, gives me a way to push his awareness of himself as a student a little farther, and provides me with an opportunity to review some of the soft skills he will need as he goes on with his education.

Scenario 2: Amos

I take a moment to get over that automatic flush of irritation at Amos for choosing to go for coffee instead of starting to work with his group. That gives me space to wonder what his foot feedback might mean.

I join him and pour myself a coffee. “I think I’ll take a tiny break before I get started,” I say.

“Yeah, me too,” he replies.

That didn’t get me much information, so I take a guess. “Some students don’t like to work in groups,” I offer.

“Yeah, especially with him.” A jerk of his head to the student who I notice has quickly established himself as the leader of Amos’s group, and is busy telling people what to do.

Leaving aside that problem for a moment, I ask, “Is there someone you’d rather work with?”

“My cousin Ed is in that group over there.” Another jerk of the head. “We always get along.”

So I take Amos over to his cousin’s group. “Here’s Amos,” I say. “I think he has a lot to offer to this group. Ed, can you bring him up to speed?”

Amos’s foot feedback tells me that something is wrong, but doesn’t give me any clues.  It would be fruitless to point out to Amos how a good student acts in this situation, or to comment on the power of caffeine to keep one focused, to assume he doesn’t understand the directions I’ve given, or to tell him of the consequences of not completing the work I’ve just given the class.

His foot feedback alerts me to find out what’s going on. I need to give him an opening to indicate to me why he is not getting on with the work, so I know what problem we need to solve.

In addition, he acts as an early warning system for me: when he leaves the group because the bossy student has taken over, I can assume that there are others in his group who are also having trouble working in that situation, although they are not giving me any indication at the moment.

Scenario 3: Mark

Mark and I both left the writing class feeling inadequate, but I knew when I called to ask about his absence that he would likely not tell me that he stayed home because he felt inadequate, stupid or angry. So when he said he was sick, I accepted that and went on.

“I hope you’re feeling better soon. I wanted to tell you that I felt bad after our last class. You and I both worked so hard at getting a story going for you, and it didn’t happen, in spite of all the things we tried.”


I keep going. “You know, I like to think I’m a pretty good teacher. And I know you are a good writer. I know because I remember that story about your uncle and the bear that you wrote last month.”

“Yeah, that was funny what happened to my uncle.”

“You’re right. Everybody in the class laughed when they read your story.

“So you’re working on being a better writer and I’m working on being a better teacher. I’m looking forward to having you back in class, so we can work on those things together.”

Mark’s foot feedback is the most nebulous of all. Most of us have come down with the flu occasionally to avoid a social situation we just don’t feel like undertaking. Mark knows that “I’m sick” is an acceptable reason for not coming to school.

I don’t want to get into whether I believe him or not, or push him about how sick he is, or how long he thinks his illness will last. I know that, sick or not, we both left our last session dissatisfied. To maintain my relationship with Mark, I need to find an opportunity to say how I feel, and to get both of us back on the teaching team.

Making room for foot feedback

It’s not complicated to make room for your students to give you foot feedback. Many of the strategies that help make the class safe for students also give you a glimpse into what they are thinking and feeling. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Make it acceptable and ordinary for students to use techniques for relieving stress or physical pain (e.g., standing or moving around, rhythmic breathing, squeezing a tennis ball, playing with modelling clay).
  • Get rid of rules that restrict student movement. Going to the washroom, getting a coffee, changing to a different seat or computer station, all provide foot feedback.

Of course, usually these actions mean what they seem to mean–the student’s old knee injury is bothering him again, or she needs to go to the bathroom. But the student who goes to the bathroom every time you start on the next chapter of the novel the class is reading? That student is trying to tell you something.

I’m curious to hear other examples of foot feedback. How do your students send you non-verbal messages? Please leave a comment if you have experience or ideas to share.

Thanks to Evelyn whose comment on my recent blog, Tempest in the Pool, prompted this post.

14 thoughts on “Foot Feedback

  1. What I take away from this post is your skill at talking with the students. Not being deterred by their non verbalness, putting it (whatever the ‘it’ is) into words. Naming something without at the same time judging it is a rare and precious skill.

  2. I’m so happy, and excited, to have found your blog (all thanks to fellow blogger and Tweeter, Anne Hendler I teach adults in Korea (English teachers) language skills, and I have often noticed the “coffee” pattern that you mention with a handful of teachers. I can remember having a fleeting thought that they must be uncomfortable or that something was up, but I never followed through with it as you did. Thank you so much for opening up this perspective. I will see classroom footwork in a whole different light. 🙂

    • Yes, it was the going for coffee that first opened up my eyes to foot feedback–maybe because I recognized a behaviour that I did myself in moments of feeling uncomfortable, but not able to articulate what was wrong, or not wanting to make a scene.

      • Yes, the ego is a sneaky bugger. Taking a step back from it’s reactionary voice isn’t easy, but when it’s possible, the learning is great. Thank you for bringing this back into my line of sight. And thank you for linking those posts! Checking them out now!

    • Sorry to be so long in responding–I always feel a little embarrassed at straight up compliments like this one. Thanks. I think I was lucky to land in adult literacy/ABE. I had a lot to learn, and my students were willing teachers.

  3. Besides being interesting, which is always a plus. there are many things about this insight which I can see being very spot-on in my own work.Working with the mentally ill involves a lot of non-verbal communication, and a lot of trying to figure out what is really going on.I often find these “teaching” insights very useful . I will pay better attention to these frequent negotiations and see if I have anything to add.

  4. Like you, I often have students who find other things to do during our class time (bathroom, see the nurse, see the counselor, feed their baby, appointments, you name it). Your approach is very supportive for students–I’m not sure I’m as patient as you are. Thanks for the reminder that students who wriggle out of class time may have valid issues that I need to address.

    • I’m not sure I’m patient–just curious about what is motivating their behaviour. Thanks for your many comments on this blog. As you know, I read yours regularly. I am often struck by similarities in our students and way of teaching, but I think that I had more freedom in my situation because my students were adults (though sometimes just barely of age) and I worked outside the K-12 system. I’ll remind my readers where to find your blog, “Learning is the Reward”:

  5. Funny that you should post this today… Yesterday my pre-GED class started a new class session, which means that there was a mix of new and returning students. One of my returning students made a point of saying under her breath (but loud enough to be heard) “I hate vocabulary.” And later: “I hate science.” Both times, I was explaining the activities we were about to do to the class, and the second time, I realized I needed to deal with this now. I stopped my explaining for a moment and said, “I’m sorry you don’t like science. I’m happy that you still come to school and work on learning these things even though you don’t like it.” Student: “I hate school, and I wish I had stayed in high school. They didn’t make you do hard stuff there.” This opened up a great mini-discussion with the other students about how they all wish they had stayed in school, but this time they are going to stick with it. I was happy to see the new students start to relax and see that they were not the only ones feeling that way. Later, I noticed that this student chose to go to the bathroom when she had finished an assignment before the rest of the class was done, and she made it back in time not to miss much of the time we spent going over it together. Then, during break, she ate a snack she had brought with her and stayed in the classroom. I wasn’t there the whole time, but she may even have peeked at the homework she had earlier complained about getting. This student has been coming to my class directly from work for about six months now with only a handful of absences.The message I repeatedly get from her words is that she is NOT a school-type person and she is NOT happy to be here. She is pretty bright, however, and she has goals that require her to get through school first. Her foot feedback is telling me that this class is important to her, and our teacher-student relationship is founded on my being able to understand that message. I am stepping the class up a little bit this year, due to the changes in the GED test, and I am curious to see how she rises to the challenge. When she first came to class, she definitely had a “just putting in the time” mentality, and by now she is starting to accept a more active role in her own education. We’ll see tomorrow if she completes her homework and brings it back to class.

    • Thanks, Rachel, for this lovely example of the message from the feet being very different from the message from the mouth.
      I love it that when you realized you had to deal with her resistance and expressed your own feelings “sorry you don’t like science, happy you come anyway,” it opened up a whole discussion, and brought in other students, who might not have been ready to acknowledge/express their own feelings without this prompt.

    • What a terrific response. I love how you handled that situation–your interaction with the student was very compassionate and constructive.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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