Scenario 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.”
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.