Pushing Against Incivility.

I spent the better part of last night wrestling with the role that feedback plays in the classroom.  I kept coming back to the notion that kids don’t really take much action on the feedback that they receive from teachers — and I started to wonder if that was a result of the fact that students don’t get much modeling on how learners respond to feedback.

Wouldn’t there be value in transparently asking students for feedback and then publicly changing our practices based on that feedback?  Kind of like a behavioral think-aloud so that the kids in our classrooms could see that feedback should force both reflection and action in the person who receives it?

I shared those ideas out through Twitter, figuring that it would drive someone else’s thinking, too.  Here’s what I wrote:

How often do you model an action orientation to feedback for your students?  Do you transparently receive and then change based on feedback?  

(And if not, how can you expect your students to take action based on the feedback that you give them?)

Harmless enough, right?  Nothing terribly provocative there.  Just two short messages designed to highlight the thinking that was rolling through my mind.

That thinking ended up being anything but harmless to three teachers from Ontario*, who completely tore me apart.

Their first Tweet:  “What the hell does that mean, anyway?”  Another wrote, “I see you’ve found more #edubollocks for us to laugh at.”  They went on to describe me as “vacuous and trite,” suggested that I was “perpetuating corrosive drivel on the next generation of teachers,” and that I was skilled in nothing more than “dishing out endless babble.”  They saw me as a part of “the machine” — and it was their duty to stand up and speak out against the pointlessness of ideas like mine.

While there was real disrespect in their statements, they were honestly convinced that I was the one being disrespectful — blinding school leaders with empty ideas and then walking everyone happily off intellectual cliffs like some kind of professional Pied Piper.

Through it all, I pushed against the disrespect that they were showing.  I asked how they would react if a student in their classrooms attacked the thinking of a peer with open sarcasm and derogatory language.  I pointed out that I was hardly a part of any machine, that they’d paid nothing for my ideas, and that they were free to follow people who were less corrosive at any time.  But they couldn’t get away from the thought that people like me are the problem with education because we peddle jargon that teachers are forced to consume.

“That went well,” one wrote to the other shortly after I left the conversation.

While it was a long night, I walked away with a few valuable lessons:

I learned that civil discourse should be an instructional priority in every schoolhouse.  We’ve become a world where the lines between disagreeing with and disrespecting others are badly blurred every single day.  Given that we celebrate political leaders who publicly call others weak, pathetic losers after making misogynistic comments, can we really be surprised when those same behaviors are mirrored in the other spaces where we live and talk and think?

That worries me — and it points out a responsibility for every classroom teacher.  We have to point out moments where unhealthy speech is defining conversation to our students.  We have to stand up for civility and we have to model collaborative dialogue in our classrooms every day.  Tolerance for intolerant dialogue does nothing for our communities. Our kids need to know that and see it and own it.

I also learned that Twitter isn’t what it used to be. It was once the most amazing “digital break room” — a place where really bright teachers would come together and connect.  Conversations were the norm instead of the exception to the rule.  People would laugh and joke with each other as they wrestled with interesting ideas and challenged one another’s practice.  Now — as my buddy William Chamberlain wrote last night — it’s become that shady corner of town where hooligans hang out waiting to cast insults at passersby.

I used to think that Twitter was a space worth fighting for.  After last night, I’m not so sure.  Wouldn’t it just be easier to find a private space where I know that I’ll be surrounded by peers who are willing to see one another as learning partners?  What value is there in battling trolls who seem hell bent on nothing other than playing their Trump cards when digital tools and spaces make it possible to create something better?

Finally, I learned that teachers can be their own worst enemies. By the end of last night’s conversation, I’d realized that the teachers uncorking on me weren’t really mad at me at all.  Instead, they were angry about being forced to sit in unproductive staff training sessions.  “You spend fifteen years sitting in professional development,” one wrote,” and see how you feel.”

And don’t get me wrong:  While I know nothing about professional development in Ontario, their frustration may well be legit.  Maybe their staff training sessions really are a step away from abject misery.  I know I’ve sat in my fair share of really bad PD over the last 23 years of my teaching career.  But I also know that creating something better starts when we act reasonably — asking thoughtful questions, providing possible alternatives, pushing against ideas instead of individuals.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that driving change and declaring war are two different things — and until teachers start dropping a little tempered into their radical, we are unlikely to be influential in any way.  

Any of this make sense?

*Blogger’s Note:  I’m going to keep the identities of these folks private.  My goal isn’t to call them out publicly as people.  Instead, it’s their actions that I want to call out.  Hope that makes sense.  


Related Radical Reads:


What Can YOUR Kids Learn from the Romney Perry Slugfest

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue*

*Twitter General’s Warning: This material may, in fact, be vacuous, trite, corrosive drivel being perpetuated on a new generation of teachers.  But it is free.  So there’s that.


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  • Naomi Epstein

    A push to think

    Dear Bill,

    I'm afraid I don't usually take the time to sit and comment but I follow your blog and am glad I do. Even though I'm not a science teacher (I'm a language teacher) and don't even teach in the USA, your blog always makes me stop and ask myself – when is the last time I stopped to think about THAT question? Which is precisely why I like your blog. Your solutions may not be mine, but that's hardly the point.

    This particular question of yours is very relevant. I give points to my students who hand in corrected versions of their work based on feedback. It's the only way I've found so far to get high-school students to actually look at my comments. Certainly an important topic for a discussion!

    Your fan,


    • billferriter

      Hey Naomi, 

      Hey Naomi, 

      Thanks for stopping by!

      And I am WAY into figuring out a better way to get kids to act on feedback.  I’ve been reading a ton lately, and one of the patterns that I see in most of the literature around feedback is that it centers on the difference between feedback given and feedback received.  Turns out we waste a TON of time giving feedback that kids never read.

      A part of me wonders if that’s because we never model acting on feedback.  Maybe kids just don’t realize that they’re supposed to DO something with feedback — and that’s certainly something we can model.  

      I also wonder if that’s because kids have learned that grades matter — not the crap that the teacher has written in the margins of the rubric!  Which makes me think that we need to give fewer grades in our classes.  Once we take away the factor drawing most of their attention, maybe they will have the mental bandwidth to look closer at the feedback we are given.

      Definitely planning on writing more about this over the year.  It’s something I want to experiment with.




      • Naomi Epstein

        re: feedback

        Looking forward to reading it!


  • Alfonso Gonzalez

    So Sorry

    Bill, I'm so sorry you had to go through that. I can't imagine whatever they were going through could make them think their behavior was okay, which means that they must just be that way. I do hope that they would learn from doing what they did but you can't always count on that.

    I enjoy reading your blog and you do make me think and I appreciate it!

    • billferriter

      Hey Alfonso, 

      Hey Alfonso, 

      First, thanks for stopping by!  I’ve always enjoyed crossing paths with you in social spaces and appreciate your longstanding support of my ideas.  

      Second, thanks for the kind words.  My feelings weren’t really hurt all that badly in this interaction — I’m a pretty sturdy guy — but it certainly was a surprising reaction.

      My reason for writing this post was to raise awareness about a problem that I think will cripple social spaces and sharing. Why the heck would anyone want to continue to share ideas and think transparently when there are trolls waiting to pounce and tear people apart?  

      If we don’t stand up against those people and push for patterns of healthy interactions, our social spaces die.  That’s the simple truth I was trying to draw attention to here.

      Anyway…here’s to hoping we cross paths in person someday!

      Rock on, 




  • Scott McLeod

    It’s rarely about you but instead about them

    When people are uncivil, unkind, downright mean, and/or attacking, it's rarely about you. They're dealing with some stuff and it's just manifesting in your direction. Sorry.

    I try to lean into the difficult conversations rather than running. Are they exasperating? You bet. Do we get stuck in echo chambers if we don't? You bet.


  • Patrick


    Sorry you had to go through that exchange after asking these two important questions. Reflection and feedback really are the two bookends to learning.    However what fascinates me the most is how could anyone accuse you without clarifying further what you meant?  Oh, yeah, that would have required some inquisitive feedback! Wow! Technology certainly speeds things up, but rushing to judgement appears to be the most innappropriate use of tech. 

  • Susan Bearden

    Civility on Twitter

    Hi Bill,

    I'm sorry to hear that you had this experience. I strongly believe that, in an era on online incivility and coarsening discourse, educators have a responsibility to model good digital citizenship and mature behavior. Our students have no shortage of poor adult role models online and it is indeed disappointing when educators descend to the level of online mudslinging. I have only endured such incivility on Twitter on a few occasions, but I learned from those experiences ignore such trolls (and if they are being abusive, block them and report them to Twitter.) They are not interested in intellectual discourse, they are only interested in venting anger and stirring the pot. Engaging them doesn't change their attitude, it only encourages them. 

    Dale Carnegie quoted Matthew C. Brush as saying "If you raise your head above the crowd you are going to be criticized." Thank you for continuing to post your thoughts and questions online. Don't let the trolls scare you off the street corner. Your contributions to educational discourse are valued and appreciated! 

  • manyarrows


    Unless the feedback and response are tied to some carrot, few students or adults respond with any substantive change, and even then, the change is rarely sustained after the carrot is consumed.

    But if we use the carrot to build habits of reflection, we can sometimes reach the critical mass in individuals to seek continuous improvement.

  • Linda

    Twitter feed

    I really like the questions you put over Twitter.  Will you use this in your classroom to teach about feedback and civility on social media?

  • @cnansen

    Maybe you misinterpreted their original comments

    It isn't hard to find your discussion by searching on Twitter.

    You left out part of one initial reply – "Plain English, no jargon, or you lose the audience"

    Another responded "Frustration comes from sitting in PD/staff meeting listening & having no idea what is being said."

    and "No anger. Just saying that as a consultant having your audience understand is important"

    and "But your audience (us teachers) didn't understand you. No issues w/ your pt at all."

    It sounds to me their initial comments were not about your idea, but the way you worded it.

  • Tim


    This is the first time that I've had the opportunity to read your blog so I'm a bit taken aback by the general nastiness of those Ontario teachers! 

    You made a very good point in your rebuttal highlighting the difference between respectful disagreement and disrespectful diatribe. Those teachers would do well to learn this!

    I am retired now after 35 years in education. I can't think of the number of hours I spent writing what I thought were insightful and helpful comments in the margins of student work. I only wish I had had the wisdom during my working career to look more critically at the effectiveness of that feedback. Perhaps if I'd read your thought-provoking questions years ago, I might have very wisely changed my practices for the better in that regard.


  • Steve

    Been there too, in my own school

    Sorry to say that I have experienced the same kind of vitriol and bigotry right in my own school from faculty that I work with.  There was one teacher here who is the angriest person I have ever met, and he chose me to lash out verbally and electronically whenever he could.  You wonder why we still have bullies amongst the student body, when we have bullying happening between faculty members?  Some people just think they are entitled to act like $^%*# whenever and to whomever they want.  Sad but true.

  • Patty


    Sorry you had to have that kind of feedback.  I have learned so much from what you have written for many years.  Keep the free ideas coming. 

  • Amy Williams

    Stand up for civility!

    Awesome post. Thanks for writing. I agree that if students routinely see us modeling good civil behaviors/taking feedback seriously/engaging in respectful dialogue, they will learn from us. And we will all benefit!

  • Paul

    A Couple Thoughts

    Bill, Thank you for taking the risk of sharing this story. I have a couple of thoughts:

    1. Innovation. You have clearly showed a way to try something new in your teaching. It is wonderful that you asked others what they thought. I hope you tried it.  Innovation in our teaching, although we fail often, is the only way we get better at it. I often quote a Dutch speedskating coach who said: "If you do what you do, you get what you got". Please continue to innovate and tell your stories.

    2. PD. Unfortunately, "Professional Development" has become a dirty word in schools. I have seen staff show up to PD sessions with marking, newspapers, puzzles, candy crush… As a PD leader I have been publicly pounded, despite having research on my side.  Over time, we've all experienced (and some of us have even lead) sessions that have too much focus on the guy / girl at the front and not enough focus on the learning and implemenation in the classroom. We need to, somehow, make LEARNING not CONTENT the focus of what we do in PD sessions. Honestly, I have seen huge success when we did this as a staff. Teachers became engaged as learners, instead of being relucatant receivers of information from the "expert". I agree that the feedback you recieved was founded in distain for traditional PD. 

    Please keep innovating, looking for ways to focus on learning and sharing your stories.


  • Michelle

    Thank you

    "Wouldn't it just be easier to find a private space where I know that I'll be surrounded by peers who are willing to see one another as learning partners?  What value is there in battling trolls who seem hell bent on nothing other than playing their Trump cards when digital tools and spaces make it possible to create something better?"

    This is my first month on twitter and I have already enjoyed a few of your posts. I love to have my thinking pushed on any topic and your thoughts around feedback caused me to reflect as a teacher, parent, and administrator. A private digital space has much to offer. However, I hope you remain on twitter so that folks like myself, who might not be exposed to your thinking otherwise, can grow from your intriguing questions. Thank you.