Accidental Symbols … or How I Climbed Back on the Horse

Man Mounting Horse

In a recent post,, I discussed Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s  new book, Thanks for the Feedback:  the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.    The authors take a fresh look at feedback, noting the barrage of communication we receive on a daily basis, in our personal and professional lives, suggesting that the key to successful feedback is in the ear of the receiver, who holds the power to decide if and how to respond to a message.

As promised at the end of the essay, I purchased a copy of the book to learn more about how to be a better feedback recipient.  It has proven to be a very engaging read, and prompted me to share an experience I had last summer with feedback.

Last spring I was a finalist for a teaching award at my place of work.  I had been nominated in the past, but this was the first time I’d reached this stage, in which you are required to conduct a teaching demonstration before a group of panelists who sit on the school’s foundation committee.  I was told to prepare a 20-minute teaching demonstration and to “wow” the judges.

Since I wanted the demonstration to be an authentic rendition of what I would typically do in one of my classes, I decided to focus my presentation on physical knowledge theory, a concept explored in my Math and Science for Young Children course.  The theory basically conveys ways young children learn how objects behave and move in space, and how they derive information from acting on objects — for example,  how differently a Nerf ball responds when thrown as opposed to a small rubber ball.  I often talk with students about how this theory is an excellent way to discuss children’s first experiences with physics.  Doing this demonstration, then, would require me to engage the panelists in an application of that theory.

Not surprisingly, I spent many hours preparing the presentation, timing out every segment, just the way I do for my classes — the introduction, overview of the concept, application activity, a brief reflection, and a conclusion.

My presentation was scheduled for 8am, in a familiar area of the school.  The presentations were to be done in a conference room where I have spent many hours in various meetings and actually had my initial interview for the job.  I arrived at 7:45, as the first candidate was conducting a presentation.  At one point there was an explosion of laughter and I thought, “It’s going well for whoever is in there.”  I chatted with the secretary seated nearby as the minutes ticked away, and 8am came and went.  At approximately 8:12, the presenter emerged from the room and I was escorted inside by a male panelist.  While walking in, I wondered how the time frame would be handled, given that I was starting nearly fifteen minutes late.

Over the years of teaching and conducting workshops, I have learned to quickly scan the environment and audience, and gauge the energy in the room — a practice enables you to make last-minute adjustments before beginning your presentation.

No friendly aura existed in this setting.  The moment I walked into the room I sensed it, and began smiling my way through my first steps. Eight men and women sat around the conference table, name tags scattered haphazardly before them.  Breakfast food and dishes were arranged on a table at one end of the room, the smell of cooked eggs hanging in the air.  No greetings or introductions were made.   Expressionless faces.  Dead silence.  Perhaps this was a tactic of the panelists to test the mettle of the presenter.   It was unexpected and rather confusing.

Muppets in Audience

The gentleman who had escorted me in said, “OK, Sheila, go ahead.”  Having entered survival mode, I began introducing myself as I pulled the materials from my bag: a set of handouts summarizing physical  knowledge theory, a package of toys for each presenter, to be used later, the materials for the group game, and a set of 3 x 5 index cards.

After introducing myself and summarizing my role at the college and explaining the class I was about to demonstrate, Low Point 1 hit:  the gentleman who had escorted me in told me to move things along.   Putting on my best polite self, and meta-cognating that I was now being forced to do my presentation in half the time allotted, possibly so that the judges could maintain the morning schedule.

Super Balls

I distributed the handout and packages of toys, asking the panelists to remove the toys and briefly try them out — to play with them.  Each package held a top, a 1-inch rubber ball, and a plastic frog.  These toys were intended to convey physical knowledge theory in action.  Things seemed to relax a bit as they manipulated the toys, and I worked to make comments about how the objects responded to their actions.

Low Point 2 came as I asked the group to return the toys to their bags in preparation for the next segment.  One gentleman took his rubber ball, leaned over the table and feigned throwing it at me, laughing.  I, in full-tilt teaching mode, and without skipping a beat, responded by saying, “Oops … let’s remember ‘Be Kind, Be Safe, Be Neat’ — this is a safe classroom,” (the very thing I would say to a young child or to model in a demonstration to students).   He seemed to relish his act, grinning at fellow panelists.

Balloons and Sheet Game

I moved on to the core activity, Bed Sheet Ping Pong, a simple game that requires team mates to hold up a sheet, and move a ping pong ball across the surface.  The object is to send the ping pong ball off the opponents’ side of the sheet.  (The image above is a close rendition of the game, using balloons.)   I directed the group to play a brief best-of-3 game, with one team beating the other 3 to 1.  They actually smiled and laughed during the game, especially when the ball struck the ceiling on more than one occasion.

Low point 3 came as I gathered up the sheet when the game was over.  The same man who pretended to throw the rubber ball at me took the ping pong ball, leaned forward and threw it at me, laughing again.  I shifted to my right as it sailed briefly through the air, then  bounced on the table,  whereupon I caught it and gathered it up in the sheet.

The presentation ended with a classroom assessment technique, which involved having the panelists write down one new concept they’d learned about physical knowledge and one question they had.  I reminded them that the package of toys were theirs to keep, along with the handouts.  Several panelists, though, pushed them back toward me along the table or simply left them there.

I thanked them for their time and this opportunity to share my teaching experiences, and packed up my materials as quickly as I could as the silence hung in the air that felt cold enough to hang meat.  As I walked out, I considered that dropping through a trap door or disappearing in a puff of smoke would have been preferable exit modes.

Such was this experience of feedback and failure.  It hung on me for several days.  I replayed it in my mind many times, trying to understand why my reception had been so negative — how much of it  was me, and how much of it was the audience.  I was certainly surprised by what I perceived as a lack of civility and professionalism given that this was a group of successful, experienced professionals who were there to highlight their appreciation for excellence in teaching.

I had my other reality-based thoughts, as well, of course:  Early Childhood Education is just not sexy for many folks/the classic lack of respect for the field/the false dichotomy between playfulness and learning/”fun” activities a-scholarly, etc.

I also considered what I may have done wrong:  Was it my choice of activity?  Was I speaking too quickly?   Taking too long to come the core of the presentation, even with all the hours of planning, and all my years of teaching and workshop experience?  Should I not have reminded the ball-throwing gentleman about safety?  Was there, unbeknownst to me,  a flaky dry booger fluttering from one of my nostrils each time I exhaled?

On top of this, the materials for the Bed Sheet Ping Pong game took on an identity of their own — they became the Accident Symbol of this bad experience.  Stored in the closet of my study at home, they were a constant reminder, every time I opened the door, almost  taking on human language skill, as if to ask me, “Have you forgotten about us?  Why have you abandoned us?”  It was like the scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, when he is rescuing the animals from the burning pet store, and guiltily avoids the snakes with each return to the building, until he finally stumbles out with a fistful of the slithering creatures clutched in his hands, only to fall in a dead faint on the sidewalk.

Here is where Stone and Heen’s perspective on feedback is so instructive.  Several principles are particularly helpful in re-thinking this experience.  Allow me to isolate three.

First, they suggest that our own temperament influences how we experience feedback — yes, brain research continues to suggest that hard wiring and brain functioning may  influence to a certain degree the “emotional swing” one experiences with feedback, especially negative feedback.  My emotional swing lasted several days before I was able to allow it to fade into the background.  While this isn’t necessarily new information, the research bolsters the mind-body connections we grapple with as humans.

Second, we all have “blind spots” — that space between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.  Stone and Heen say the primary blind spots nest in our face, our tone of voice, and our behavior patterns.  Whew.  In their reference to our “leaky face,” they explain the irony of how evolution has made us skilled at reading each others’ faces, but unable to effectively see how we convey multiple –or at least, unintended messages, with our own facial expressions.  (I have received mountains of feedback about my own face since childhood.  Many years ago someone said, “I get paragraphs from you.”  All this has reinforced my sense that steering away from a career in the CIA was a smart move.)

Third, the authors suggest that we often “distort” the feedback we receive, though we have it within our power to re-work it and extract valuable points for critical self-knowledge.  Suggestions here include knowing your own pattern of response to feedback, figuring out what the information is and is not, and my personal favorite:  accepting that you can’t control how others  see you.   This isn’t news, either — but so refreshing, and such an excellent reminder to get over ourselves.  Stone and Heen  go on to say that most people aren’t thinking about us because they’re so caught up in thinking about themselves, anyway.  Welcome to the world.

Even before stumbling upon Thanks for the Feedback, though, I must  have begun moving forward after my unfortunate teaching demonstration.  Last fall I pulled out the materials for the Bed Sheet Ping Pong game and used it in a different course, on Guidance, to demonstrate to students how the activity could teach important social skills such as de-centering and cooperation.  Students loved it.  I did it again in this same class this semester — and used it in three presentations earlier this week with high school students as part of a Career Exploration event.   It was a great success.  So … audiences differ, no?

At the end of the week I realized that the ping pong game had re-captured its original value and delight for me as a teacher and practitioner in my profession.  It was no longer an accidental symbol.   I had climbed back on the horse.  It was fun again.

I hope to begin incorporating elements of Stone and Heen’s book into my teaching on a regular basis.  I’m curious to see how I begin responding to feedback from this point forward, and how students begin to perceive the role of feedback in their lives.

In retrospect, perhaps it was a wise move to re-consider the original activity for my teaching demonstration:  the Strength Test.  It involves a raw egg.

Wanna try it?

Person Squeezing Egg in Hand

Take a raw egg.  Grab a bucket or large bowl.  Hold the egg in the palm of your hand, as in the photo above.  Squeeze as hard as you can.

What happened?  Write and let me know!

And tell me about your own next experience with feedback.  Onward ho, everyone!





5 thoughts on “Accidental Symbols … or How I Climbed Back on the Horse”

  1. Will academia please publish this scholarly example of a positive (good) tactile teaching activity. Thanks much

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