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.



7 thoughts on “Pushing Against Incivility.

  1. suevanhattum

    Two things. One: The math folks seem to be more civil. (But maybe I just don’t hang out on twitter enough to know.) Two: Can’t you block the idiots? That’s what I do on my blog. And I see Twitter has that capacity. If someone is trolling, I just want to get away from it. I know there may be problems with that approach, though.

  2. Bill Ivey

    First, to answer your original question: I do try to be transparent about receiving and acting on feedback. My kids assess me 4-6 times a year via Google Forms, and I typically will give them an overview of what I hear, tell them what I plan to do, and then check back to see if I’m doing better. So there’s that.

    But as for what Twitter’s becoming, I know my attitude whenever I open up my feed these days is infinitely more cautious and guarded than it was three years ago. Whether that’s me or the platform, I’ve gone from expecting to find cool links to great ideas and engaging conversations to worrying about what I’m going to stumble on, whether repeated gut-wrenching news or trolling and its effects ranging from suppressing speech (e.g. the loss of the #LGBTeach chat) to actual, genuine death threats (more than I can count).

    Bad news, I can deal with. It’s part of facing up to the role systemic racism, patriarchy, and other hierarchies are insidiously playing in shaping our culture and how we can build awareness and act to dismantle privilege (is that sufficient “babble” to have set off your trolls?!). But trolls, that’s harder. As someone who is by nature optimistic and believes in the importance and power of kindness and respect, to watch the level of viciousness to which some people descend and to witness the level of fear and psychic distress they cause is profoundly depressing.

    Here’s the thing. Mixed in with all that are beautiful moments of connection and support – perhaps in fighting oppression and marginalization or comforting someone in distress, but also in finding and celebrating people and ideas who deserve to be widely known and appreciated. It’s a smaller proportion than in the past, but it’s still out there.

    One thing that keeps me on Twitter, frankly, is the fact that part of my job description is to run my school’s Twitter account. But the other, in many ways more important thing that keeps me tied to Twitter is the relationships I’ve built and what they bring to my life. I don’t think that I have much influence, but I also know that I do drop a little tempered into my radical, and I’m good with that.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Bill wrote:

      As someone who is by nature optimistic and believes in the importance and power of kindness and respect, to watch the level of viciousness to which some people descend and to witness the level of fear and psychic distress they cause is profoundly depressing.

      Hey Pal,

      First, you are WAY lucky that you didn’t tweet out your “other heirarchies” line. You’d’ve been BURIED by the Bollocks police.


      It’s the line highlighted above that really resonates with me, though. Even before last night, I filtered my thoughts out of fear of how they would be received. And at first, that filtering was strictly a function of taking too strong a stand and turning someone off. To be honest, that was the beauty of writing online. It forced me to temper my thoughts — and tempered thoughts tend to be reasoned thoughts.

      But now, I filter out of fear of being attacked because attack has become the norm. Gutting someone in social spaces has become some kind of sick game. Like a digital cage match.

      The word fear doesn’t really fit, though — I don’t much care what the two folks who attacked me last night think of me. Maybe I’m frustrated that I have to deal with them. Maybe I’m sad because I know they are ruining a beautiful space. Maybe I’m discouraged because I know that people like them won’t listen to reason, so my efforts to challenge their behavior was a waste of time. Maybe I’m ashamed because I’m ready to take my thinking to a private space even though I know that thinking together matters.

      Whatever it is, though, it sucks.

      1. Bill Ivey

        Hey, Bill!

        It does suck. I appreciate your openness and honesty about how and why it sucks for you. I struggle with it all too.

        I especially struggle with the notion that in some cases, the attacks get so bad that people go on indefinite hiatus, or quit Twitter altogether, or have to go into therapy and seek medication, or deal with threats so serious they end up with round the clock police protection. That’s true for lots of people but especially true for women, for people of colour, for trans people. And if you’re a trans woman of colour…

        I never quite know what to do – stand up for someone and you risk feeding the trolls and prolonging the awfulness, ignore it and the person never knows anyone cares. I often end up doing one or two rounds of calling people in, then figure I’ve made my point and they have their feet dug in and I’m not helping anyone by continuing the conversation. I don’t feel particularly good about this, but there it is. It’s the best I can think of to do.

        I’m much lower profile than you are in online spaces, much less recognizable or noticeable. Additionally, my name leads people to confer male privilege on me, plus I get white privilege when using my gravatar, so when you put all that together, I’ve never been personally attacked… though I was once retweeted by a TERF account which left me rather on my guard for a few days. So I have much less reason than you to be… not fearful… but dealing with the frustration and sadness and discouragement and shame that comes from dealing with those situations that do inspire fear in some. But despite my lack of personal experience, I still feel for you, my friend.

        Which brings us full circle to my opening sentence in this comment. It does suck.

        Big time.

        Take care,

  3. Jasper Sr.

    Reminds me of when you get lots of positive feedback, but human nature focuses your attention on the one negative piece. Try to remember that for this negative experience there are hundreds, no thousands, of really positive times you have helped educators across the country and around the world grow by challenging their thought process. Ultimately your influence has helped multitudes of students have improved experiences in their schools. Keep up the great work challenging us, just a thought from me and literally thousands of others 🙂

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks, Jasper. I really do know that I’ve made a difference. And I also know that most interactions are positive. But the balance is swinging and disrespect is more common than ever. That worries me.


      1. Jasper Sr.

        I’m glad you are aware of your influence, I guess my point was that we can’t give into the negativity online as it is, in my opinion, a proxy for society at large.

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