A Critical Friend In Need

Pobel - Watering Can

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by John Goodridge

I believe that developing a culture of growth requires being able to reflect, make changes or adjustments, even completely disband and move on. Part of that reflection is acknowledging things that aren’t working. To avoid criticism of our actions would mean doing nothing. Personally  I would rather be criticised for trying to be better than continuing to do the same or nothing  “just because”. This is where we need critical friends.

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. – Winston Churchill

I believe organisations, teams and individuals need to hear the bad stuff! I recall a time at a school when we were asked to survey students about their experience at school and a leader suggested there were some whom could be missed (those being students who would respond in a likely negative manner).  I asked what would the point of the survey be then? If we don’t get an honest response, how do we know what needs to improve?

Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them. – Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I don’t know if it is my background in sport that helped me develop a “thick skin” (coaches can be quite blunt) or something else, but I have always sought feedback and critique for how to improve. That is not to say that some times its extremely hard to hear. There are times I have felt that overwhelming urge to defend myself and not truly listen to what is being said. What I have learnt to appreciate over my time working with much more experienced and smarter people than I, is we can never have all the answers and more often than not, someone else has a solution to a problem or a perspective that is just as valid if not more so!

Within my own team I value transparency and communication and hope by providing opportunities to openly discuss and reflect on our practice, it fashions an atmosphere where the criticism is not personal but focussed on how we can make learning better for our kids, thus fostering honesty.

Google Docs has been one way in which we achieve this. Each time we implement/introduce a new strategy, unit of work or change in our schedule, we share a document for reflection. We have simple headings including: ‘positives’, ‘negatives’ and ‘suggestions for the future’.

Here is an example from our first Identity Day Project and here is one that we are still working on for our recently completed Passion Projects.

When it is an innovation or strategy that I have instigated I am sure to be the first to reflect critically upon myself. I think this triggers other staff feeling comfortable in giving honest feedback. By modelling honest critical reflection, I establish the focus upon constant improvement with learning at the centre.

We also hold professional conversations that prompt opportunities to have deeper discussions about our roles and how I can improve my support and leadership within our faculty.

Granting opportunities for others to judge, respond or reflect on decisions or actions we have made makes us vulnerable. I always focus my energies on how this will help our students and this ensures I can move beyond any personal angst I might feel.


  1. Bill Ferriter

    Great post, Pal.

    I think one of the tricks on teacher teams is reminding everyone that conversations about instructional strategies AREN’T about identifying effective PEOPLE. Instead, they are about identifying effective PRACTICES.

    It’s a subtle difference — some say it’s linguistic gymnastics — but it is remarkably important simply because it keeps the focus on instruction instead of individuals.

    Every team that I’ve been a part of that embraces the “practices, not people” approach to looking at instruction has been far more comfortable and successful than teams who ignore that simple rule.

    Hope you’re well, by the way.

    • rhonimcfarlane

      Thanks Bill,

      I agree that some may say the difference is subtle, but I do believe one can foster improvement and the other can be the demise of a positive culture. Seeing you live in action in Melbourne this year and following your work on PLCs has been inspiring and provided me with confidence to keep on the path to push our collaboration and open conversations.

      I am well and hope your back is holding up against that wretched straw 😉

      Keep well

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