Educating Girls

17 June 2021

The power of feedback to reset and refocus

The power of feedback to reset and refocus

‘Letting someone know how much we respect their grit, their persistence, their ability when they are at their most vulnerable is some of the most powerful and life changing feedback ever.’

During the recent lockdown I was chatting with one of our Year 12 girls on Teams planning this year’s Ruytonian. She commented on the pressure VCE students are feeling currently with many scheduled SACS. A time when marks seem more important than anything else. I reminded her that a single mark should never define any of us and she said this was a message that all Year 12 girls probably needed right now. And then I thought about the fact that our Years 9 to 11 girls were doing exams (under unusual and unsettling conditions) and we were at the end of Semester 1. It is a time of finishing off, a time that naturally comes with assessments, marks and grades.
It is an important time to reflect on what we truly mean by the value of endeavour; seeking to achieve our personal best. In reality life has ups and downs and many factors that impact our learning, our performance and our results. Our efforts and dedication will not guarantee a better result every time. The pathway to success is not straight forward, but it is improved with personal and quality feedback; and sometimes that feedback can come from surprising places.
There was an article in The Age over the weekend about Cate Campbell, Australian swimmer. It wasn’t about success. It was about the depth of disappointment and the power of feedback to reset and refocus her passion. It is a story I shared with staff and students at Senior School Assembly yesterday.
Campbell, one of Australia’s most successful swimmers, went to the 2016 Rio Olympics as the undisputed favourite in the 100m freestyle. But she finished an unexpected sixth place, faltering on the blocks at the start. She had to deal with not only her own crushing disappointment but also the negative press coverage. Her personal disappointment was a worldwide story, leaving her feeling scorned by many and overwhelmed with embarrassment and shame. She could not see beyond that falter. Yet she was the anchor of the 4 x 100m freestyle relay that won gold, retained its title and set a world record. It was too hard for her to see that success at the time, or any of her other achievements. The intense disappointment of that one moment, that one race, overshadowed everything.
Campbell returned home to Australia to find letters delivered to her house; letters she didn’t want to open. But eventually, and thankfully, she did. Two letters sent by young sisters Elin and Neve, aged 10 and 13, sent the following message ‘I was sad and felt sorry for you, but I didn’t in the least feel disappointed. I just wanted to assure you that I still love you. If you think you have to go to Tokyo and win a medal to prove yourself, please don’t feel that way. For me you have already proven to be an amazing athlete.’
Reading these wise words a knot of tension inside Campbell relaxed and the burden of expectation finally lifted. They told her what she hadn’t been able to hear until that point. Those words written with such love and care by two young girls helped launch her road to recovery.
The most useful and wise feedback can come from the most unexpected places. It wasn’t a mark, a score or a medal that lifted Campbell, it was a personal message of self-worth and love. A true gift and something that we all have the power to do for others.
So, at this busy end of semester time when marks can be confronting for a multitude of reasons, I reminded students that your stories are your own; they are who you are becoming; your journey. You are so much more than a single grade, a mark, a medal or a score. This is not what will define you. It should never define you. Your true success as human beings will always be defined by your actions and values and importantly, your character.
As students, parents and educators, we should never underestimate the positive impact we can have on someone else’s journey. Letting someone know how much we respect their grit, their persistence, their ability when they are at their most vulnerable is some of the most powerful and life changing feedback ever. It can make a difference.

Linda Douglas

Ruyton Girls' School
June 2021