Twee collega's overleggen
Twee collega's overleggen

Working together in education: how feedback and empathy contribute to a safe working and learning environment

The recently defined educational vision highlights 'the teacher as a team member' as one of its nine core aspects. Sabine Geurts (professor of Occupational and Organisational Psychology) and Renske van der Cruijsen (associate professor of Orthopaedagogy: Family and Behaviour) highlight the added value of working in a team and how it contributes to quality education through their expertise.

Collegial cooperation

Good collaboration within (teaching) teams is all about open communication, listening and deliberation. When setting up a course, it is crucial to do so in consultation with colleagues, bringing in diverse perspectives and expertise. "This enriches your team and contributes to an overall strengthening of teaching," Sabine enthusiastically stresses. "Where some are better at making tests and others have their strengths in coming up with creative lesson content, we help each other and complement each other."

Avoiding a hierarchical structure where senior teachers pass all tasks to junior teachers without any consultation is also crucial. Everyone should have the freedom to express ideas. "The insights of junior lecturers are very valuable because they are much closer to the students. Young colleagues' perspectives help make the course more responsive to students' needs."

"Involve international colleagues both during formal consultations and informal conversations at the coffee counter."

Be alert to the language barrier that international colleagues may experience. "We thought we were sufficiently attentive to our international colleagues within our team, yet some appeared to feel very little involvement in informal conversations." By adjusting the working language, international colleagues feel more involved and can actually participate in conversations. "And let's not forget: there is always the option to switch to Dutch by mutual agreement, so that international team members can practise their Dutch language skills and feel completely at ease!", Sabine and Renske add.

A coherent curriculum 

Renske stresses the importance of unity within the (teaching) team for course coherence. Regular updates and cross-curricular collaboration at curriculum level ensure a coherent curriculum and an enjoyable learning experience for students. "If courses are not well aligned, it happens that students are given the same information more than once, which can result in dissatisfaction because they feel they are not learning anything new." It is also essential that lecturers consistently use the language of the subject. "If the subject is taught in English, it is important that teachers encourage English language use among students, and take the lead in this themselves throughout the subject (including during breaks). This way, all students can understand each other and there is no feeling of exclusion among non-Dutch-speaking students," Renske clarifies.

The importance of feedback and empathy

When cooperation does not go as smoothly as hoped, Sabine stresses the importance of engaging in an open conversation. "" It's tough for me too sometimes," she acknowledges, "but the other person deserves that I am honest about what I see, and I feel rather cowardly when I avoid a difficult conversation." Sabine recommends always formulating feedback constructively, first highlighting the other person's value to the team and then focusing on the observations you have made. In doing so, you should avoid assumptions, and establish an unbiased and open dialogue. Finally, it is crucial to end the conversation positively, check what the 'aftertaste' of the conversation is for the other person, and allow the other person to return to the feedback later.

Such conversations can also strengthen bonds, similar to how friendships can be deepened in precisely difficult situations. Conflict can arise from a difference of opinion or on an emotional level when someone feels hurt by another's words or actions. "Engaging in an open conversation to understand the cause of tension or conflict allows team members to get to know each other even better and develop an understanding of each other's reactions and behaviours."

"Feedback and empathy are indispensable building blocks for smooth cooperation in education."

Students also value empathy from their lecturers, Renske explains: "Especially in stressful situations, such as when circumstances might prevent them from meeting a deadline, teachers' flexible thinking is perceived as very valuable." Taking students seriously and responding understandingly, out of trust, to their circumstances contribute to a positive learning experience, promote a sense of commitment, and reduce feelings of stress in students.

Five applicable tips to boost collaboration with colleagues

  1. Clear communication: by communicating clearly about expectations, deadlines and goals, you avoid misunderstandings and team cooperation runs more smoothly.
  2. Give and receive feedback proactively: be open to constructive feedback and encourage others to do the same. This can also be done during a walk! It promotes a culture of open communication and continuous improvement within the team. 
  3. Be considerate of international colleagues/students: they may not naturally understand local standards and ways of doing things, so it is important to be patient and understanding and provide additional explanations if necessary.
  4. Empathic and understanding attitude: responding empathically to needs and challenges promotes a positive atmosphere and strengthens cooperation. Positivity encourages cooperation, while negativity can cause resistance and make cooperation more difficult.
  5. Team building: suggest team building activities, such as drinks, lunch walk or other informal gathering. This gives team members a chance to get to know each other in a relaxed way outside the work environment.

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