A Word (Un)Fitly Spoken…

English: Teacher and student at top of mountai...

English: Teacher and student at top of mountain, teacher pushing student off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We love thinking about pleasure and ways to use its power to help our students learn more and like it better.  We spend a lot of time considering different types of pleasure and wondering just what it is that makes them so, well, pleasurable.  Sometimes, though, the best way to define a thing is by invoking an image of what it isn’t. St. Paul, whose first letter to the Corinthians is shortly scheduled to make its annual flurry of June wedding appearances, offers a lesson on love by telling us what love isn’t. In much the same way, our art appreciation instructors taught us to look at the negative spaces in a sculpture or a painting, helping us to see the meaning in the stone and the painted areas on the canvas more clearly.

Maybe when I’m thinking about how to make learning a pleasure, I need to consider what might make it unpleasant. On May 8, Slate featured a post by Laura Helmuth titled “What’s the Worst Thing a Teacher Ever Said to You?”  Many readers offered responses, some funny, some bordering on outright abuse.  When I mentioned the article to colleagues, virtually everyone had a vivid memory of a teacher’s stinging words. While some of the barbs, including my own worst memory, are several decades old, they still carry the power to wound. I wish I had a video recording of my friends’ faces as they shared their stories.

English: Angry

English: Angry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not everyone takes the interstate route to higher ed. Most of my students are current or former soldiers, or their family members, who arrived at my classes by circuitous back roads. Many of them have not one, but two, three, or more decidedly negative past experiences in education.  Maybe they didn’t apply themselves in high school.  Maybe their ACT scores weren’t stellar.  Maybe someone told them that they couldn’t do math or science.

Sometimes the slayer of joy is a family member.  Recently a gently earnest, hard-working young woman earned the top grade in the class on a challenging exam.  When I returned her test paper, her joy was gratifyingly evident.  However, the next day she sadly told me about her husband’s reaction.  When she bounced into the house with her great news, his response was, “Yeah, but that’s the first time you’ve done it.”  I worry about that girl.

English: Angry woman.

English: Angry woman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And I worry about adding to the injury. “Primum non nocere.” First do no harm. As physicians in training, we were thus admonished early and often, until we heard our own inner voice whispering those words as we considered treatment options. We teachers would do well to remember those words as well. What I intended as a playful jab might actually be a painful cut. Sometimes my failure to recognize a struggling student’s improvement, however modest, might be interpreted as a lack of interest or confidence on my part.

If harsh words hurt and obstruct, I believe that encouraging words can strengthen and empower.  I want to write “Better!” on a quiz that falls short of perfection but indicates progress. I want to write “Thanks for a good read” on the essay that shows me that a student “gets it.” I want to write “You make this teacher proud” or “Hey! Wanna teach this?” on those superior papers.

How many positive comments and gestures does it take to undo the damage? My psychologist friends can probably quote a study with a good estimate. In the meantime, I’ll try to forget my personal purveyor of doubt (circa 1971). After all, as Catherine Aird famously said: “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll have to serve as a horrible warning.”

What’s the worst thing a teacher ever said to you? Anne and Brian have offered me their examples…please share yours!


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