I was catching up on my reading for a middle-level education course today when I came across an article entitled, “Praise That Doesn’t Demean, Criticism That Doesn’t Wound”. The main character is a new teacher, Liz, who is on probation. In the article, she describes her experience as she receives a scathing evaluation on one of her writing lessons from the administrator.
Hurt by his harsh criticism, Liz questions her ability to teach and wonders if she is better off in another career field. One of her colleagues checks in on her and the article unfolds into the significance of descriptive praise in the classroom. By describing students’ achievement instead of evaluating them, teachers can give them the emotional nourishment that will help them become self-confident and self-reliant. Students are able to trust their own judgment and make adjustments accordingly.
This part reminded me of my practica and student-teaching experiences. Descriptive praise (and constructive criticism) was something I did intuitively in the classroom, and it was a practice largely scoffed at by my cooperative teacher (CT), intern supervisor, and pre-service student colleagues. During my first practica, the CT delegated me to evaluating over 140 freshman science fair projects. Much to her chagrin, it took me three days to get them all done because I took my time writing literally a half-page to a full page for each student describing their work’s strengths and areas of improvement. In a 1:1 conference with my intern advisor, I was scolded for taking too long to evaluate the projects and was advised to either “keep my comments to 2-sentence minimum” or “stick to number grades” next time.
I was embarrassed, especially when my colleagues made subtle comments about how crazy I was for spending that much time on grading, and how they would never have found the time for that amount of students. It wasn’t until several students sought me out during recess to thank me for making the effort that I felt better about my practice. One male student who did not particularly do well on his project grinned sheepishly, and admitted he felt ashamed for not paying more attention and putting more effort in his project. “You graded hard, miss, but what you said was the truth. I’ve never been told before what I did was right, and I wish I tried harder.”
It was an emotional moment for me, but the experience affirmed that I was doing something right. I didn’t forget that lesson and it was something I brought along with me to student-teaching. At the end of student teaching, I wrote all 171-6th graders individual cards extolling their personal strengths and sharing favorite moments with them. It took me five nights to get through it all, and like before, I was told that I was crazy by everyone for attempting such a large feat. “Why don’t you just give them pre-written cards and candy?”, some said.
They’re 8th graders now, and once in awhile I’ll get an email from one of them saying, “Hey Miss Lorena, I still got your card. I read it now and then.” I am glad that I did what I did because it shows me that little positive things like that can truly make a difference. The authors of the article brought it all home when they wrote:
“If you’re going to tell a child what you see or feel, then you have to really look and pay attention.”
When I think about this quote, I relate it to what is going on now with education. I think about Oprah and Mark Zuckerberg donating large sums of money to schools with strings attached; I think about celebrities like Tony Danza pursuing his dream job as an English teacher in Philadelphia; I think about NBC’s Education Nation and the Waiting for Superman documentary; and I think about all the criticism, bashing, and blaming of bad teachers and teacher unions in the past months.
The portrayal of education in the media nowadays is very much like that administrator’s harsh evaluation of Liz– demeaning, non-constructive, and spirit-breaking. Is anyone really looking and paying attention? I see and hear tons of criticism, but where is the praise?
How are we–students, parents, teachers, admins, school boards, government– working together to meet the challenges of education and education reform today when we bring each other down? We should be applying the principles of descriptive praise not only in our classrooms, but in our work and in our personal lives. As the authors wrote, we should be “hold[ing] up mirrors to one another’s efforts and accomplishments”. Are we affirming schools? Are we affirming teachers? Are we affirming parents? Are we affirming students? It doesn’t look like it right now.
I agree with the media when they say there are some things wrong with education, but maybe if we focus first on what is right with education, then we can move on together to what still needs to be done in a less defensive manner. It is easier to fix something when we believe there is more right than wrong and when we believe that we have it in our power to fix what needs to be fixing.