Sometimes former students come visit me in my classroom. These visits are always welcome, but in one case, somewhat unwelcome. One of the students who has came to visit had once –mid-semester—asked to be transferred out of my class.
The Pain of Blame
The student who had asked to be transferred out of my class did so while we were going over the basics of grammar—sentence structure, capitalization, and comma usage, and for him, grammar was hard. His marks were falling. He had never gotten below an “A” in English. I was too hard, too demanding, and the classes weren’t as much fun. So, he decided, it was time to drop my class.
Bent on protecting their son from failure, disappointment, and boredom, his parents set up meetings with my principal. Behind closed doors, the parents and the principal debated the issue of moving classes, until the student was told to stay. So, he remained seated, upset and resentful, in my classroom.
The whole thing was awful.
I had never been so insulted in my life. After all the work I had put into teaching that class, marking their essays in detail over the weekends, holding tutorials for them after school, one of them had complained about me. “Was I really a terrible teacher?” I wondered then.
All the memories of this wondering about my value as a teacher were brought up to the surface, like dirty oil in water, when this student showed up in my classroom.
The Joy of Praise?
I have a box behind my desk I call “the smile file.” In that box, I keep letters and notes from students, tokens of appreciation given to me throughout the years.
Grabbing from the top of the smile files after saying goodbye to that student, I thumbed through letters written by his peers in the same English class. Overwhelmingly, the students said they benefitted greatly from the class, even if it was hard and at times boring.
While I might like to focus on the praise my students and their parents have given me over the years, and ignore the blame, I know that this too is a fool’s road.
Over time, I have learned these truths about praise and blame:
Praise and blame are both subjective.
Praise and blame are all the same.
I refuse to be controlled by praise or blame.
Praise and Blame are All the Same
The bestselling book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and It’s All Small Stuff, by Richard Carson, first explained the idea “praise and blame are all the same” to me in my first few years of teaching.
In this book, Carson explains how he disregards both compliments and complaints, for in his psychiatry practice, he is used to get both compliments and complaints on the same day, for the same work, for the same writing. His conclusion is simply that every single person has a different, subjective view of what is good and bad, and each person will have an opinion based off of that subjective view. “Praise and blame are all the same” captures the truth that nobody can please everybody all the time.
Since we can’t please everybody, we shouldn’t even try.
It is not the opinions of others, but our own opinion that counts.
Developing a Teacher’s Backbone
As teachers, we will face students, parents, other teachers, principals, and so on, who disagree with us. If we do not meet anyone who disagrees with us, then chances are we are playing it safe and aiming for mediocrity.
The real perk of teaching is developing a teacher’s backbone that can withstand any disapproval or criticism.
Here’s how to develop a teacher’s backbone:
- Understand why you teach the way you do. Know it inside and out. Do the research and find out what the research says; If the research proves you wrong, stay open-minded and adjust your course. Your end-goal is to have an iron-clad teaching methodology which can be supported with evidence of efficacy. When someone disagrees with you, hear him out, consider his views, then calmly explain the logic of your teaching. If people take issue with my teaching, I’m okay with it. They don’t understand my logic.
- Understand why you got in to teaching in the first place. Most teachers come in to teaching with noble intentions. In my case, I got in to teaching to share my love of writing and literature with students; to push them past the limits of what they thought possible for them; to make them so capable that they will have every door open to them in the future. To accomplish this vision, I sometimes need to be tough, strict, and uphold high standards. When people don’t like my high standards, I’m okay with it. They don’t share my vision.
- Develop a sense of personal pride. A child looks outside for praise while an adult stands on his own feet, putting know head above his own. He notices what he does well, and he quietly enjoys it. Take the time to savour your successes. Don’t wait for others outside to praise you. At the same time, don’t get big-headed. Compare yourself as a teacher now to the teacher you were years ago. See the growth and celebrate, loudly, in private.
- Measure your performance on your own. One of the best things a teacher can do is measure his performance on his own. Whether he measures his performance by using test scores or samples of his students’ writing (one from the start of the term and one of the end), the end result is having his feet on solid ground. If the results are good, he knows he is doing well—no one can convince him otherwise. If the results are poor, he knows he needs to improve—and he sets out to do that.
- Don’t be surprised. Don’t be surprised if a student, parent, or principal is upset about some aspect of your teaching. Remember, everyone has a subjective opinion and view. When a disagreement inevitably arises, tell yourself, “Ah, a person with an opinion has come up from the woodwork. It’s about time. Let’s talk and see what I learn from him.” There may be some truth in what this person is saying. And maybe not. But the benefit of a conversation is always the chance to learn about a different way of thinking.
When You Wonder What People Think…And Ask….
“Do my students like me?
“Do my students respect me?”
“Am I a good teacher?”
“Am I as good as….”
Recognize you are grasping outside.
To subjective opinions outside of your control.
Focus on the facts.
Focus on what you know inside.
Experience the real joy of teaching.
“To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”—Elbert Hubbard
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson