Saturday, August 1, 2015

I wish teachers were like that.

Yesterday I picked up my kids from camp where they'd spent the past five days living in the wilderness with about 25 other kids and five camp leaders. At the closing ceremony, kids presented their projects from the week.

The camp counselors threw a positive spin onto the end of each presentation. They said things like, "And Jason was so good at overcoming this challenge that the other kids were inspired by his perseverance," or "I loved Maddie's innovation when she encountered that obstacle. It showed that she was thinking creatively while trying to solve the problem." 

My daughter, sitting next to me, leaned over and said pointedly, "I wish teachers were like that."

I looked at her. Last year we received more than one negative, even snarky, comment from her teachers, either in an email directly to me or printed on a report card in passive-aggressive style. Here are some examples:

My question to a teacher: "How can I help her learn math better?" 
Response: "From what I see, she does not put in a very good effort.  She loves to read her book instead of pay attention...We work as individuals and as a team. Not a great effort either way."

Notice how this response does not answer my question, and blames the student for her math performance?

Or how about the teacher who wrote this on her June report card: "She needs to be re-taught how to follow directions."

Attaching a note like this to a final report card is disrespectful to the student and affords no time to address problems. Responding to a parent’s direct request for information about academic skill by blaming the student’s attitude is borderline professional malpractice.

This negative, even destructive approach to some of the schooling my children have experienced reminds me, as we start the August ramp-up back to school, that we should re-calibrate our approach to feedback and the ways in which we support students.

Did my daughter also have extremely positive interactions with several of her teachers? Absolutely! And those interactions helped her develop a love for learning and excelling. She wanted to have those smiling moments in their classrooms, times when she knew she had done well. How can we accomplish this? Strive to be more like those constructive, supportive camp counselors.
  • Reinforce the positive students do, whether it’s behavior or academic skills.
  • Find ways to support them in making good decisions.
  • Seek avenues to individualize your guidance.
  • Use productive words in your feedback.
  • When problems arise, address them punctually with students and parents, if needed.

I have gained much from observing the two styles of feedback on my own child. I’ve learned that as a teacher, I need to provide guidance and correction but with respect for the student as a human being. I need to define clear goals for improvement and show students how they’ve moved toward those goals, not simply find fault. Students are exactly the way we are: they shrink under negativity but thrive on support.

This August, I challenge all teachers to remember why we became teachers: not to tear down or insult students but to build them up and support them in their success. Let’s readjust our attitudes and adopt a positive mindset. Channel your inner camp counselor!