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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Accentuating the positive

There’s a Compass program on ABC TV tonight that looks interesting. Maybe I’ll be disappointed, but I hope not.

    Look at that – I just made that appear to be negative. Yet the program’s this:

Broadcasting 10.00 pm on ABC1 (Channel 2)


Explores whether a school's controversial experiment will provide a way forward to help future generations of teenagers grow up to become happier, more resilient and compassionate human beings.

I could have put what I said in my opening paragraph much more positively.

    But this is what we do. We can easily fall into the trap of negativity and spread it like a cloud of doom.

    I remember in my first year of teaching, I had a brother and sister in the same Grade 4 class. They were twins.

    In my defence for what I’m going to tell you, I was just 18 years old, in my very first few weeks of being a full-time teacher.

    I was also cranky with the little girl because it seemed obvious to me that she was making less effort at a particular task than she should have, while her brother was doing an excellent job.

    So, be gentle with me.

    I said to her, ‘Come on now! You’re not doing this half as well as your brother!’

    Yes, yes, I know, I know, I KNOW!! It was the last thing I should have said, and I knew that the second after it came out of my mouth. I looked at her face and it told me so. Instead of spurring her on through competition, the effect was the opposite. The tears welled up in her eyes and she looked as if I’d slapped her face. I knew in an instant that this girl, who, it must be said, was not as smart as her brother, had spent her life being compared with him negatively, and here was her teacher saying exactly the same thing as everyone else in her life.

    For her, it was a betrayal, and we both knew it. If I could have taken the words back by biting off the tip of my tongue, I reckon I would have done it. Hmmm – well, just about....

    I couldn’t take it back. Karma doesn't work that way. It's a process that can only go forward because there's no UNDO or REWIND button. Yet at the same time I didn’t want to let her feel that tears were the way to go to get special favour in comparisons with her brother. I never compared them in any way again.

    But I did make sure that when she achieved at some task when trying to perform well, she got plenty of praise and assurance, and before long, she showed no sign of the crippling effect that the constant unfavourable comparison had made in her life. Without her being conscious of it, I also gave her strategies for dealing with possible unfair comparisons at home, by focussing on her strengths in areas where brother and sister could not possibly compete.

    Oddly enough, this made me aware that in assessing undergraduate essays as a university lecturer, especially for students in first year, I should be careful not to shatter a student’s confidence in comments I wrote on their essays. Remembering my first feeble attempt at an essay and Devahuti’s compassion, I always looked for something positive, however small, to begin my comments, so that I could write on the problem areas while they could bask in that ray of sunshine, however feeble it might be.

    I always said that a student was entitled to make one mistake, even if it was a doozy, but was not entitled to repeat it once it was pointed out to them clearly. God knows we all make mistakes, and continue to do so throughout life. (Well, they SEEM to be mistakes anyway, but they sometimes teach us very positive lessons. Let's not talk of matters of right and wrong just now....)

    I wonder if that’s the approach on the ABC program tonight? Let’s see.


  1. Yes, here I am again, and I hope people don't get weary at seeing my comments popping up. I can't help it! I'm a chatterer!

    You were a wonderful teacher at university. I used to complain about others, who had no experience in teaching. They didn't understand how to make things clear or how to draw the best out of a student, or even how to make the subject interesting. You did all that. Every person felt special, every topic was fascinating. I still use your idea of the student reading their essay out loud, since that was such an eye opener to me of how my writing worked (or not, actually, that first time especially!!) Yes, we all make mistakes and say things awkwardly, hurting others. I bet that little girl ended up loving you as her teacher. It IS hard to be kind when you can feel that someone isn't trying :) But maybe they aren't trying because they don't believe they can do it.

  2. Nice post. Good perspective on overcoming competition/lack of confidence. Unfortunately teachers still tend to compare siblings but I am also often impressed by the creative ways teachers come up with to encourage and bring the best out of each child. And the kids never forget it. I bet you were very important in that little girl's life.

  3. Thanks, Jackie! It was a very spontaneous one, and I have yet to see the programme, but I will today. My daughter opted to leave a very comfortable school to teach difficult children, or children in difficult circumstances. There are many good caring teachers, though sadly there are also some who simply don't care enough.

  4. Thanks also to you, Julie. No, keep commenting! There are some bloggers who I get scared will think I am stalking them because I can't resist commenting on their fascinating blogs, but I know that it gives comfort to a writer to be aware they have an audience!

    It's true that some teaching experience at lower levels is invaluable for teaching at any level, even Ph Ds. None of that experience was ever wasted.

  5. Here I am, the stalker.

    I my illustrious marking career, I had a forumula. First, say something positive about the essay -- what its strengths are, even if there is not much there to praise. Second, explain why they didn't get an HD, i.e. what is lacking in the essay. Stick to two or three problems. Third, how the next essay can be improved in order to get a better mark. Again, two or three major areas.

  6. Good formula, though I would always place those positive comments first... 'Your handwriting is beautiful!' ;) The remainder to me depends on how good the assignment turned out to be. On a very good assignment there wasn't always a lot to say, but some comment was always deserved. On weaker ones, yes, don't overdo it as they won't read it and you'll have wasted your time and effort.

  7. Even with the HD essays, after the praise, I would begin, "Nothing is perfect ...."

    Yes, I probably often said too much on a weak essay, but given that I'd read the bloody thing and had comments in my mind, I might as well put them on paper. I don't think I wrote much more than a third of a page on any essay though. Too much and they turn off. Besides I was paid by the hour, not by the word, which is what I said on essays over the word limit.

    Ancient history now though. On this miserable day with a sore back I am reading Jung's Symbols of Transformation in conjunction with his Red Book -- the account of his journey into near insanity -- and feeling very glad that I am not marking essays.

  8. Oh, I forgot to say, the Compass programme was a disappointment, so it seems my negativity turned out to be sadly justified.

    I didn't like the Boot Camp approach, but then I am a bit bolshie about exclusive places like Timbertop and their military discipline, and I don't believe that their teachers were really adapted to the approach they were touting.

    The fact that they failed miserably to bring onside the Aboriginal girl from Darwin showed their terrible lack of understanding of her values. She was the real challenge, and it was a disaster. If the model was positivity, they failed terribly to show it with this girl.

    And now, just because it WAS Timbertop, the PR machine is allowing it to become the preferred model with this approach in the Victorian school system.


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