A few weeks into the new school year, a post of mine was picked up by Education Week. I felt I was finally starting to reap the benefits the 10-years of teaching, commitment to improving the ever important “test scores,” as my stats show I have been successful at, and the hard work of writing about what I have learned would bring me. Until the post went viral, and my new readers considered me a monster. I believe one commenter said I was the very issue with education: old, bitter teachers who need to retire. A child advocacy group on Facebook even called me the kind of person who they fight against to protect their children from. I still stand behind my post, as it was on one issue in education regarding intrinsic motivation, rather than representing my teaching philosophy as a whole, a misunderstanding on the part of some of my commenters. But, I can tell you I had no idea the “reward” for my time in the field, and work at blogging about my career, would lead me to the lowest feeling of self-worth since a peer picked on the size of my ears in 7th grade.
It is really important to me that this post doesn’t become my sob story. Mind you, it was several weeks post-publishing that I realized I may actually pull myself out of this and choose for the circumstance to mean more than the few slanderous comments I received. Being around my new students at the beginning of this school year, those goofy 17-year-old Junior English students of mine, brought to light that self-esteem struggles and dealing with those nasty, personal comments are an every day battle for them. I was there once — those teenage years — and I felt like I was reliving it.
Whether you’re a writer, a teacher, a teenage student, or any other person for that matter, confidence starts from inside. We all know this, and tell our own children and students the same thing. I even had the heart-to-heart conversation with myself. But, when you’re in the middle of a public social media bashing, it can be hard to focus on the positive. I can tell you I needed someone — almost begging for someone — to simply tell me it’s human nature to focus on the negative, rather than see the truth in the situation. I wasn’t crazy, or, better yet, immature to feel this way, even at the “old, bitter” age of 32.
My husband, parents, colleagues, and even 4-year-old son reminded me that there were far more positive comments, feedback, and likes and shares on Facebook on my viral post with EdWeek than there were negative comments. There were; my husband was sure to show me the flow chart he created to prove it. I love that man. And I believe my father even reminded me that we don’t know the background of some of these commenters, like the old saying goes that pointing a condescending finger at one person often suggests pointing 3 self-ward in return.
A phone conversation with my brother brought up a study done on unfavorable feedback and its impact that made me think about grading my students’ papers. You can read the article, “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio,” yourself on Harvard Business Review (I’ll leave the link at the bottom), that essentially sums itself up by saying one negative comment statistically holds as much weight as 3 to 6 positive comments. To be clear, the study identified negative comments as having the potential to “go as far as sarcastic or disparaging remarks” (Zinger and Feldman). The comments do not have to be an outright mud-slinging to be perceived as cynical. It can come from the tone, too. I can confirm that from my own experience, unfortunately.
So how do we apply this to the classroom? When I continued reading the Harvard Review article what surprised me was those who received positive comments statistically made better progress toward success than those who received negative comments. As an English teacher, pointing out flaws can have value in teaching the revision process. That’s the very way writing has always been taught: point out all of the errors with a red pen. But applying that to my own circumstance with the EdWeek article didn’t change the funk I found myself sinking into. So I continued on to determine the valuable contribution my experience could provide for my students.
We want to think of negative comments as allowing us room to improve, and, again, as an English teacher, I would agree. But those in the study who received positive comments felt motivated to make more of their strengths, rather than spend time moping over weaknesses. I believe this is called replacing negative “internal thoughts” with positive ones. And now it all makes sense.
Did I mention this very post has taken me weeks to reflect on? I started writing it in October and now, reaching the end of November, I feel compelled to draw a conclusion to this situation and set it aside. It’s taken me time to come around to my true and honest “phoenix from the ashes” take away. Here it comes…
It would be too simple to say we teachers need to have a balanced ratio of positive to negative comments on student work, even though we do. It would also be too obvious to say we teachers should always start with a positive comment before a negative one, even though we should. But the truth of the matter is affirmation language must become part of our every day way of interacting with our students. We must build up the confidence so we can have something meaningful and worthwhile to say to help them improve when the time comes to look at their weaknesses. Teenagers want to know they have met our teaching standards on a task, and are “smart” enough to know how to craft it to be better. My dear babies. They just want someone to see them for who they are: humans. I get it.
I now repeatedly mention to my students that grades are about adding up the successes, not taking away achievements because of failures. And most importantly, if I have something critical to say, it’s to help their strengths shine more brightly. Teenager or grown adult, we are all sensitive to what others think of us. It’s deep within our beings to be affected by negative comments, and no one is going to change that — not even this adult telling her own teenage heart to simply have some confidence. It’s time we start thinking about how we speak to our students on a regular basis to build their self-esteem, and give them a reason to trust that our seemingly contemptuous remarks are intended to make the best of a flaw. I can only hope the experiences of going viral always remind me that there’s a weightier positive behind the negatives: the teaching opportunity that benefits my students and readers. I’m there for ya, kids.
Zenger, Jack, and Joseph Folkman. “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism>.