In my first year of teaching communications to college advertising students in September 2008, I assumed teaching them would be like teaching adults. After all, they were all paying to be there. So I started out as my usual self: Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Sensitive.
Of course, they ate me alive.
Over the last two years, I’ve had to harden myself—and I’ve had much fewer discipline issues. But, this year, I went too far.
In my desire to push students to work harder, and in my excitement to prevent challenged writers from slipping through the cracks, I forgot to provide positive, constructive criticism, and I unconsciously singled out and embarrassed some of my struggling students. One student was so hurt by my comments to her that the class began to rally around her against me—unbeknownst to me.
Fortunately, one of the students in the class alerted me to this development on Friday.
I felt awful. After two decades of newspaper journalim, I had developed a thick skin. I was used to editors whipping me with their words, telling me what I had done wrong, and rarely telling me what I had done right. This was the kind of criticism I was used to. But my students aren’t used to it, and I’d hurt some of them with my written and verbal remarks.
To add insult to injury, I embarrassed several students by singling them out as poor writers. I told students the other week that I was cancelling classes for a day so that I could meet those with writing challenges and to help them get assistance from the Writing Centre. My intentions were noble and I was exuberant that I was going to help so many students in such a personal way. But, in my excitement, I lost focus on process: I alerted them of their meeting with bright orange Post-It notes that I stuck to the front of their latest assignments. The notes clearly labelled the weaker students to their classmates. Some were mortified. What a stupid thing to do.
The embarrassment this would cause never crossed my mind. After all, being a poor writer is not something to be ashamed of. We all have weaknesses and strengths. For example, I can’t sell anything for the life of me. I can’t do math, I can’t dance or sing, and I can’t seem to find the willpower to lose the 15 pounds I’ve gained over the last few years.
Today, I cancelled the lesson I’d planned for the affected class so I could apologize to students for being obtuse and for embarrassing anyone or hurting anyone’s feelings. While I worried that students might see my confession and apology as a sign of weakness, and they might take advantage of it, I knew that this was something I had to do.
As I sat on a desktop in front of the class, my voice trembled a little as I listed my errors and told students how I had made these mistakes, and then I tried to rectify them.
I went into great detail about these blunders and I often felt my face redden as I did. The class sat in rapt attention throughout.
I told students I was sad that some of them felt they couldn’t approach me with their issues and that they had allowed their anger to simmer. So I suggested they appoint a class representative who could approach their teachers on their behalf without fear of repercussions—so this would never happen again. They seemed to like that and they appointed their class rep. They also seemed happy with my confession, apology, and solutions, and several students approached me at the end of class to say so.
This was perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve had as a teacher. Criticize constructively, be open, don’t try to pretend your are perfect, admit it when you screw up, and fix whatever you break—immediately.
Most of the time, it will pay off.