Saturday, May 07, 2005

Re-posting: Overdosing on self-esteem

Originally posted February 17, 2005

Do our students have too much self-esteem? Stories in USA Today and Time mag recently have made the case that kids born in the 1980s were raised to believe that their every effort, no matter how minimal, was worthy of praise. When they get to college or to a job, they're shocked and shaken to hear criticism -- harsh, honest, real criticism. They don't understand why nobody's hand-holding or giving them A's for effort.

I'm a tough grader. I've written "This stinks" on student assignments. I tell students when I think they're B.S.'ing me or when I think they've gotten lazy. I push and prod to get them to work harder. I give them D's and F's when they deserve it. And when I do, I always tell them "It's not personal. It's about the work."And boy, do they NOT take it well. I've had young men and young women in my office sobbing over a grade or over a comment on a paper. They say, "I always got A's in high school!" And they run through every excuse, from ADD to eating disorders to writer's block (which I don't believe in, even for real writers).

I've had to learn how to criticize creatively so that I don't have to face the nervous breakdowns. And I blame parents for this. Trying so hard to be their children's pal, they forgot how to toughen them up for real-world criticism. Too many pats on the back for stupid stuff: "Way to stand at the plate, Travis!" "Good job finishing that sandwich, Ashley!" The kids don't know what it feels like to actually accomplish something worthy of praise.

On the other end of the spectrum, I find I'm sometimes the first teacher ever to tell a student that he or she has a real gift for writing (and when I see it, I know... and I don't see it often enough). "You're a writer," I like to tell them. "I look forward to reading more of your work." I've had tears flow over that, too. Over being the first teacher to encourage the craft of writing or to recognize a love for writing that wants to flourish.

Best thing a student can say? "I never liked writing before I took your class." Then I know I've done my job. Have to admit, that does help my sagging self-esteem.


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