Do I crave student praise and affirmation more than I crave student growth and development?

Young people are not the only ones who want to be recognized, praised, and celebrated. We can seek that as teachers as well. We want students and parents to value us, to talk about the difference that we are making. This likely comes from a place of wanting to know that we are investing ourselves in something important, something that makes a difference. Yet, if we are honest, is this really the difference that we want to make? Or, is the real difference, transformation, and growth in the young people? Having a good and positive relationship is important, but the most rewarding moments in teaching come from students losing sight of us as teachers, getting adsorbed in what they are studying, reading, learning, and creating. They gain confidence. They become more capable of doing things on their own. They need us less, and we can stand back, proud of their accomplishment and excited for what comes next for them. It is not about us.

When my daughter was twelve, she started to write fan fiction. I had not read her writing for several months. When she shared the beginnings of what she hoped to eventually become an book-length manuscript, I almost cried. It was not perfect, but it was good. Instead of writing that the girl’s hair was wet, she wrote about the girl sitting on the bench, her hair sticking to her jeans in the rain. Immediately, it conjured this image of a girl leaning over, trying to protect herself from the rain. I did not help her. My wife did not help her. She did this herself, and I could not be happier. My daughter does not attribute her growing writing ability to a teacher or parents. It is not that she is ungrateful, but none of this is about praise of some great writing teacher. It is about her growth and development. She wants to tell stories the inspire people, that gives them joy, the stirs their imagination. She is ready for the sometimes harsh feedback of the fan faction community, because she wants to improve the story, and she understands that this community, also interested in writing, is able to help her do that.

When I first imagined being a teacher, I had this dream of being some sort of sage-like figure that students admired. Students loved to gather around as I shared proverbs, stories, and offered life-changing illustrations. Yet, very little of these early musings had much to do with what students learned. It was all about me. When I started teaching, I measured the success of the day by how affirmed I felt, not by how much the students were learning, their engagement, or any other sort of student-centered subject.

I still get caught up in that at times, but I now believe that what happens inside of students is the more important part. That is why I appreciate the idea of a teacher as “guide.” Imagine a tour guide who made the entire tour about himself. He wowed and entertained people, but they never really experienced that which they were touring. The guide became a distraction more than one who pointed people to the good stuff. I contend that the same thing can and does happen in classrooms all over the world.

There is nothing wrong with people respecting or admiring a teacher, but I’m more convinced than ever that teachers motivated primarily by praise and affirmation will rarely have the impact of teachers who have the self-confidence to make student learning the true focus.


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