Teacher’s view: Lessons in the real world

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 25, 2011

By Will Reedy
For the Salisbury Post
In my time teaching upperclassmen in high school, I have noticed that students are struggling with their ability to handle constructive criticism. I feel as though I am expected to be overly positive so I do not offend and dishearten students. As a teacher, I feel that educators are obligated to prepare their pupils for the next chapter of their lives.
My father is a college professor at the University of Central Florida, and we often speak of common frustrations and other issues we encounter in education. We both recognize that our students are not prepared for the real world.
College atmospheres are more competitive than ever, and the business world is harsh and at times apathetic. It is not about how much effort or time one puts into a project but the end result. If you disagree, then catch the next airing of ěThe Celebrity Apprenticeî (an extreme example, I admit). Parents and teachers must inform students so they can prepare for the expectations that will be placed on them.
Students today are quite competitive. This is in large part due to how they are assessed academically. Students today have access to immediate results ó percentages, letter grades and grade point averages. Many of us in education have even been known to say, ěOh, heís a B studentî or ěShe has a 2.5 G.P.A.î as a way of identifying students.
These numbers and symbols have become who they are. B students feel they are only capable of a B life (A self-fulfilling prophecy). And, if a B life does not mesh with their parentsí expectations, or their reputation as a C student is surpassed by their peers, then a student can become defensive, even embarrassed. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Because of this phenomenon, we are handicapped as educators.
Students I have taught take each grade they receive that does not meet my standard or theirs as a personal slight. They become defensive, interpreting the criticism of their work as a criticism of who they are. That I, the teacher, am saying they are bad because they made mistakes.
At this point, the teacher and parents must do their jobs. We must help students understand what the grade is really saying; their performance was inadequate, not them. Also, we must let them know that we value them and their efforts; they are capable of doing better and, with our help, meeting the required standards.
Schoolwork for all students must be regarded as an experiment, one from which they hope to gain knowledge. They must not regard it as an absolute assessment of who they are. Students need to regard constructive criticism as an opportunity to gain knowledge and recognize the teacher is not trying to damage their self-esteem or stigmatize them.
High school students often fail to realize the real world is quickly approaching. That mistakes in the classroom are now paid for through trivial consequences ó a loss of privileges and extra chores ó but they will soon be paid for financially. Why not provide as much honest, constructive criticism as possible right now? Criticism that provides insight into what will be expected of them as young adults and young professionals.
It is our duty as teachers and parents to inform high school students that very soon they will be held accountable for the work they produce and how they manage themselves personally and professionally. And, hopefully they can meet that chapter of their life with the ability to be reflective and honest with themselves about the quality of their work.
Educators must be candid with their students. We cannot excuse poor production from high school students, especially upperclassmen, because we do not wish to hurt their feelings; it would be negligent. We cannot speak in euphemisms to avoid being called onto the mat for offending an overly sensitive student.
A teacherís job is to teach. What are we teaching children by passing the buck, by not swiftly providing constructive criticism in regard to what is acceptable production and what is not? Typically, it is out of fear of reprisal from parents or administration or because we have a weak conscience. This is what truly harms the student.
The necessity to speak honestly with students about their work is not a license to be offensive. After all, they are not adults. The teacherís job does not stop once the direct, constructive criticism has been made; we must also applaud exemplary production and recognize (not grade) strong effort. Teachers and parents must reinforce the good work that these students produce. We must strive to support them and build confidence for the next stage of their lives.

Will Reedy is a teacher at East Rowan High School.