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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Kudos to the good

rockfingersErin (13) came home from school a few weeks ago and sat in front of me with evident drama.

“Guess what.”

“Norway fell into the sea. You can burp the alphabet. Am I close?”

“Dad, stop.” She leaned forward. “We started evolution in science today.”

A tickle of dread went down my spine. I’m a busy boy. No jonesing for another fracas.

“And?”

“And it’s awesome. He’s teaching all about it, just like you would. He explained what theory really means, and said that the evidence is incredibly strong for evolution, and when kids started saying, ‘But the Bible says blah blah blah,’ he just put his hand up and said, ‘You can talk about that with your minister. In this class we are learning about science, about what we know.”

I have never, ever seen her so jazzed about a class experience. She knows what a crapshoot it is, knows that she has less than a 50-50 chance of learning about evolution in any depth in the classroom. She lucked out.

So what’s a parent to do? Most, including me, will do a nice cartoon wipe of the brow and go back to the next thing on the plate. That’s a major mistake. It’s also simply wrong.

We’re happy to fire off a blistering corrective to the Mr. Taylors and Ms. Warners, the educators who fall down on the job and take our kids with them. But we’ve got to get just as good and consistent at complimenting the good as we are at complaining about the bad.

It’s not just a question of good manners. If we really care about quality in the classroom, it’s a practical imperative.

Imagine you’re a biology teacher. The evolution unit is approaching, again, and you know for certain you will get a half dozen scolding emails from angry parents the moment the word crosses your lips. Again. If you’ve never received a note of thanks for tackling the topic honestly, it’s easy to feel isolated and beleaguered. Who could blame you for gradually de-emphasizing the topic until it disappears completely? Even a teacher with the best of intentions can be worn to a nub from years of self-righteous tirades.

And those of us who sit silently, never lifting a finger to reinforce good teaching when we see it, deserve what we get.

I finally woke up to this about two years ago and started making a point of shooting off a message of thanks to teachers who rocked my kids’ worlds. This is especially important for middle and high school teachers, who are much less likely to hear any positive feedback through parent conferences and the other frequent contacts elementary teachers get.

When Erin was working her way through a much better-than-average comparative religion unit in social studies, I dashed off a note of appreciation to the teacher, who nearly passed out from the shock. When Connor told me his high school science teacher spent some time explaining what “theory” means in science, I shot him some kudos. And when Erin came home with this story of courage and integrity, I sent a message expressing my deep and detailed appreciation…and cc’ed the principal.

The teacher replied, telling me how gratifying it was to hear the support. “It’s a passion of mine,” he said. Even passion can be pummeled out of someone. But now, the next time he approaches that unit, he’ll hear not only angry shouts ringing in his ears, but a little bit of encouragement from someone who took the time to make it known.

I’m better at this than I once was, but I’m still about three times as likely to pipe up when I’m pissed as when I’m impressed. Gotta work on that. How about you? Anybody you need to thank RIGHT NOW?

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This was written on Thursday, 31. March 2011 at 13:52 and was filed under action, My kids, Parenting, schools, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. It;s very easy to get caught up in the negatives and simply ignore the positives. I’ve worked with disadvantaged kids and individuals who have a disabilities and one principle rings true: reward the positive behaviors.

    Comment: Andrew Hall – 31. March 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  2. “I’m still about three times as likely to pipe up when I’m pissed as when I’m impressed.” And you’re almost entirely unlikely to pipe up at all when something neither failed to meet nor exceeded expectations, but simply met the average. True of pretty well everyone. Which is important to keep in mind when you’re reading ratings or reviews on Yelp, Amazon, eBay or the like. Or checking out the reputation of your local school’s teachers.

    Teaching evolution-as-established-science isn’t really an issue hereabouts (California having good standards in that regard and the SF Bay Area being the least religious region in the country by some reports) but I’m impressed when teachers manage to show their students how to challenge and evaluate the evidence presented to them. In any context.

    (Forgive me the tangent.)

    Comment: hollyml – 31. March 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  3. I have often taken time to write notes of appreciation. I even once wrote them by hand, back in the dark ages. I write them after job interviews. I write them to my child’s preschool teacher, other parents who are friends, etc. But I could take the time to write more of them. A simple, genuine, and specific expression of appreciation improves life. I’m all for that.

    Comment: kathryn – 31. March 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  4. I loved this post… I’m a high school English teacher in rural Ohio, and I get to hear lots of “lovely” parent feedback about not pushing religion in a public school. And then, every once in a while, I’ll get an email from a parent who appreciates what I’m doing and how I teach. It makes my day; sometimes, it makes my week. Thank you for helping support the teachers in your children’s lives (we need it now more than ever).

    Comment: gypsythief – 01. April 2011 @ 6:06 am

  5. Thanks for the reminder, Dale. We all love some positive feedback from time to time and there’s only one way any of us get it, when someone is willing to dispense it. And you are absolutely right, people are made vulnerable by sticking their neck out, the least we can do is give them props for doing it.

    Comment: Ei – 01. April 2011 @ 8:58 am

  6. I never got much myself, and wished for some, so I try to give it to others, and sometimes I get to tell the supervisor/boss as well-amd once or twice in the presence of the person who “did good”.

    Every Yule and end of school year, I give teachers, aides & other personnel involved with my son a Starbucks card with a thank you note. There have been some years where my son has been a real challenge, but that is passing now.

    In fact, I try to point out to him when he’s done well, especially if it was a chore or bit of assistance done without asking.

    Comment: Saffronrose – 03. April 2011 @ 1:50 am

  7. YES! The person I need to keep remembering to thank is you, Dale. ;-)

    Comment: JJ Ross – 08. April 2011 @ 8:09 am

  8. I’m a bit behind in reading blogs, but I’m gonna comment even though this was written nearly a month ago.

    I have to thank my Dad for watching Sci Fi with me, tolerating my dinner conversations about dissecting a dog in 10th grade (he gets very queasy about such things). Both my parents for never discouraging me from loving science and for paying for 4 years of college. They never quite understood my interests, but always seemed proud of what I did.

    Also, a big thanks to my 10th grade anatomy and physiology teacher who inspired me.

    Comment: Lisa – 22. April 2011 @ 2:31 pm

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