Saturday, April 7, 2012


Once in a century a man may be ruined or made insufferable by praise. But surely once in a minute something generous dies for want of it. - John Masefield

As a teacher of Public Speaking, I well understand the importance and power of Praise. On a regular basis my students put themselves on the spot - put their egos on the line - and get up in front of a room full of relative strangers to speak aloud their thoughts and ideas. It's not easy. For some people it's a little anxiety producing, for others nerve-wracking, and for others absolutely terrifying.

Giving positive feedback is an essential part of my job. It doesn't matter how 'bad' a student presentation is, I find something to praise. I don't care how far I have to stretch, there's a compliment to be found somewhere. If I can't praise their organization, I look to praise their supporting material. If not that, their use of visual aids. If not that, the attention device they use in their introduction. If nothing else at all, I can at least find a way to compliment something about their delivery skills. "You didn't move around nearly as much as you did last time and you also reduced your verbal fillers significantly. Good job!"

Without some form of positive reinforcement, most of us grow discouraged. While it would be nice to believe that we all are motivated purely by the desire to do a job well, the fact is that most people need a little more encouragement than that - particularly when the job that must be done is one that is undesirable, seems unnecessary, or seems downright oppressive and burdensome.

Recently, my department members and I finished just one of those jobs - program review. This is a process that our administration requires each department to go through on a periodic basis. And while the thought behind the requirement is probably a good one, our administration, in my oh-so-humble opinion, misses the boat on the execution.

Each department is required to submit a report. In that report we are required to articulate any number of things that, quite frankly have little to nothing to do with the daily work of teaching in the classroom and making a difference in the education and lives of our students. (The instructions for doing the report run 6 1/2 pages, bulleted and single spaced, if that gives you any idea of the scope of this project.)

My colleagues and I have been working on this document since January of 2011. During the Spring semester of 2011 we met bi-weekly for 2 hour meetings. During Fall semester of 2011 we met weekly for 2 hour meetings. And during this Spring semester of 2012 we met weekly for 1 1/2 hour meetings. That's a lot of time and energy being spent on this process.

Parts of this process turned out to be productive. We talked at length about students, content, skills, and outcomes. We revised all our common course outlines. We discussed what makes our classes successful and where we need to improve. In other words, we worked very hard and did very good work.

This week we had to appear before the Academic Council and Management Team to "present" our findings. We were asked to give a very short (2-4 minute) presentation about our report highlighting a couple of our strengths and a couple of our goals and then we responded to questions for another 20 minutes. It was a fascinating process. It was clear that some people had read the report. It was equally clear that others had not. We were asked a few questions and told where we came up short - where we were unclear, where we needed more detail, where we did something wrong.

And there was not one compliment. Nothing. The options to give even the faintest of praise were numerous. "Good report." "Well-written." "Thorough." "Insightful." "The focus on 'X' was helpful." "Clearly articulated goals." "No typos." But none of those things were said. They thanked us for coming and then we left. A year and a half of really hard work and not even a 'thanks for slogging through this' to show for it. We processed the experience afterward and we all agreed that this was one of the things that makes workers everywhere disappointed and discouraged. One of my colleagues actually felt sick to her stomach following the experience. To say we were demoralized would not be putting it too strongly.

As teachers we are used to working in isolation and we are certainly used to criticism. We are told in no uncertain terms on a daily basis what we are doing wrong and how we are falling short and where we need to work harder and do better. We work without much praise at all, and most of the time we're okay with that. We continue to work because we know the value of what we do may not be recognized in the moment, but that it is there. The rewards of the work are generally not dependent on praise.

But praise and encouragement
are things that help us all to grow and continue to try. Without them motivation begins to flag, dis- courage- ment sets in and, eventually, even the most positive and hard-working among us begin to get a little cynical. So, it's a word to all of us to give someone a boost -- find something to praise and give someone a little encouragement.

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