Updated: Aug 26
Being honest with students requires both accuracy and respect
I began teaching high school Language Arts in the fall of 1993, so this year will mark my thirtieth as an educator. As I think back over my career, I have some wonderful memories of working with students, of seeing them overcome challenges to succeed in ways that brought them fulfillment. However, some of my most vivid memories are of students who made me feel uncomfortable, and who, in doing so, taught me something that made me a better teacher.
One such instance happened on my very first day of teaching, in my junior homeroom at Chillicothe High School. Swelled with pride and optimism, I greeted my junior class, took attendance, introduced myself, and then attempted to pass out textbooks. This seemed like a simple task: give each student a book and have them fill in their name and book number on a prepared form. I mean, the State of Ohio, in all of its wisdom, had bestowed a teaching license on me. Of course I could do this.
But as I held out a book to one young lady, Simone, she looked up at me with a disinterested look and announced: "Ya might wanna keep your book."
But as I held out a book to one young lady, Simone, she looked up at me with a disinterested look and announced:
“Ya might wanna keep your book.”
The book hung there, at the end of my outstretched hand, as I tried to figure out my next move. Checking my class list, I noticed that Simone’s birth date was a little more than three years after mine, making her nearly twenty years old.
“They haul me in here every year, and I stay for a couple of days,” she explained. “Look, you seem like a good teacher and all, but I won’t be back next week. So, like I said, you should probably keep your book.”
I stood there, frozen, with more than thirty sets of eyes on me, as I contemplated my options. I was responsible for collecting textbooks at the end of the year, and missing one wouldn’t look good on my record. This young lady seemed very sure of herself.
I decided to keep the book and moved on to the next student. I think Simone came one or two more days that first week, after which I never saw her again. However, I respected her frankness in that situation, and it emphasized the importance of honesty in my dealings with students. Not only should I strive to be honest with them, but I should respect their honesty even when they told me things that I didn’t want to hear.
Rather than scold her for her lack of civility, I took a “When-in-Rome” approach to her question. "Don't f*** up the midterm and final," I shrugged.
Several years later, I was hired to teach a History of Modern Education Class at The Ohio State University’s Lima campus. On the first night of class, as I was going over the required assignments and grading criteria, one student blurted out:
“Most of your grade in this class is the midterm and final. If you f*** up the midterm and final, your grade is shot to sh**. So how are we supposed to pass your class?”
Snickers and giggles ensued from the young lady’s classmates, many of whom seemed shocked at her tone and choice of vocabulary. Rather than scold her for her lack of civility, I took a “When-in-Rome” approach to her question.
“Don’t f*** up the midterm and final,” I shrugged.
This further shocked the class, and even the unfiltered student seemed taken aback. I realized that I was a little too blunt with my response, so I went on to emphasize that the students would receive a great deal of guidance on those assignments and have quite a bit of time to work on them. The students accepted that I wasn’t out to get them, and we all got along pretty well after that.
From these and similar incidents, I learned that I should be a little more delicate with my honesty . . . but not too delicate. I recall one instance when a student came to me for feedback on a draft of her essay. She had been a very soft-spoken student, and I appreciated the courage it took for her to approach me for help. So I started off, as I often do, discussing the positive aspects of the essay, then tried to gently discuss ways in which it could be improved. However, I apparently softened my criticism too much, which confused the student. After a few minutes, she released a frustrated sigh and addressed me pointedly:
“Look, I appreciate that you’re trying to be nice and all, but I’d really like to know what’s wrong with my paper.”
Her message was received and I went on to clarify those areas for her.
"To get an A, you'll need to show that you’ve reached that skill level. Now my job is to help all of us to reach that level, but the truth is, that’s going to be more difficult for some of us than it is for others. So some students who work hard will receive A’s, and some who work hard won’t.”
The longer I taught, the better I got at finding the balance between being overly blunt and overly delicate. Several years after my f-bomb introductory lecture, I was going over the syllabus on my first day teaching a composition class at Columbus State Community College. When I asked if there were any questions, I received a difficult one from a middle-aged man seated away from the other students on the edge of one row. The man, whose name was Michael, was quite large, tall and broad-shouldered, such that he barely fit into his desk. His expression was stern, almost scowling, as he asked his question:
“What I wanna know is, if I work my ass off in the class, am I gonna get an A?”
I thought about Michael’s question for a few moments before answering it. I don’t remember my exact words, but my response was something like:
“The truth is, I don’t know. Both the college and myself as an instructor require that you demonstrate a particular skill level in order to achieve a particular grade. Very few students get an A in my class without putting forth considerable effort, but that’s not all that’s required to do so. To get an A, you'll need to show that you’ve reached that skill level. Now my job is to help all of us to reach that level, but the truth is, that’s going to be more difficult for some of us than it is for others. So some students who work hard will receive A’s, and some who work hard won’t.”
Apparently Michael didn’t like my explanation because he gave me a nasty look and stormed out. Part of me was hoping that he wouldn’t return two days later for our next scheduled class meeting, but he did. However his tone was different. He apologized for his outburst and told me a little bit about his story. He had been an ironworker for many years, and liked his job and the living he made doing it. But several months back, he’d fallen, severely injuring himself, and though he’d regained most of his mobility through surgeries and physical therapy, he could never go back to ironwork. So here he was in his early forties, struggling to overcome the fear of embarking on a second, as yet uncertain, career. Michael’s reliance on hard work was understandable: he’d known it his entire life. But as a craftsman, he understood my point about the quality of one’s work, and he knew that communication skills would be important as he re-entered the workforce.
Michael did work hard in my course, eliciting extra feedback on his drafts and carefully revising and editing his writing. He went on to receive an A in my course, not because I felt sorry for him or feared angering him, but because he improved his skills and demonstrated that he was a good writer.
Through these episodes, I came to understand that communicating honestly with students involved not just my words, but the tone I used. I was searching for a sweet spot that included both stating facts accurately, while also respectfully trying to understand where the individuals in my classes were coming from. This is an ongoing process, requiring teachers to learn about their students from year to year, as they also learn from them.