Positive Feedback

My family rarely offered praise.  “Good job” or “way to go” were not phrases I heard as a child.  My parents rarely responded to my good deeds with more than a “good” or a quick nod.  The underlying message was clear; the good deeds and grades were expected.   Their response told me, “Damn straight you did good, and you better keep doing good, or else.”

In contrast, my wife grew up in a family where good deeds were acknowledged.  Her efforts were praised, and she always knew explicitly that her parents were proud of her.  This does not mean that she was over praised, nor were the compliments undeserved. Her parents just made sure to acknowledge a job well done with strong, specific praise.

As my wife grew older, she found praise invigorating; compliments and encouragement fueled her, both validating her acts and spurring her on to do even more.  In this positive feedback loop, her parents, or teachers, or coaches, or bosses could praise her work and yield even more production, warranting further praise.  This is just one of the reasons that she has been successful.

In contrast, my up bringing caused a very different result.  While I always knew my parents were/are proud of me (a number of relatives commented on how they would brag about me when I wasn’t around), I never received the direct feedback my wife received.  Eventually, I learned to live without it.

I began to realize that praise often came with strings attached.  “The lawn looks great” would come just before I was “asked” to cut the lawn every two weeks.  Being asked to clean the bathroom was preceded by, “Good, your room is clean.”   Yet, my parents weren’t the only ones praising in this way.  “You are so good with him, do you mind watching him for a couple of hours?”  “You are such a honest student, don’t you want to tell me who was cheating on the test?”  I came to view praise as both unnecessary, as well as masking other intentions.  Compliments in my mind became expectations, none of which I wanted to live up to every time.

So on one hand, you have someone who is fueled by praise and acknowledgement.  On the other hand, you have a person that views praise with a bit of doubt and a dash of contempt.  As you can imagine, this has added a bit of contention to our marriage.

When my wife cleans the kitchen, she wants to be acknowledged.  Not every time, just most times.   In contrast, if I clean the kitchen, I still get a bit annoyed when my wife compliments me.  Again, the compliment causes me to view it as a requirement.  I know, it is strange.

So when my wife cleaned the kitchen and I called no attention to it, in many ways, not complimenting her or even acknowledging her good deed was implying that I didn’t care.  It didn’t validate what she was doing which annoyed her to no end.  As a person who never got complimented on day to day chores, I didn’t even think to acknowledge emptying the dishwasher or putting the trash lining in the can.

After a few arguments, my wife finally explained how she needed to be complimented.  How it validated and encouraged her to do more.  I told her how I felt about compliments. She found that absurd and said she wouldn’t stop.  She implored me to realize that praise was not always for ulterior motives and that accepting praise is important to both the receiver and the giver.   I was and still am hesitant.

But, I have begun to realize its value.  My wife is happy if I acknowledge her efforts.  It is just as important that I make it clear that I value her and what she does for me and for others.  I can say, “I love you” or do something to show my love but, it is also important to acknowledge the love that I receive.

In the same way, I try to take that into account in all my relationships. People I work with can and should hear what they do well.  I need to acknowledge my friends and relatives when they do for me or others.  It doesn’t mean that I praise for praise sake.  But, there is a ton of good in my life that I need to recognize more often, at least in my opinion.

So what does this have to do with education?

Well, in the previous 6 months, my wife has never received any positive feedback on her teaching from her principal.  No, “thanks for your hard work” or “good job on that assignment.”   Her interactions with her principal only deal with her failings in implementing the district’s vision.

But can you blame the principal?  With the numerous people from the district that come through and observed, did any of them have a kind word for my wife?  I mean she averages roughly 4-6 people coming through her room a week.  Yet only one person said that she was doing a good job.  This person told her how great she was at a particular skill and brought other teachers in to observe my wife in action.  Naturally, this person doesn’t work for the district, but is a contractor.  Perhaps this is why she had the sense to tell my wife she was doing a good job.  The district does not foster positive encouragement.

So my wife hasn’t been praised by her boss all year?  Well, not exactly.

Last month, her principal complimented an idea she had for a math night; of course, this was just before she asked her to chair the committee and make it happen.  My wife, starved for praise, agreed and, as with most things in the school, it was a bit of a pain. Thankfully, after successfully putting on this math night, her principal complimented her again, this time without asking her to do something else.  Of course, this was after she harped on how her lesson plans were still not up to stuff.

Despite what you might hear, teaching is not a lucrative career.  Most teachers don’t do it for the money or the benefits.  They do it to help kids and make a difference.  Is it too much to ask to give some encouragement in the deluge of negative comments.  My wife does not want false praise, but to go an entire 7 months without any appreciation is tough for anyone, even someone like me who doesn’t seek it.

Just as important is the culture it creates in the school.  Positive feedback is especially important to kids as they grow up.  Many of the children in my wife’s school come from difficult situations and often, school is one of the few places that they can be complimented or praised. Yet, when teachers are constantly criticized, how can we expect them to nurture the youth they teach.  A toxic environment for teachers will translate into a bad environment for kids.  My wife’s school seems to be an example of that despite the teachers best efforts to prevent it.

The saddest part is that positive encouragement is so easy to do.  How hard is it to recognize someone doing a good job?  (Not hard). Does it take a ton of time? (No).  Does it cost anything? (No).   Can it make a difference?   (Yes).  So why not try a little bit?  It might even convince good teachers like my wife that they’re making a difference, not just failing the kids they teach.

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