Compliments #SOL23 11/31

Years ago, my colleague, Aaron Bachmann, walked into our office one day and told us that he had learned that people don’t get enough compliments and that, when they did, something like 90% of them focused on appearance. He was determined to change that. 

Aaron set about giving us all compliments – real ones. It was hilarious and cheesy, but it also felt good. And he kept it up. He gave compliments all the time, to the point where even now, years later, whenever I think of him I smile. Sure, I remember him fondly (we haven’t worked together in almost two decades, more’s the pity), but it’s more than that: when I think about Aaron, I feel better about myself.

There’s tons of research about the power of  compliments (here, for example) and, naturally, about how to do it “right” (here), but you already know the truth: voicing your sincere appreciation of someone else does all sorts of wonderful things.

Now, I have *no* research on this next part, but I think most teachers don’t get a lot of compliments – or at least not the kind we can fully believe. I mean, I love when a student gives me a compliment, but most of the time a part of me is also a tiny bit wary because students have a clear interest (grades) in telling me that they like what we’re doing. (This is why students who stay in touch and say nice things later on are really meaningful to me, even though I’m pretty terrible at writing back in a timely manner.) But the truth of our job is that  we spend most of our days alone in a room with students. We spend our days trying to meet the needs of many humans, and we are often all too aware of the ways in which we don’t live up to our high standards. Parents are rightly concerned about their child’s development and happiness, so they don’t often give compliments either: when things are going well, they leave us alone; when things aren’t going well, we hear about it. As for administrators, well, that is highly dependent on the administrator, but my experience is that most high school principals are not big on compliments.

This week, our Literacy Coach, Xan Woods, came to our school. When she wasn’t assessing students or compiling data or supporting other people, she had time to watch me teach. This is one of her go-to supports: whenever she can, she observes, then provides feedback. Xan knows that these past few weeks have been extraordinarily difficult for me, and she knows how I’ve struggled with my own concerns about my competency in the Reading class I’m teaching. I was excited to have her sit in because I knew she would have good feedback and new strategies to help me improve.

But here’s what actually happened: at the end of the day, she complimented me. She noticed that the students in the class are starting to respond to the instruction. She told me about the various ways she saw them support one another. She pointed out that they were willing to write on the board (a huge step forward), and that every student read aloud – not just in choral and echo reading, but at least one sentence on their own (a miracle) – for the first time. She was genuinely excited for me and said, “You’re amazing! You’re really doing it!” then talked about strategies that were working. Later, she posted a short video clip of me, teaching, on Twitter and outlined things that were going well. I almost blushed. She does this for many of the teachers she observes, so that we can learn from each other as we teach in our separate classrooms. It’s incredible.

I can’t even begin to express how much this meant. She didn’t say I was perfect. She didn’t say that there were no improvements we could make. She simply noticed where I was doing a good job, and for a while, the difficulties that have been dogging me felt less heavy. When I taught the next day, I was a bit more relaxed, a bit more confident in my choices. Xan made a difference.

This writing challenge, too, lifts me up. Yesterday, a high school friend, Katie, told me she loves the time of year when I publish every day. I glowed. Maybe Stacey and Melanie and the others at Two Writing Teachers knew this would happen. Maybe they knew teachers needed this space. Every March so many teachers use their precious time to write something and publish it every day. We make ourselves vulnerable in ways I don’t think we always share: Who will read (and maybe judge) our public writing? What if, as a teacher, I publish something that is not very well-written?(Um, I do this every March. 31 days in a row is a lot of published writing; some of it is necessarily not great.) Whose story can I share? What may I reveal about myself? Others? The school? It’s a lot. Yet every day, people reply to our posts and say wonderful things. We write to each other, sharing connections, observations, thoughts and, always, compliments. For one month, we lift each other high and say what Xan said to me: “You’re amazing! You’re really doing it!”

Aaron knew it all those years ago: compliments change everything. So, to Aaron and Xan, to the people behind Two Writing Teachers, and to everyone who is writing and everyone who is commenting, thank you. Your words change the world for the better.