Compliments

When I was a first-year undergrad at Catholic University, I took a course in sociology and I remember thinking that all of this was just common sense applied on a bigger scale, and that what the sociologists did was to take that common sense, the logic of how people behave, and put it into neat categories and give it names, with colored labels from a Dyanmo printer and shoebox-like lids to keep things from spilling out. I very much liked such a neat process applied to such messy goings-on, and one day, as the professor sat sideways in his chair, behind his big teacher desk, drinking what I assumed was gin from his coffee cup (an assumption based on his sagging, slurry face and the sagging, slurry words that came from his loose and bruised lips) he stopped, and stared down the long asle right at me and said, “I think you really understand this stuff, don’t you?”

And of course I did, and that seemed obvious to me too, and so I simply nodded and felt myself shrinking in my seat as the entire class turned around to regard me, and see who this teacher’s pet was, or maybe for some of them, just idle interest to see what someone who understood this “stuff” might look like.

I think of this now because as a teacher we so often want (and are encouraged – sometimes enforced) to praise the students we teach, and I think we must be careful. Some compliments are better done in private, or in context as part of a conversation.

The most powerful ones, I think, are when a student picks up on our positive assumptions of them, and knows these assumptions come out of your knowledge of them.

But compliment or insult, being singled out can distress at this age. Best to heed the Quakers call: Preach every day. When absolutely necessary, use words.

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