I was sitting in a meeting recently surrounded by several people I didn’t know. One woman had to leave early. But before she left she leaned close to me and whispered, “I’m glad you came. It is so nice to put a name with a face. I want you to know that my students talk about you all the time when they are in my class. Of all of the (people who do my job), you are their favorite.
I don’t even know the woman’s name, but what a difference she made in my day. More than a day. From time to time throughout my days, I’ve been thinking about those whispered words ever since. The truth is I work hard to go beyond expectations for my students. But without those whispered words from a stranger, I wouldn’t know that my efforts were having such a positive impact. I’m grateful to her. It would have been so much easier for her to make a subtle exit from that meeting without taking the time to pass along a private compliment.
When I taught in the elementary grades I didn’t have to practice the art of whispered words so much. In the primary grades we’d compliment students more publicly. Young children crave a teacher’s admiration. Primary teachers say things like, “Oh I like the way Betsy looked back in her reading text to find that information.” “Look at Scott’s illustration he added to his writing. Isn’t his art work wonderful?” Elementary students love being praised publicly. They smile and feel validated and everyone else in the class works harder and hopes a future compliment will flow their way. A great teacher finds a way to compliment everyone. That isn’t fake. Every student has strengths. The talent is in the noticing and then giving voice to those observations.
It’s when I moved into the high school setting that I had to rethink that strategy. Older students yearn for more private praise. Public praise sometimes embarrasses them. It seems manipulative or can even make their peers jealous. You can best encourage older students when you sit down next to them and point out something that they have done that you admire. It’s the whispered words when you are having a one-on-one conversation that stay with them. It’s the quiet words when they seek you out before or after class that can become a lifetime memory. They pull those words out and hit replay in their mind for years. Most of the time you’ll never know what power your words have had. But occasionally you’ll get a letter or a compliment years later, and you will know for sure.
Here’s what I’d like to whisper back to the lady whose name I don’t even know. Thank you. You’ve made my day. You have no idea how much those words mean to me.
TEACH…To Change Lives
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