Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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1/7/18: how (not) to give praise

I was talking recently to a retired biology teacher, who told of one of his abiding memories from his teaching days.  He had in his class a girl who was not the brightest but worked hard and with enjoyment.  Both teacher and pupil were delighted when, in an end of year test, she achieved the highest mark in the class, a huge achievement arising from great determination and resilience.

Alas, his story did not finish there.  The girl went home and told her parents of the test score.  To which her mother replied, “Yes, that’s because you know so much about sex.”

Now, I can see that the mother was trying to be funny – and will go so far as to say that, on one level, she succeeded.  But when the girl told her teacher about this the following day, her disappointment in what her mother said, the belittling of her achievement – and indeed her favourite subject – was evident.  And the girl never quite regained her confidence or enjoyment thereafter, despite the best efforts of her teacher to encourage and motivate her.

I have to say this incident has strong resonances for me.  Whoever came up with the maxim, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” must be a very different person to me, and, as far as I can tell, everybody else I know.  Surely it is the case that words do matter, with huge potential to encourage, empower and delight, and equally huge potential to humiliate, hurt and deflate.  This line of line of thought is echoed in James 3:5-6:

“…the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.
It corrupts the whole body,
sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.”

So, where does this leave us?  To misquote Ecclesiastes, there’s a time for jokes, for probing as to how somebody can do better, for responding to what somebody says by talking about oneself.  But there’s also a time for generous, unqualified, praise, concentrating fully on the person in question and their achievement.  I’m very aware of my own failings in this area as I deal with people, as a teacher and also in personal life.  I pray for God’s wisdom to know what to say and when to the benefit of other people and His glory.  If this has resonance for you also, let me know and I’ll pray for you also.

So, that’s it for this week, since I heard this story I have had it buzzing round my mind and wanted to share it.  I’ll be back again soon, meanwhile, may you both be encouraged and be an encouragement to others.

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