25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #22 Don’t tell it how it is

Some time in the 80s, I think, it became improper to tell students they were wrong. The implication was that it could do irreparable harm to someone’s fragile ego to be told that what they thought was wonderful, original or incisive was, in fact, none of those things.

I’ve always thought that it’s the expert’s duty to inform the non-expert when they have not got it right. If you’re not prepared to do that, what good are you actually doing? If one of the purposes of education is to help young people become independent thinkers and economically safe, surely teachers have a moral obligation to point out when students are doing something that would not be acceptable in what is often (and regrettably) called “the real world”, and to help them become critical thinkers? And surely being willing to be self-critical, in a constructive way, is an essential part of that process?

True, there are ways of “telling it how it is”, and ideally you would say what you have to say by criticising the issue rather than the person, and providing a few suggestions for next time. But even there, sometimes the best way to be positive is to be blunt, and this may apply to colleagues as well as students. Some examples:

  • One person in a team I led would never label spreadsheets. Consequently, if he was away from the office and you needed to look up his figures, it was inordinately time-consuming to try to work out what was going on – and even then you couldn’t be 100% certain that you’d come to the correct conclusion. If the purpose of a spreadsheet is to convey information, as opposed to being nothing but a glorified calculator, then his spreadsheets were not that good.  What would have been the point of not telling him?
  • A trainee teacher teaches an ICT lesson, at the end of which nobody in the room has any more knowledge or skills than than they came in with. You might want to tell him that his relationships with the students were good (if that’s the case), but he is still failing them if he doesn’t teach them anything.
  • If a student as part of a project produces an application which doesn’t work, then it doesn’t matter how good his approach and processes were: the thing still doesn’t work!

The funny thing is, if you give critical feedback in the right way, students (and colleagues) don’t hate you for it. When they stop to think about it, they realise that the criticism is helping them to improve in some way. Most people, if they’re really honest with themselves, would rather have a critical friend than a fawning one. Praise students (and colleagues, if appropriate) by all means, but also be prepared to tell them what might be able to be improved.

They may even come to love you for it: look what happened to Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, with love”!

In case you don’t know the story, Sidney Poitier played a teacher in a tough inner city school in Britain, and gradually won the kids’ trust and affection by being both uncompromising and consistent. OK, it’s schmaltzy and not entirely believable, but it does contain a grain of truth and anyway, it’s a great song!


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