“Wow, that’s fabulous!”
“Please meet my awesome assistant . . . ”
“These cereal flakes are marvelously outrageous!”
I confess to suffering from superlative fatigue. Everything or everyone is “super fantastic, thanks!” these days. I blame the advertising industry, and I suspected it started with or near that stupid hyperactive bunny that advertised cereals, or maybe it was the sugared-up leprechaun . . . .
And it has seeped into our pedagogy. Those of us who teach know the value of supporting our students and making sure they are confident in themselves. And so of course we tell them what they are doing well. “That was lovely! Great job! Atta girl!” And the movement of concern about kids’ self-esteem has been, and is, based on legitimate concern. These days, teen anxiety, depression, and suicide are far more common than they used to be. Parents are understandably concerned that their kids are overwhelmed with pressure – to be the best at everything – academics, sports, the arts. In fact, there is real, albeit somewhat erroneous, concern among parents that kids need to participate in a wide variety of activities in order to stand out in an increasingly competitive college application pool.
But the movement to slather students with compliments is misguided, and it gets the whole teaching and learning act backwards. Compliments do matter, and I tend to lead with them in my critiques, especially when working with a student who is new to me. But as I get to know students, I back off on the compliments. My longtime students know I have faith in them, and they do not require regular reassurance of this fact.
Additionally, when talking about this phenomenon with a friend and mentor who is longtime studio teacher, she pointed out that overly effusive compliments are difficult for young students to process mentally, and can lead to them having a higher opinion of themselves than they should. This can further lead to a lack of motivation to practice, and can also create issues getting along with ensemble members.
Students know very well who they are. And unless they have already been doused with compliments, they know very well at what level they are playing, and are probably aware of some of the playing issues they need to resolve. And here’s the rub – when a teacher over-compliments a student, the student can feel patronized. “Why is she telling me this is great? It’s not. I must be absolutely terrible and she is just being kind.”
I recommend emphasizing truth and facts in teaching. These need not, and should not, be delivered unkindly. If I am unsure how a new student will respond to criticism, I take care to lead with a compliment – a compliment based in fact. “You are doing a fine job of balancing the flute now. It’s much improved over last week. Now, let’s look at how you’re articulating the 8th notes in measure 3.” This reassures the student, if the student needs reassuring, that they are doing something well, and keeps them in the reality-check zone, the area in which they are aware they are improving, but also cognizant of the fact there are areas in their playing that need work, just like everyone else.
With a longtime student, I find I don’t need to bother with reassuring them, and I often ask them to self-diagnose. “Ok, what’s going on with the tone in the low register?” They usually answer correctly, and they may even know what to do about it. And the point is that they are aware that I would not BE correcting them in the first place if I thought they were a hopeless case. In this way, honest correction and critique increase, rather than diminish, a student’s self-esteem, and in a healthy way.
I often think of a handful of teachers I had who taught in what I would call “old school” style. Compliments were few and far-between, but when you received one, you knew you had earned it. The infrequency of compliments had the supply and demand effect. The value of the compliment was increased. This also had the effect of making students work harder for these teachers. Hold the bar high, and the students will not think less of themselves. They will think more of themselves. A parent recently relayed to me that she asked her daughter why she was practicing more, and her daughter replied, “Mrs. Romano knows I am capable of more.”
There will be periods of frustration. Every day is not awesome, every organization is not fantabulous, and not every breakfast cereal chocomarvelous. Students do not learn along a linear climb like a hill. They learn in stair steps. As the student becomes aware they can do more, it is common to experience periods of frustration just before making a learning leap. Quite often, right about the time a parent contacts me with concern their child is frustrated in their home practice, the student comes into a lesson sounding like a whole new kid. That’s the time to use a superlative.