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Taking Student Praise

If there's one thing I find difficult to do as a teacher, it is taking student praise.  This is example of a humblebrag, a newer word in the English lexicon. The truth is that I was raised in a household where praise was restrained and mainly reserved for achievements that clearly exceeded expectations. Actually, I find it more difficult to give praise than to receive praise because of this upbringing. It took me a few years to praise students who adequately met my expectations.

Student Praise

Last term, I had a very rewarding experience teaching English to a relatively small but dedicated group of students. This combination of class size and student motivation helped me meet the linguistic, academic, and cultural needs of each student more effectively than in most other classes. Most of the students preferred this extra attention to their needs and skills, but there was one that didn't want me to get to know his learning and studying strategies too well. 

I had two very high performing students in this class. One had excellent note-taking strategies that went above and beyond almost all the students I have ever taught in my 15+ years of teaching. The other had a greater understanding of pedagogy and language learning than most students. In addition, she had a personal and professional interest in education technology. For me, it is rare to find a student so plugged into teaching, learning, and technology in a way that matches my professional learning interests.

When this wonderful class ended, it seemed that we were in denial.  Nobody wanted to say "goodbye," and I hoped that I would see many of them in future classes.  A few days after our last day of class, I received the following email message:
I was very touched by this message, and I felt a mix of emotions, including appreciation, sadness, and validation. I appreciated that student and the whole class in general. I also felt sad because I remember having similar students in previous institutions in the US and overseas, and I wanted to hold on to the moment cherishing them all.  The least humble emotion was validation because I serve as curriculum coordinator and her praise validates my teaching background and philosophy. However, this feeling of validation was followed by disgust because that's not the emotion I wanted to feel. I wanted to appreciate my genuine connection with the students more than feeling proud of myself.

That's why this is a humblebrag.  If pride was not my goal, then why am I sharing this student's praise on my blog. The purpose is to demonstrate the mix of emotions that I feel.  How many or what proportion of teachers get a guilty conscience when receiving high praise like this?

Praise as Evidence

I had a professor that told me to always keep and collect student praise like this as evidence of my teaching effectiveness.  But I don't recall sharing them with my supervisors or to search committees for teaching jobs. They do get to see or request my statistics from student evaluations, but many people including myself see little value in these evaluations, especially from students who may not understand them well enough linguistically and culturally. Even as a supervisor, I tend to rely a bit more on qualitative assessment of teaching effectiveness more than quantitative. My background in culturally responsive teaching has taught me that the connection with and expectations for students is much more valuable than the content itself. If a teacher cannot engage students, then quality learning cannot take place for the most part.

In contrast to the last paragraph, I am also a skeptical person and tend to value statistical evidence over anecdotal evidence. Because of this, my gut reaction is to pay little attention to student praise until it becomes a reliable pattern. I have to remind myself that teaching and learning is more about human nature, which is messy, than it is about the exchange of information, which is easier to control and measure. Teachers must be good at both, but I've learned that the art of teaching (human nature) is usually what keeps students engaged and coming for more, which provides a nice positive feedback loop for the teacher and the institution.


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