I want to tell you a story about two teachers. Both were my professors my first semester in graduate school.
Both teachers were brilliant researchers and writers, both were highly engaging teachers, and both were likable human beings.
And, I was failing both of their classes.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying. I worked really hard, attended class, did all the readings, and came in for office hours when I didn’t understand something. But, my first paper in both classes came back with a big fat C minus, the equivalent of a failing grade in my graduate program.
Now, I had always been a good student. I had only gotten one C in my life and that was in college tennis (I am no Serena Williams). I was devastated. I thought I would lose my fellowship and flunk out of the program.
Immediately I made appointments with both professors.
On the day of my appointment with Professor One, I showed up to his office a few minutes early. He waved me in and gestured to a seat across from his desk. “I’m here to talk about my paper,” I began nervously.
He templed his hands beneath his chin and nodded. “Ah yes. I was hoping you’d come in.”
“I’l like to know what I can work on to improve my performance on the next paper.”
He sat and looked at me for a moment. Then he asked, “Where did you go for undergrad?”
I named the HBCU I had attended.
“I see,” he nodded thoughtfully as if I had revealed something very important. “You’ll probably struggle with writing for the rest of your life.”
I sat there stunned. I had always been considered a strong writer. Maybe my professors at my undergraduate institution had lied to me. Maybe I wasn’t that good after all. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for grad school.
The professor sat there quietly, waiting. I sat motionless in my seat fighting back tears of despair.
Finally I got control of my voice and quietly asked, “Is there anything you suggest I do to improve so that I will do better on the next paper?”
He launched into a lecture on the importance of good writing, of good scholarship, and of good research. I listened, trying to eke out something that I could use, something that would give me hope and direction. But, after 10 minutes of his talking, I felt even more small and hopeless than before. When he finished, I thanked him for his time and scurried out of his office.
Thus, I didn’t have much hope for my meeting with my other professor the next day. Again, I arrived a few minutes early to her office. She was with another student, so I sat nervously in the hall waiting . The other student exited her office after a few minutes and she came into the hall and invited me in.
“I hope you’re here to talk about that paper,” she began sternly.
“Yes,” I nodded. “I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to improve for the next paper.”
“Good,” she nodded. “Because that was not graduate level writing.”
My heart sunk.
She noticed my low spirit and softened her tone. “Robyn, if you are going to make it here, you are going to have to be able to accept constructive critique. Now let’s go through this paper and I am going to show you why it doesn’t work. Then you’ll know better for next time.”
For the next 15 minutes, she went through my paper point by point and showed me where I had gone wrong. She offered suggestions for what I could do better and even complimented me where I had done something well.
“Do you understand now?” she asked once we were finished.
I nodded, relieved. I DID understand.
“Good,” she took off her glasses. “I have watched you in class. I know that you are capable of more. So here’s what I am going to do. If your next paper shows improvement, if you do everything we discussed here today, I will drop the grade for this paper.”
My heart soared. She believed in me! She thought I was capable! She offered me another chance!
Your belief in your students fuels their belief in themselves – and their ability to meet high expectations. Discover the 10 ways teachers inadvertently communicate low expectations to their students when you sign up for the 10 Hidden Signs of Low Expectations.
I worked harder on that next paper than I have ever worked on any paper in my life. When I turned it in, I felt good, proud of the work I had done. And when I got it back, I had earned a B+ ! Not only that, she wrote an encouraging note at the end of the paper lauding me for the progress I was making. I used what she taught me to improve on my papers for the other class as well. At the end, I got A’s in both classes. Not only that but instead of “struggling with writing for the rest of my life” I have gone on to write 10 books including several best sellers and award winners (Take that Professor X!)
I was struggling in two classes. I went to two teachers for help. One teacher judged me and left me discouraged. The other teacher believed in me and motivated me to try harder.
Which teacher are you? Are you the kind of teacher who offers hope and encouragement to your students? Are you the kind of leader who believes in your teachers even when they are struggling?
Or are you the kind of teacher or leader who judges those you serve and in doing so stifles their dreams, kills their hopes, and makes them feel they don’t belong?
How you respond to those you serve, how you convey your belief (or disbelief) in them matters. Always be careful to build their dreams instead of crushing them. Discover the right way to deliver feedback when you
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