As the end of the school year approaches, and as we begin completing the “big projects” that characterize the final quarter of the school year, I find that my students are more attuned than ever to the praise I offer. We have been together for long enough that they know the words I choose when I offer praise – they know what I mean, what I choose to include , and what I leave out. And, as our time together draws to an end, I know that my words carry more weight than ever before. My kids will be more likely to remember what I say now, in these last weeks, than what I said in those early days of September, when they were much more focused on surviving and learning the ropes in this great big middle school. And my kids will remember my words of praise, especially, as they leave my room armed with all we’ve worked so hard to achieve together. Do I believe in them? Should they believe in themselves? Does my praise reflect their hard work and commitment?
I was thinking about this and remembering an experience my daughter had when she finished up her last year in a private music studio. Livy loved singing, it was her one true passion, and she loved her voice teacher. These last recitals of the senior year were big deals: each senior was showcased with several solos, and each received a special speech dedicated to praise and recognition. These were famous speeches, and we had sat through these for many years – now it was Livy’s turn. We were also used to the fact that these speeches were often over the top and effusive – a fact the kids found endearing.
If I recall correctly, Livy’s last solo and “speech spot” was towards the end of the recital. She sang beautifully and took her seat, anxiously anticipating words of praise – her senior send off. Every senior ahead had been lauded with words such as “highly intelligent”, “musically gifted”, “extraordinarily talented” – but the words used in Livy’s speech were muted, subdued, anything but effusive. There was no talk of her musicality, no recognition of her hard work, no praise for her talent. I could see Livy’s expression change from excited anticipation, to puzzlement, and then to resignation. She never spoke of that night, and when it was brought up in conversation, she would leave the room or change the topic. She never spoke about her voice teacher after that, either.
But I don’t think she ever forgot that evening, or the disappointment and sense of diminishment she felt in both the words spoken as well as those that were left out.
So, I choose my words and their delivery all the more carefully now. I know my kids are listening for nuances, and that those nuances will make a difference. I need to be measured in my praise, ground my words in evidence, and be consistent. I want my kids to leave Room 202 feeling empowered to be their best selves next year – I want them to feel valued and validated equally. I want them to remember … and I want them to smile when they do.