Honesty

I was very close to my maternal grandmother.  She never missed visiting me on my birthday and we spent numerous holidays together when she was older.  I visited her for Thanksgiving late in her life and as I came through the door she said, “Patrick, you are getting so fat!”  That was Grandma Murtha.  She was a truth-teller at all times.  It was part of what made her great.  She and I were always honest with each other, and no matter how many times she told me I was fat, I loved her.  I actually loved her a little more for knowing she would always be honest with me.

I have recently been putting more thought into the idea of honesty in my classroom.  On the surface it would seem as though we should strive to always be honest in our classrooms, but should we?  Where is the fine line between constructive criticism and outright dishonesty?  How do/should we delivery honesty when that honesty will be disappointing to the person receiving it?  Is there ever a time when honesty isn’t the best policy?  I have struggled with the the concept of honesty in the classroom a little bit recently. 

I should preface this with the observation that some people think I am too honest at times.  I have a filter, but it may not be as refined as some other teacher’s filters.  With that being said, I try to be honest with my students.  I certainly try to be honest with them when they are doing things that are positive.  That is actually pretty easy for me (although I have seen teachers who struggle to give honest praise to their students).  I enjoy seeing students gain confidence through honest positive feedback.  Where I find myself struggling is how to deliver honest constructive feedback when things aren’t good.  My instincts are to sugar coat my responses when something isn’t good.  Those instincts come from a healthy place.  I don’t want to hurt my student’s feelings.  I do believe that part of a teacher’s job is to build their students up.  That is certainly what we are taught to believe.   This, though, is at the heart of where my struggle with honesty begins.  When my assessment of a student or a group’s work is sugar coated, is it completely honest?  I have begun to wonder if we wouldn’t be better off at times giving more truly honest and raw feedback.  Please understand that I’m not advocating just scolding our students for the sake of belittling them, but I am suggesting that I often camouflage a criticism so much that it may not convey my critique very well.  I feel as though I need some new strategies to provide honest feedback that will help to improve student work while not deflate a student’s confidence.

I don’t think that I have become one of those teachers that believes “we’ve gotten too soft on the kids.”  I do believe that I have to better job of seeking out that fine line between being honest without being harsh.  Our students are going out into a world where they will face honest assessments of their work and their talent.  This is particularly true in the arts.  Students who go into their arts will face a lifetime of criticism from the public, professional and amateur art critics, as well as their peers.  It is probably only fair to them to provide them with honest feedback as we teach them.  Yet, we know that young people and especially young artists are often fragile.  I am always keenly aware that when I am critiquing a young musician that it becomes easy to take the wind out of their sails.  I have certainly seen young students who have talent be made to feel that they don’t have enough talent because a teacher, a parent, or a peer were critical of them somewhere in their development.  True artists are often unappreciated because they break conventions.  In order to be have their work recognized as groundbreaking they must be willing to endure criticism and defend their artistic choices.  I think that, as a teacher, I can help a young artist by using honest feedback as a way for them to make strong choices as an artist and be able to defend those choices.

I really do believe that there is a fine line and I struggle to find it some days.  I am spending quite a bit of time trying to add to my toolbox of strategies that will provide honest feedback that will help my students get better.  Having seen teachers who simply crush their students in the name of honesty, I know that it’s not as simple as just telling the truth and nothing but the truth.  Some of this comes back to the idea of making sure our students understand that it’s OK to “fail” sometimes.  We will have better luck conveying constructive criticism if our students understand that they don’t have to be perfect all of the time.  I also need to continue to help my students understand that expecting a disciplined approach to learning isn’t a punishment.  I have to continue to make a my classroom a place where the culture of learning is the dominant feature.  If the students understand that my classroom is a place where the goal is to always expand our learning they will also understand that honest feedback is a means to that end.   The balance of having my room be a place where we have fun, where we make great music and where we build relationships has to coexist in a room where the primary goal is to learn all the time.  It sounds easy, but I can assure you that creating that balance is complex.

Honesty is good without question.  How we transmit honest feedback is a little tougher question.  I really do believe that we need to convince students (and their parents) that it’s OK to struggle and that it’s OK to receive honest and constructive feedback without being defensive.  I hope to have my students embrace honest feedback as a challenge to keep learning and to seek out solutions.  I definitely believe that getting honest feedback about my teaching makes me a better teacher.  It’s all about wanting to be better every day.  I want my students to be better every day and I want them to not only learn, but to seek out learning opportunities.  If I can be better at providing honest and constructive feedback I bet it makes them better learners.

 

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve always thought that the arts offer a particularly rich terrain in which to wrestle with this issue, and my thinking is that most kids who are even partially serious about the arts end up better adjusted about facing the truth than those who don’t have an arts background. The hard reality about playing, say, in a symphony orchestra is that the better players are identified by seating order and auditions provide a stressful and relatively stark reminder that “some of us are better than others.” During a recital, if you play like crap people will know it, you will know it, it is simply self evident. There’s no hiding and there’s no being spared the unpleasant consequences. And arts students who continue their studies at the college level will get plenty of honesty, presented in terms probably less sensitive than those of a thoughtful high school teacher. I’m not arguing for harshness but I agree with you that honesty is key, vital, maybe the most vital thing that happens as we interact with kids and critique their work.

  2. I think you right. But when find ourselves “sugar-coating” isn’t that because in someways we haven’t found the best way to verbalize it. So when we get stuck, turn it upside down, look at it backwards. Ask a question first. I think teachers can lead students to what the honest part is by asking them questions that lead to self-realization.

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