Tough teachers are the best

book

Tough teachers teach more, writes Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.

The book is a paean to Jerry Kupchynsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who taught orchestra at a New Jersey high school for 40 years.  He “called his students ‘idiots’ when they screwed up.” They loved him.

Today’s teachers “are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads,” writes Lipman. “There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

Mr. K’s former students were successful in a variety of fields.

 “He taught us discipline,” explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. “Self-motivation,” added a tech executive who once played the cello. “Resilience,” said a professional cellist. “He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again.”

Lipman believes in eight principles of learning.

1. A little pain is good for you.
2. Drill, baby, drill.
3. Failure is an option.
4. Strict is better than nice.
5. Creativity can be learned.
6. Grit trumps talent.
7. Praise makes you weak . . .
8. While stress makes you strong.

Plenty of today’s teachers are strict, demanding character builders, responds Nancy Flanagan, a veteran music teacher. “Tough teachers get good results . . . when their students are emotionally prepared for intensive criticism,” she writes.

Lipman is a big fan of injecting failure into the classroom. Educators, she says, need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers, and cites a study where college musicians who placed low in auditions suffered no harm to their self-esteem.

Hey, I’ve no problem with voluntary competition–winning and losing on the volleyball court or the debate floor, vying for roles in the school play or college musical ensembles. I have witnessed first-hand, however, the corrosive effects of turning the classroom into a playing field, and every lesson and assignment into a contest. I abandoned the familiar practice of seating my band students in ability-based “chairs,” with these results: more kids in the program, more students accepting the challenge of individual solos and ensembles, higher levels of performance.

Students “who have coped with failure and adversity from the outset” are motivated by “a little honest success,” writes Flanagan. “Not more stress.”

64 years after failing biology, a Nobel Prize

At the age of 15, John Gurdon ranked last in his biology class at Eton. “It would be a sheer waste of time” and “quite ridiculous” for Gurdon to pursue a career in science, wrote his teacher in 1949. “If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist.”

Sixty-four years later, Sir John Gurdon won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on stem cells.

The school report sits above his desk at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which is named in his honour. It’s the only item the scientist has ever framed, reports The Telegraph.

The “blistering criticism” common 60 years ago may have been “more motivating – and helpful – than the consoling lies doled out to youngsters today,” writes Allison Pearson in Praising the school of hard knocks. The years after World War II were tough for Britain.

Telling children they were marvellous when they were bottom of the class and careless was not going to improve their chances.

By the Seventies, when I was at school, teachers were still allowed to write reports you could cut your hand on. “Allison has no interest and no ability in this subject,” observed my needlework teacher, a ferocious female with a face like a Ford Anglia. . . .

In today’s climate, Miss Harper would probably be suspended for damaging my self-esteem, even though she was absolutely right.

. . . We can already start to see where the Age of Praise has got us. Encouragement that fails to discriminate between the excellent and mediocre has been devalued. Our children have grown cocky and thin-skinned, poorly equipped to enter the global race . . .

By contrast, Max Davidson thinks teachers should encourage students, recalling that young Albert Einstein’s teacher predicted in 1895,  “He will never amount to anything.”

His daughter’s chemistry called her “a legend” when she was 15. “Her confidence rocketed – until she compared notes with her friends and found there had been five legends in one class.” Still, he prefers too much praise to dream-stomping criticism.

The Onion also takes on harsh teachers in Seeds of World War II Planted in Beijing Middle School Gym Class.

Serving the praise sandwich

Sandwich criticism between two slices of praise, suggests Mr. Foteah. For example:

“Johnny, you obviously took a lot of time to write your letters really neatly, just like we have talked about doing. Now, I also noticed when I was reading what you wrote that maybe you could add some more details. I know that just like you’ve started writing neater, you’ll do a good job learning to add details to your writing.”

The praise has to be honest and specific.

I’m helping first graders with reading again this year.  One child is having lots of problems, but she has learned more sight words. I pointed out her progress, very specifically, and she glowed. An aide, who was sitting nearby, smiled her approval. The other child, who’s slightly behind the class average, would have been an advanced reader by the standards of yesteryear.

Too nice?

Teachers share a common goal — student success — but have trouble working together to achieve it, writes Cole Farnum, a beginning teacher in New York City who’s guest-blogging for Rick Hess. Collaboration is stymied by fear, Farnum observes. Teachers don’t want to upset the status quo, even if they dislike it. They don’t want to be perceived as criticizing a colleague’s teaching ability or effort.

Are teachers too sensitive to criticism — or convinced their colleagues are too sensitive? “How might we allow ourselves more when working together as professionals?” Farnum asks.