Criticism, classroom sunglasses, and concealed cigarettes

I thought about criticism today and how in time I have become more open to it, and how it has improved my relationships dramatically. I don’t just mean romantic relationships, but also familial, familiar, and professional. All of them really. And I can’t help but wonder – why? Why does being able to take criticism, in the end, bond you with people in ways that make you more likable, more agreeable? How does the very act of hearing flaws about your behavior (or at least, conceptions of a flaw from someone’s point of view) make you seem like a real person? How can it forge a friendship and provide for humor in the future? Why is it something I need to strive for?

We have these sayings about ignoring what other people think, but sometimes I just don’t think you should. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” “People just notice things about others that they hate in themselves.” But the very act of showing you are not perfect is much more powerful than pretending that you are. And yeah, sometimes to deflect someone else’s opinions is healthy if the origin of the criticism is pure slander or is unwarranted. Probably most importantly, it’s best to reject it if it comes from someone you simply do not trust. So, before you criticize, I think there is one primarily condition: ask yourself if you actually have reciprocal trust with that person. Do you know them well enough to comment about their behavior and them about yours? If you can’t say yes to both questions, in a matter of instants, I can guarantee you that words on both behalves will transform into notes of discordance and ears into stone. Or, in the circumstance of a burgeoning relationship, unwelcomed criticism will topple sandy foundation like a strong forceful wave.

Well, we also try to teach something about criticism by giving it labels like “constructive criticism” because we realize how sensitive relationships are. And not just that, but more widely accepted – “feedback.” Still, trust must be there. It’s funny how that works though, because you can instantly build trust by letting someone criticize you and show that you value his or her opinion by proving their words have healthfully influenced your actions

Let me give you an example. I had to write a progress report for a student because he has done poorly on two quizzes and, truthfully, I thought he had been slacking off a bit in class. I never interpret slacking off as the makeup of a bad student… I simply view it as, “Dang, I know you have wonderful potential, why aren’t you striving for it?” He came to me after class yesterday very concerned about this note because he has never received one before and I know I hit a soft spot because I heard him use more English with me in that occasion than all other class moments combined. So, naturally, I was worried and his reaction was not the effect I wanted to have with him. In so many words he had some fair criticism for me too, including that in the vocabulary class there were not that many opportunities to talk (except give answers), so how could he fully participate? And, why didn’t I tell him before this note that I was worried? And, please give me suggestions so that I can do better – what are your suggestions? I told him he was right too – there needs to be more time to talk in class (but, sheesh! there are these requirements to learn so many words for this particular class!); I should have said something to him after class (but sometimes you are running around like a mad person trying to do everything!); and, okay, here are some suggestions for you (but didn’t you read what I wrote, there’s suggestions there?!) My parenthetic remarks are the knee-jerk responses I had in my mind that we must fight from using because they often just come off as excuses. Rather, I accepted what he said and told him I will be mindful of what you told me so that I can be a better teacher too. It was fantastic and I think he trusted me because he knows – as I know, as we all know- that we all have internal struggles that try to maintain our self-image, even if that means coming up with excuses in the light of truth. Someone else’s opinion is always a truth for them. That is non-negotiable.

At the end, I also asked him something pressing me very much as a teacher trying to do her best and looking at her students as reflection of her best, “Why do you wear sunglasses in class? Because, I will be honest… it doesn’t give a teacher the best impression…. I have good impressions about you, but… I can’t help but wonder if I am boring you!” He laughed and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I didn’t know you thought that…. I do it because I look so tired… or, I like the look.” You see, that’s one of those personal questions I couldn’t ask him until the end of our conversation because I thought it was safe to do so. Finally! Prior to that, I didn’t want to be that teacher in class who says, “take off your sunglasses” or passively says, “You know, everyone, in the classroom we do not wear sunglasses.” People think calling others out and embarrassing them or labeling them is the way we manage others or change behavior, well, I think it’s the way we destroy relationships.

Zoom forward to today. When class began, he sat down, looked at me, and before I began to speak, he took off his sunglasses with a big smile and I laughed in response. In my lesson planning last night I thought of him, and I broke away from the book while still meeting its expectations (even if it meant more work) so that they could talk more. And that balancing act will get easier for me, I know. I want it to become second nature because I want to become a better teacher. Quite honestly, his criticism helped me to see that more plainly and he truly made class better today.

Later today, on my way home, I was stuck in a nearby parking lot trying to make a right turn waiting for someone to let me in and what do you know, he was the driver that let me in! We smiled, waved, and he had a cigarette in his mouth that he quickly pulled out and put down. I made a silly gesture showing that I saw the cigarette but, what’s it matter? Do I want students to hide their cigarettes from me? Naw, not at all, but his gesture showed me that he cared about my opinion (or at least I think it did?) I have got to ask him tomorrow (if it’s safe to do so), why he did that.  I have my ideas, but I hope that in my asking he senses I just want him to be him. And that’s pretty much the most important thing on my to-do list for tomorrow.


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