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Teachers using faith instead of fear is key to students’ success

February 21, 2013

My first goal as a writing teacher is to get my students to care about their writing like never before, so I was jazzed yesterday when a student said to me “man, my 12th grade English teacher would kill me if she saw me now… I’ve written more pages in your class this week than I did my entire 12th grade year.” I smiled and gave him a fist bump. Most of my students really get into their writing during their time in my class. Believe me, there’s nothing special about me as a teacher, so what’s my secret? I think it’s my faith. Seriously. Faith. I believe each student has something to say, and I believe I can pull it out of them without resorting to fear tactics. As a matter of fact, I think fear-based teaching is counter-productive, at least when you’re advancing the creative process. It’s so strange how writing teachers with whom I agree about so much still resort to holding grades over their student’s heads like a club. That fear can produce adequate writing, but seldom will it produce interesting or powerful writing.

I’m not so idealistic as to believe fear serves no purpose in performance. I use fear to get them in the classroom: attendance is required to pass my class. But when it comes to writing, I’m a true believer, fully committed to the deconstruction of writing as punishment, as obligation, as rule-keeping, as conformity, as a rubric and a red pen. I don’t want to debase writing in that way, nor do I want to participate in the mutually destructive cold war that exists between students and teachers. I’m building bonds of trust with those leery 18 year olds who step into my classroom. I believe each of them has a voice that needs to be heard, and I don’t care if that sounds Pollyanna. I tell them so. I believe getting their writing legs underneath them, gaining confidence in their own rhetorical potential, can be a life-changing experience. So I celebrate every utterance, applaud every stumbling effort to tell interesting stories, form bold opinions, and compose strong sentences.

In my classroom, the person comes first, brought to life by the stories that define her or him. Where are you from? Where are your people from? What’s the story behind that scar, that limp, that name, that attitude? What bugs you? Excites you? What if you could do it over again? We write. We swap stories. Before long, they stop asking about grades and start talking about the craziest stuff. I’ve flipped the switch: their true storied selves start coming to their writing. The fear-driven student has been forgotten, at least for this hour of this semester.

Faith in others is a simple thing—so simple that it can be overlooked in education. But stories abound of strugglers overcoming difficulty because someone believed in them. According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, “A growing (but still small) body of research is finding that students with high levels of hope get better grades and graduate at higher rates than those with lower levels, and that the presence of hope in a student is a better predictor of grades and class ranking than standardized test score.” Nothing instills hope like somebody believing in you, so belief in our students is an essential ingredient to their success.

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2 Comments
  1. I tried something similar to this in my public speaking course last term. I had a high degree of international/immigrant students and I allowed more mastery learning/redos than ever. Sadly, I had some of the worst student evaluations that I’ve ever had. Many were appreciative, but several were not and still wanted a grade handed to them. I have a lot of the same beliefs that you do, even though I do not teach the same thing and my area has never been held by standardized tests. This doesn’t mean that I will abandon what I tried last term at all. Fundamentally, I want my students to find their voices in the same way that you speak of, both in writing and in their presentations. I always enjoy your posts!

    Did you see this piece in the Washington Post? http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/02/09/a-warning-to-college-profs-from-a-high-school-teacher/ Ellen

    • Thanks Ellen! Obviously we always have the tension between assessment and teaching. Yes I did read the Washington Post piece, and loved it. Thanks for commenting!

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