The dignity of students: self-esteem the key to individual strength

Overheard: a young teacher in the faculty meeting of a college-preparatory school.

". . . has the lowest opinion of himself of any student I have ever known."

Self-hatred. Self-contempt. What chance does a student have who doesn't know how to love himself in the right way?

Surely he can't love a neighbor either. Or care enough to learn anything worthwhile.

What will his family's affluence do but compound his unhappiness?

Then a talk with a young teacher with several years teaching experience in inner-city public schools.

Yes, this predicament - "lack of self-esteem" was his way of phrasing it - is there, too. He emphasized it was particularly so among girls of junior-high age.

This teacher used to work at complimenting those girls, citing personal appearance, some academic performance, whatever he could identify.

Rich or poor - affluent families or those struggling to pay for the basics - learning to value oneself accurately and positively seems a universal challenge to all young people.

Compounding the problem is the very pity that reeks of contempt in lumping persons of disadvantaged backgrounds into some categorical mass. They're encouraged to think they don't have a chance.

Admittedly, it can seem almost impossible sometimes to treat some kids with genuine respect. A teacher can't and shouldn't flatter.

Yet don't those students that lack self-esteem themselves need expressions of belief in their worth and potential more than anyone else in school?

How can this kind of reinforcement come to a young person in a big school? Certainly not from counselors with a 400-to-1 caseload.

And how difficult it is for a teacher with 35 to 40 in a class and several classes a day to give the needed individual attention.

Not knowing a student as an individual stops the process cold.

But this is the most crying need in our modern schools. Yet sometimes it seems that the very rules and procedures of mass education have the impact of conspiracy against self-esteem, reinforcing the self-hatred instead of combatting it.

A survey some years ago found a common denominator among the National Merit Scholarship winners: Someone, not necessarily a school teacher, had made each of them feel he or she was somebody special.

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