Recently I was chatting with a friend who was fresh from her 50th high school reunion. She went on enthusiastically about her encounters with 12 classmates who had ventured back to their small private school. Then she cocked her head toward me. "Look," she said with a smile, "at my earrings."
They were beautiful. But what amused my friend was that they had been made by a classmate who was a jeweler - the same one who had been told by her art teacher 50-plus years ago that she had little talent.
My friend had heard something similar in high school. Though she was an accomplished musician at a young age, her teacher announced that she had merely a "pleasant" talent for the piano - and her family's view of her skills was adjusted accordingly. Yet she too went on to a have a successful career, performing and working with first-class musicians.
The words of a teacher are a powerful thing. Teachers might question that sometimes, complaining that their views are frequently overridden or that parents often side with children when a problem arises between student and teacher. They might point out that pressure to give good grades or syrupy recommendations to poor performers keeps many a teacher from ever putting too negative a word on paper.
Empty words, of course, don't help anyone. The self-esteem movement, after all, degenerated into frequent praise for students regardless of achievement, and has been tossed aside in favor of a focus on pride that stems from meeting concrete goals.
But even as teachers struggle against what many see as a critical tide, there's still no shortage of evidence that their words can carry great weight - and can influence a child's direction. Few of us have trouble remembering a teacher whose words made a difference. Just ask some of the children at a public school that opened last year in Boston, who said they liked the school because the teachers offered a brighter picture of the future than did those in their former schools. Or talk with those women at the reunion who, even now, think it would be kind of nice if they could tell their teachers that they did well, after all.
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