When someone tells me not to take something personal that is written or said about me, I know that I should do the opposite. Friends and colleagues try to save our feelings by insisting that we not consider negative words regarding our efforts, demeanor, or intelligence as a direct attack against us. But, I have learned the benefits of taking constructive criticism to heart.
I do not miss students’ evaluations, in which students who have known you, for the most part, only 15 weeks are asked to judge your competence as a teacher. What bothered me about the evaluations was my perception that many students, especially freshmen, did not have the training to determine if my materials were relevant or if I knew my materials.
Moreover, every class you teach is different, for in some the chemistry between professor and students is great and everyone cannot wait for class to start. In other classes, that sense of camaraderie is lacking and everyone cannot wait for the semester to end.
I never worried about students rating whether or not I loved teaching. Thankfully, I was not taciturn about telling students how much I loved teaching, especially in those classes where the concept of reading class materials was not treated as a quaint idea from the past. A great class discussion wherein I was not the solo person speaking for an hour and twenty-five minutes would find me literally glowing and dancing down the hallways, with students smiling at my antics.
What was more distressing were comments made regarding my ability to teach well or in regards to whether the material was relevant to the student’s lives. I taught sociology, not biology, meaning that I had to demonstrate the relevance of issues of gender or race to students as part of the course, and sometimes they were just not connect to the readings
I was not looking for opulent and effusive praise. Yet, the majority of my evaluations were good, and I received a jolt to my self-esteem when reading the accolades and gratitude of students. It was the negative evaluations that caused my soul so much pain, especially the ones where students did not specify what was lacking in my teaching.
Comments like “she sucks” or “she is stupid” or “she shouldn’t be teaching” or “she needs to improve” were as painful as they were unhelpful. These were personal attacks, but I seldom recognized them as such. Instead, I allowed them to define my value and worth as a human being and as a professor, even as colleagues advised me that these were students upset over a bad grade or a failing grade. well-meaning friends would tell me to concentrate on only the positive evaluations.
But, after a year or two of teaching, I learned to distinguish between personal attacks and criticism meant to help me improve as a teacher. Comments such as exams are too long or there’s too much reading required or the directions for the final paper were not clear did not jeopardize how I saw myself and my abilities.
Even more beneficial were comments in which students related in detail what needed to change. I felt bad for not giving these students what they needed, but I used their comments and remarks to become a better teacher and stayed focused on the positive aspects of their evaluations.
I saw the remarks as constructive criticism, for I came to realize that by the time students are sophomores or juniors, they have had both good and bad professors. This means that they have some ideas regarding what their criteria are for rating each of their professors.
I have learned that criticism can be viewed as harmful or helpful, according to how it is perceived by the one being critiqued. This is because every critique is personal in some way, meant to either lift people’s sense of value or lower their self-esteem.
1 Thessalonians 5: 11 states, “So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.” And, Ephesians 4:29 reminds us, “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”
So, I pick my words carefully when I congratulate someone and when I have suggestions for improvement. I am always mindful of the power of our words, spoken or written, to either give life to someone’s sense of value and worth or bring death to someone’s fragile sense of self. Believe me, it’s personal, and because it always is, we have to watch what we say at all times.
Written for Three Things Challenge by the Haunted Wordsmith: chemistry, biology, glow.