Physical Training May 2014
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From the Teacher's Corner 34:
Everyone's a Critic

copyright © 2014 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

“Why haven’t you done this?”

“This is completely useless…”

“You’re doing it all wrong.”

“What are you doing??”

“No, no, no…”

This article deals with how to correct someone. As teachers we are correcting students all the time. And the quotes above are things I hear teachers saying all the time. I have heard teachers say these things in regular classroom settings in a public school. I have heard experienced teachers say these things to junior teachers when mentoring them too. And I have heard teachers say these things to students in martial arts dojos and at seminars.

How do you feel about them?

In my opinion, they are a little soul-destroying. The teacher probably means well. Or else, it is possible that some teachers do not even realize what they are doing when they say these things. Maybe they mean them as rhetorical questions, not really expecting an answer but posing them nevertheless as a way of causing the student to think about what it is that they have actually been doing.

Good intentions, I am sure. But perhaps delivered badly. I mean, I would think that most teachers mean well, that they are actually interested in having the student improve in some way. And perhaps this is just their way of motivating the student to get better.

But if we look at it from the student’s perspective, it is no cause for feeling good. No matter how good the intentions, the student is left feeling bad. As the saying goes, the road to hell was paved with good intentions.

“Why haven’t you done this?”
In other words, what have you been doing all this time? Slacking off?

“This is completely useless…”
This is no good.

“You’re doing it all wrong.”
You can’t do anything right.

You get the idea. It is not a positive message. And the student is left feeling that they have failed or that they are in some way deficient.

So, how to correct someone without having them feel that they are no good? I know. In academic circles, they call it constructive criticism. Criticism that is geared towards helping the student to improve, giving criticism in a constructive way.

But criticism, constructive or not, is still criticism. And students perceive it that way, deep down inside. I know as teachers we are not satisfied with the student’s performance, so that’s why we give constructive criticism. We want them to improve and we want to let them know that what they are doing is not up to standards.

And I have heard these sayings frequently in the case of junior instructors when they are correcting students. I understand that they are new to the role of teaching and are still feeling their way and learning the techniques of how to teach and how to correct students. So I wrote this article for them and to offer this advice on how to correct students that does not leave the student with even less self-esteem than they started with.

It is easy to be critical. What is not so easy is to be encouraging, especially when all you see is mistakes. You know what they are doing is wrong. It is wrong, there’s no way around that fact. But do we need to harp on it? Do we need to tell them straight to their face that they are wrong? Does it make you feel better to do this, to tell them “You are WRONG!”

“No… no… NO!!”
(this phrase is actually still being used currently by one Japanese headmaster and he is not saying it calmly, he is screaming in someone’s face)

The message is very clear… and also very ego-destroying. What is to be gained from this approach?

Yes, some teachers believe that some students need to be taken down a notch, especially if they are getting too big for their britches. To put them back in their place. But this is a political reason, not a teaching one. We have to be clear about what our purpose is.

And I must concede that in the case of some students who actually are slacking off, they need a reprimand to get them going. But this is a reprimand for behaviour, not a correction of technique.

Some students however need propping up, not tearing down. And what is our purpose in correcting? I would think that it is like what Vygotsky meant in his famous equation of “i + 1”. The student is at level “i”. Our job is to get him or her to the next level, hence i + 1. We offer correction to get the student to the “+ 1”, the next level in their development.

If that is our goal, then let’s try a different approach. We do not need to harp on the fact that they are no good, that they are somehow under-skilled or whatever. That really serves no purpose at all. Criticizing the student does not get them to the “+ 1”, the next level. How about this?

“OK, here’s the next step…”

“Yes, that’s fine so far. Now, I want you to work on this next…”

We all understand that what the student is doing now is not the very best. However, we have to keep in mind where they are in their development, in the development of their skills and abilities. Not everyone is a budo superstar. In the majority of cases, they are not. Your budo superstars are maybe one in fifty or one in a hundred.

So, understanding this, we have to be realistic. We have to remember where they are at, where they came from, and what the next step is. Progress is our goal, even if it is a very small change. Maybe for their level (the level of progress that they are at), what they are doing is OK and normal for that stage of their development. We don’t need to get upset about it or frustrated.

“Alright. That was good. Now, let’s see if you can do this.”

How does the student feel now? She feels like she accomplished something. She feels good about herself and her abilities. She is more motivated to try more and eager to learn more.

I remember a book I read when I was in Teacher’s College and it was about the first days of school and how new teachers should approach the daunting first days of teaching, which for new teachers is the ultimate in anxiety: in facing for the first time, your very own class, the students, and the parents. It was a great book but the image that sticks in my mind to this very day is one of the photos on the front cover. It was a small picture of an older teacher, wearing a sweatshirt with a message emblazoned on it in large, colourful letters. And the message said:

I don’t teach. I INSPIRE!”

I look back on it now, as an experienced teacher, and I couldn’t agree more.

You can be a teacher who is good at meeting curriculum expectations and know all the latest techniques and speak all the latest techno jargon and know your teaching theories backwards and forwards, and still make no impact on the students. Some teachers are great at evaluation time, dazzling the principal or the evaluator with their teaching brilliance and their knowledge of all the latest theories, tools, and techniques. But at the end of the day, the question remains: have you touched the students?

I am not the model teacher. Far from it. But my students like me, they behave well, and they work for me. Because teaching is, at the very soul, heart-to-heart. When you take a genuine interest in your students and their welfare and their progress, you will be surprised how the students respond to you.

And it’s not because you know your A-B-C’s of teaching. It’s not because you offer constructive criticism.

It’s because you inspire them to be better than they are, to go beyond where they are now. You believe in them, and they in turn believe in you.

Is this the secret of teaching? I don’t know. Maybe it is. What I do know is that motivated students will learn more because they are genuinely interested. And success breeds motivation.

Let’s look back at these common statements:

Why haven’t you done this?”
This is completely useless…”
You’re doing it all wrong.”
No… no… NO!!”

What do they breed?

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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