There’s a tiny scene in the film Boyhood: A character off-handedly mentions to a young Latino man that he is smart. Later in the film, the man identifies how that comment, that bit of simple and unsupported praise, was a pivotal moment that changed his life and inspired him to go back to school.
Many voices in the education community question the value of such simple, unearned praise, yet done in the right spirit, it can help an educator change a student’s life. Of course, I also want much of the praise I give students to be based on specific evidence. I support educators who make room for students to evaluate their own work. And I believe praise should never be delivered as a final judgment of character—because such hubris would also allow us to deliver a damning assessment that could haunt a student for years.
But I believe offering praise that’s not based on achievement—praise that communicates each person’s unassailable right to a unique place in our human community—is important. For many students, such heartfelt and spontaneous praise is invaluable.
The Power of (Unconditional) Positive Regard
Many of us have had the experience of being buoyed up by adult praise. There was a teacher, grandmother, coach—a trusted adult—who looked at us and communicated in some fashion, “I notice you for who you are, and who you are is worthy.” That notion, often called unconditional positive regard, is a foundation of the work of psychologist Carl Rogers. Positive regard of your human existence is not an earned status. You don’t have to dance a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way, or do anything special to be special.
People who historically have not experienced receiving unconditional positive regard as a birthright have a harsher life. Consider how rarely people from minority groups explicitly hear in the dominant mainstream culture, “your life mattered from the moment you were born.” Given the recent murders of young black men and women, it’s chilling to consider what W.E.B. Du Bois (1903), writing a century ago about the chronic abuse of black people, asked: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Among the many outcomes of the U.S. Civil rights movement were two important cultural shifts: Black history became a school subject and “Black is Beautiful” became a slogan. That slogan (echoed in “Black Lives Matter”) spoke to the belief that you were born beautiful when you were born black; you didn’t have to do anything to your hair or skin to be considered beautiful. It was great to hear it said, loud and proud.
You Are Not a Test Score
Our national obsession with achievement testing has made it harder to praise students just for who they are, not for their academic accomplishments. Schools have bent toward the end of the spectrum that identifies and celebrates only one way of being a student—scoring well on mandated tests. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to inch up test scores. My work takes me to a wide range of schools, and I often hear teachers say, “This is how you’ll see this question on the test.” When high test scores become the main thing policymakers expect, it’s easy for us to fall into a school culture that eliminates other avenues of recognition.
This achievement obsession has been countered by Carol Dweck’s work (2006) on the importance of instilling growth mindsets and praising effort—because effort is within students’ control and observable. Educators are encouraged to say things like, “I see you put in the effort to correct your error, and that helped you get the right answer.” Equally important is that praise for effort be delivered with joy and heartfelt appreciation: “The smile on my face now is from watching the effort you put into correcting your error. I hope you too feel good about your work.” Students need more than data—they need our emotional connections.
I need to show my hand here: I don’t think our schools’ goal is to outscore other countries on standardized tests. And I don’t think students who emerge from schools should be measured by their capacity to be technicians for big companies. I’d like my students to achieve measurable basic skills and to be happy to learn, to know how to participate in our democracy, to create from their thoughts and with their hands what is uniquely theirs to create—and to believe that they are innately worthy members of our society.
In every school I work in, I tell each of my students individually at some point that I find him or her funny, clever, or creative—a pleasure to have around. I tell students that they have a cool way of thinking, that they make me think about things, that I’m happy to see them walk into my room each day. Very rarely do students ask for evidence. If asked, I’ll have it in the form of a story or an observation, because there is something unique and wonderful about every human being. But few have ever asked. I do the same for teachers I work with or lead. They too make me smile, ponder, and grow—and I tell them so.
Caring Before They Achieve
Brain research has made clear that humans are as much emotional creatures as cognitive ones. Learning is transactional—not just cognitively, but emotionally. Our thinking is inextricably laced with our feelings. Students—from kindergarteners to high schoolers—look to educators for unconditional acceptance. We hear all the time that our best teachers love their students, regardless of their age or achievement. They love their students before they try, before they achieve.
I’ve spent a lot of my career working with overlooked, economically exploited, and abused students. Many of them, like the Latino character in Boyhood, are from minority groups who need to experience caring communication and supportive expectations early and repeatedly in their relationships in school. I’ve often looked a young person in the eye and said, “You’re capable of great things. I believe in you.” I said this before I had rock-solid evidence to support my claims, but the student could hear it only if I truly believed it.
Neuroscience tells us that humans have mirror neurons, the capacity to engender in another person a strong feeling we ourselves are having. When I say “I believe in you,” I’m not a statistician reciting data; I am working in a far deeper vein of human connectedness. My belief in students, my love for them, becomes part of the very wiring of their existence.
There is a spiritual aspect to teaching if you believe you have the ability to help all students experience their innate, best inner selves. As Deepak Chopra (2011) says,
Everyone has a purpose in life … a unique gift or special talent to give to others. And when we blend this unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals.
Chopra’s language is miles away from the imperative to identify students’ worth by measuring incremental growth on objective criteria.
Making It Happen
Let’s consider some practices that help teachers express unconditional positive regard, that recognize the range of human qualities to value in students, and that don’t encourage meaningless repetitions of “good job.”
- In your own words, say to every student every day—and frequently to the whole class—”You are capable of learning everything in the lessons. I’ll help you succeed as you try. You are all worthwhile people.”
- Make the effort to enjoy every student. Say hello to every one of them first thing every day, with a look in the eye and maybe a handshake or fist bump. Let each of them know that by crossing the threshold of your classroom, in your eyes they are worthy of being part of the class. For students who are wary of adults and push away connections, consistently throw in a quick observation of their uniqueness: “Love that hat” or “Your essay got me thinking.”
- End classes with one minute of students acknowledging one another positively. Model and participate: “I saw Darnell make Seth smile”; “I’m going to be thinking all day about Siobhan’s theory about the election.”
- Let students know you notice and are affected by their special characteristics: “Marie, I was watching you totally focused on your essay. That made my day. I have this image of you hard at work that will make me smile for a long time.” “Chen, when I see how often you help other students, I realize again what caring people do in this world. Thanks.” There will be occasional students who don’t believe you are sincere. For them, your sincerity must be stronger and deeper than their doubt—and must emerge moment after moment, day after day, to overcome their doubt. Building trust and relationships isn’t a one-time event, but a foundation of best practice.
- Praise students even as you give them critical feedback or a consequence: “Jo, you’re going to have to stay after today and clean up that mess you made. I appreciate right now that you’re listening to me calmly and letting me finish my sentence.”
- Give choices and options for lessons and assessments. Highlight for students your discoveries about their unique passions: “Sasha, I’m not surprised you wanted do the painting option. You get great joy in doing art. I love to watch you having so much fun.”
- Find opportunities (quick e-mails home, comments on report cards, parent-night conversations) to provide a student and his or her parents with information about that student’s unique ways of being. This is for high school teachers, too! The focus on standardized tests doesn’t prevent teachers from sharing other forms of acknowledgement and affirmation.
- Administrators, try this: leave your office when students are in the hallways and say as many positive things as you can in three minutes: “Benji, glad to see you back in school”; “Connie, your teacher said your joke made the entire class laugh.” Do it for staff, too: “Ms. Jones, thanks for coming early to the staff meeting;” “Ms. Lee, it’s good to see you today—as it is every day.”
Offering unconditional positive regard to students may become your favorite daily activity. And the power you have as a role model for others at school—whether you’re the principal or one teacher among many—will ripple out to every corner of the building, leading to a culture that appreciates everyone.
- Chopra, D. (2011). The seven spiritual laws of success: A practical guide to the fulfillment of your dreams. San Francisco: Amber-Allen Publishing.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg.
- Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.