June 20, 2011

Letter From the Teacher #6: Parenting and Self-Esteem

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Williams
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Parenting and Self-esteem

Dear Mrs. Williams:

I glad my last e-mail was of some use to you, and Iíll be glad to try to more fully explain some of the things I mentioned. Itís important because most people really arenít sure why we have decided to spend untold billions of dollars to provide a free public education for our kids. Yes, we do it to provide a common body of knowledge, to prepare citizens for the workplace, to try to make them good citizens, to help them figure out how theyíll fit into the future world of work, to civilize them to the greatest degree possible, and to achieve a wide variety of other worthy goals, but all of that represents what comes later, what is toward the end of the K-12 process. What we are really doing in education is so simple it escapes most people: building bigger, better brains.

We are literally trying to build bigger, better, more flexible, more convoluted brains. We do that by providing the opportunity for kids to make the greatest possible number of new neural connections. They do that by taking maximum advantage of their educational opportunities, which they do by constant, correct practice. Yes, I do mean practice, for you see, English is a skills class, and providing the opportunity for constant, correct practice is how I provide the educational opportunity to build bigger, better brains.

Thatís why kids study English. The study of reading, writing, thinking, analysis, speaking, and everything else we do makes neural connections, builds the brain in ways that studying math canít. Studying math builds the brain in ways that studying history canít. Learning to be a musician builds the brain in ways that studying geography canít, and so on and so on. Of course there are very practical reasons to study all of the disciplines the kids study, but at the very core of all we do, we try to build bigger, better brains, and everything we do is designed to further that ultimate goal.

This is where the issue of self-esteem comes into play. I donít know exactly where this harmful notion originated. I would guess that the people who came up with it were well intentioned. Perhaps they noticed that kids were more engaged in their studies if they were happy, and recognizing that teachers canít materially change the circumstances of their studentís lives away from school, set out to try to change them in school. Perhaps thatís where the self-esteem culture came from. Perhaps they thought that if they praised kids, if they told them that they were all very special, and smart, and capable and that they were so wonderful they would somehow, magically, reach previously unimagined heights of academic achievement. Unfortunately, that ignores human nature. Thatís wishful thinking, not good teaching.

As I mentioned in my least e-mail, at the beginning of each year, I tell all of my students that I donít care the least little bit for their self-esteem. Oh, theyíre horrified, shocked, even outraged. Most of them donít really know why they should be outraged, but they know enough to believe that they should think that nothing is more important in school than their ďself of steam,Ē as one student put it.

So I tell them about my two decades as a police officer. I tell them that most of the criminals I met had sky-high self-esteem. They thought they were the slickest things since sliced bread. They thought they were smarter, cooler and just all-around better than everybody else. The truth was they were horrible people! They were selfish, crude, stupid and ready to betray anyone and everyone. If you left your mouth open too long within their reach, theyíd try to steal your teeth. They were people who would hurt you in every way possible. They left nothing but pain and misery in their wake, but oh did they think highly of them selves! Their self-esteem was truly a thing to behold.

By this point, the kids are starting to think. Some usually ask how can such awful people have such high self-esteem. Itís so because self-esteem means nothing more than thinking highly of yourself, whether itís justified or not. Itís completely internal. It requires no accomplishment, no character, no altruism, no kindness, and no adherence to a moral code, nothing external to oneís imagination. You think, therefore you are and reality doesnít matter!

Now more are starting to come around. Some of them realize that they know people just like that and theyíre not really all that special. Thatís when I tell them that what I care aboutówhat they must care aboutóis self-respect. Self-respect is earned. It must be worked on every day and in every interaction with others. You are worthy of self-respect in English class if you actually do your practice, your assignments. You are worthy if you really think about them, if you do your best, if you help others to be their best, and if you deal with everyone with sincerity. Ultimately, self-respect is judged on entirely external criteria, criteria determined by others, by teachers, parents, and yes, even by their peers.

I also tell the kids that I will not praise them for behavior that is unworthy of praise. If they hand in an assignment that is essentially dog poo, I will not praise them for their effort in producing dog poo. I will not tell them what good dog poo it is. I will, instead, say: ďthis is dog poo. Here is why this is dog poo. Now letís talk about how you can avoid producing dog poo next time.Ē They learn quickly that when I praise their work, they have genuinely earned it, and once they understand how that feels, how self-respect is actually built, they want more of it and they try harder.

Donít get me wrong. I know Iím dealing with teenagers, and not every one of them will buy into this fully. Not every one of them will work even harder next time, but the majority will try at least somewhat harder, and in that process, I have gently, subtly conditioned them into forgetting all about self-esteem and into building bigger, better brains, and they havenít realized what I am doing! We English teachers are truly a sneaky lot. Heh-heh!

Whatís that? Am I actually saying that kids have to produce excellent work to get excellent grades in my classes? In a public school? In schools where self-esteem matters, kids get Aís for dog poo. Not in schools where self-respect matters. Thatís what building bigger, better brains is all about, and thatís what is going on in most American public schools. We know there are exceptions, yet the means to fix those problems already exists. But thatís a subject for another time.

Iím not sure why this is so hard for so many. Iím a baby-boomer, and I know that many of the parents of my generation, and the next, somehow got off the parenting track. Somewhere along the way, some of them came to believe that instead of being parents to their children, their highest calling was to be their best friend. From that simple misconception, all manner of harm has been wrought. Perhaps they were raised on the mantra of self-esteem and had no other frame of reference.

You know that one of the current fads, which is all about self-esteem, is what is known as ďstudent-centeredĒ teaching. In this odd way of thinking about education, teachers are not supposed to be learned sages who impart knowledge and ability to students, but instead, they must be ďfacilitatorsĒ who allow students to discover their inner brilliance by letting them decide how to learn and which assignments to do. Would it surprise you to learn that many students decide, and with amazing speed, that they will learn most effectively with no assignments at all or with assignments that require little or no effort?

If I donít have knowledge to share, if I donít know how to direct kids in the correct practice, if I canít inspire them to want to try harder, if I have no idea of the difference between self-esteem and self-respect, why did I go to college? Why am I, even now, continuing my education? Why did my school district hire me? If Iím not the experienced, capable, responsible adult in the room, what good am I?

Iím not suggesting that teachers should stand in front of their classes and lecture from the same set of yellowed notes theyíve been using for years. Thatís simply bad teaching. What I also tell my kids is that I do want to be their friend, but that I cannot and will not be their middle-aged homey. I can be their adult friend, their friend whose first name is ďMister,Ē until theyíve graduated from high school, until theyíve earned the right to address me by my given first name. They must expect me, always and in every way, to behave as a completely responsible adult who will always live up to his obligations and will always do what is best for them, whether their friends would like it or not.

I often wish more of their parents would do that. Being a parent isnít easy. It isnít always rewarding, but it is the most important job anyone has. I see the kids less than five hours a week for less than a year of their lives. I know that I can have some influence on them, but itís nothing compared to the influence of their parents, parents I hope understand that they too should not give a boatload of deceased rodents for the self-esteem of their kids.

Itís so important and yet, so simple; when everyone knows that what matters is self-respect, itís possible to build bigger, better brains. Thatís what weíre supposed to do. All of the decisions, all of the plans, everything that eventually flows from 12 years of a free, public education flows from that simple understanding, and from those flexible, bigger, better brains. People in the process of building them tend to take advantage of their educational opportunities. People who can only think highly of themselves tend not to see the need for taking advantage of those opportunities. After all, when youíre that good, whatís the point of improvement?

I hope this has been helpful. Please let me know if I didnít fully address your concerns, and please feel free to visit our classroom anytime. Itís a brain-building zone.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at June 20, 2011 10:02 PM

Your emails on the state of education in the English classroom are most elegant. I was fortunate to have a high school teacher who also inspired students to perform, have respect, and strive to excellence. Oh, by the way, she was my English teacher. God Bless Miss Anderson for making sure that her students were prepared for the rest of their lives.

Posted by: Del at June 21, 2011 11:21 AM

Mega Metro Motors
Highway 1000
Anywhere, USA
MMM! Thatís a good car!

From: Mrs. Williams
To: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Your letter about Britiniís self-esteem

Dear Mr. English Teacher,

I am writing to you on behalf of my daughterís, Britini, poor grades in your class. Which effects her self-esteem as you know. I appreciate the fact that you write a long letter to me to explain your philosophy of teaching. I donítí understand why she makes a C in your class. That is the only one that she makes Cs in. All the other teachers give her As. I have told her plethora times that only As are acceptable in this house. I am confused how she made a Commended score on her High Stakes Test in English and only gets Cs in your class?

Britini puts in many hours doing work for the school on the cheerleaders. Cheerleading is a difficult sport and is often not respected for what they accomplish. She does her best to fit in time for homework. But, like I always tell Britini, homework comes first. Her friends make all straight As as cheerleaders. I was able to make all As and be the head cheerleader to when I was in high school like Britini.

This is beside the point, but just the other day, at the church supper, I was sitting on Jimmy Freedís right hand at the supper table. Jimmy is the new president of the School Board as you know. We were talking about teachers and how we have the some of the very best teachers in the state in our school, and then your name came up. Jimmy remembers you from when his son, Billy Bob, was in your class. He says he doesnít know how you put up with that boy. We have a lot in common. Jimmy is sales manager for my husband at Mega Metro.

Again, thank you for you letter. If you are ever in need of a new car, Iíll tell my husband to have Jimmy make a deal that will fit your budget. I know that teachers have to watch there budget, that is why we pay our teachers the very best in our area.

Itís always a pleasure to talk to you.

Keep me in touch about Britini.

Mrs. Williams

Posted by: Mrs. Williams at June 21, 2011 11:39 AM