After a few months of student teaching, my master teacher took a sharp turn. While at first she was appropriately demanding and critical, by April, she became complimentary.

I liked how you presented this excerpt, and had them look for different things in the Second Treatise. That was good.

The compliments were never frequent, but by April, they were all I got. There’s no way to put me off like a steady diet of nothing but compliments.

Compliments seem like the sweet thing to do — who likes pessimists, anyway? — but they have to be tempered with some fiber, some meaningful substance. Compliments bolster the ego, but after that cotton candy feeling wears off, I’m left with nothing but the memory of warmth.

Not that compliments aren’t intoxicating. I misinterpreted my master teacher’s rationale for all the compliments, thinking: Gee, maybe I’m getting really good at this.

That wasn’t it at all. After confronting her about it, we talked our way to this:

It’s just that every time I tell you something, you try to explain yourself. You never listen to me. You even argue with me about every little thing. I just got tired of it, and I gave up trying.

Then I argued with her about every little thing she said.

My family relishes spirited argument, so I was hardly writing you off. If I argue about it, that means I am listening to what you say. If I argue about it, that means I care about what you say. I requested to have you as my master teacher because I knew you were tough on your student teachers — I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Without your criticism, I laid back. I got lazy. I became laissez-faire attitude toward my student teaching, come what may.

Student teaching was never quite the same, in that light. That’s what cotton candy compliments will do to you, so think about that next time you have the urge to put politeness over honesty.

Cotton candy compliments are why a trainwreck show like American Idol can exist — we get so caught up in all the nice things others say about us that we go off and embarrass ourselves, sometimes on national television. We need the unpleasant fiber, the “Really, Steve. Don’t go to that audition. You suck.”

Even worse, sometimes we’re so hopped up on compliments that we ignore the that lone, deflating voice of dissent, saying, “What do they know? Everyone else says I’m just like Freddie Mercury.”

We shouldn’t substitute cotton candy for fiber, however unpleasant it is. If we do, pretty soon we’ll end up like Red, here: full of crap.

How this relates to students, teachers, coworkers, friends and relatives is left as an exercise to the reader.


  1. You hit the nail on the head. Sometimes we do not do as well as we thought and we need to know that. Kids, and adults, have grown to expect that we always do well, just because “we tried,” Nd that is not always the case. Sometimes trying doesn’t work and we need to fix things. Great point, not sugar coated…

  2. Ed_Thoughts

    As I read your entry, I am somewhat taken aback by your statement that:

    “Without your criticism, I laid back. I got lazy. I became laissez-faire attitude toward my student teaching, come what may.

    Student teaching was never quite the same, in that light. That’s what cotton candy compliments will do to you, so think about that next time you have the urge to put politeness over honesty.”

    Usually your posts are honest and thoughtful, but in the above statement it sounds like you are calling out your master teacher in a very direct and somewhat reckless way. It seems that the way you have worded this statement would have been better said to your cooperating teacher. When reading about your university hearing and your feelings about it, the way that the above quote sounds very unlike you.

    I say that it sounds unlike you because you usually take responsibility for your own actions, and unless I am reading the quote wrong, you are not taking responsibility here. Just because you didn’t hear any criticism from your teacher does not mean that you had to get lazy or lassiez-faire. What was going to happen when you were in your own classroom with only a principal or a department head above you? 99% of the time you are alone in the room.

    Your drive for improvement must come from within yourself, not as a reaction to the criticism of another. If you end up teaching for your career you are going to do it for 30+ years. For that entire 30 years you are going to have to push yourself. It’s that intrinsic motivation that will make you a good teacher.

  3. Mr. Salvucci: Effort doesn’t equal success. Success equals success.

    There’s this kind of nebulous idea that personal growth is always the subjective goal, when that is only one of the goals. Even if a student started the 12th grade knowing only the letters of the alphabet, he will need to know how to write a good resume when he graduates and needs to find a job.

    Broader point: Subjective or personal measures of success are fine, but in moderation. There are objective measures of success, too, and we as educators need to recognize that.

    Mr. Ed: The first rule of copy editing is that you can’t copy edit your own work. You’re too biased, and you have something invested in some of the most trivial details. It takes an outside voice to see the most glaring errors.

    My master teacher was an outside voice, and didn’t sugarcoat anything, or pull any punches. In saying she gave up and describing my reaction, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I’m blaming her for not motivating me. I was just breaking down the natural process of hollow compliments.

    Though I’ve done quite a lot of harsh self-criticism on this blog, I rarely believe I hit the nail on the head. Sometimes I tap that nail askew or too lightly, and other times I overdo it. What keeps the balance between them is when that outside, copy editing voice tells me how much more or how much less force to apply.

    I started writing this blog because I love having that outside voice, and I love dissent. I continued it throughout the semester for the same reasons. That’s also the reason why David Black hasn’t been banned, yet.

    Nearly everything that happened this semester, the good and the bad, was my fault. I say, and from experience, that softer landings immediately will make them all the harder later. I don’t begrudge her good intentions; this example simply served the broader point of the entry and the focus of the blog.

    Since you brought up these concerns, though, I believe I should address them more fully.

    Moreover, I’m not calling out my master teacher, or at least I didn’t intend to. I mostly tried to make this anecdote a tie-in to the broader idea that we shouldn’t inflate egos because we couldn’t.

    Thinking I had her approval, I believed that I had crossed the threshold of being acceptable. I knew that she had high standards and harsh criticism, and I wanted it — the more criticism, the more it means to be complimented.

    What was going to happen when you were in your own classroom with only a principal or a department head above you? 99% of the time you are alone in the room.

    I’d still have this blog, and other teachers, to provide that other voice. The difference between me then and your hypothetical was that this semester I was a student teacher, and I relished the back-and-forth. I was a student teacher who expected the back-and-forth, believing that when it stopped, that I was an acceptable student teacher. That I was prepared for the classroom.

    I understand that the drive for self-improvement must come from myself — it has, and it does. It was just a shame, though, to see a wonderful copy editor simply give up.

    This isn’t bashing her. This is the best sort of compliment. As in the entry, this good compliment comes complete with a caveat.




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