Doing Good Work vs. Pleasing the Teacher

This is a conundrum for students, perhaps, especially, I think, in writing classes. I believe many students feel that when they write an assignment, they do it in a dark room, their hand inside a black bag, holding a black pen, writing on black paper. They have no clue. Writing is such an unnatural activity (as it’s taught in school), and one they must study over and over again, that it must seem to them that they can never get it right.

One of the biggest impediments to their success is their desire to please the teacher. My students often spent more time trying to figure out what I wanted than they did actually doing the assignment.

All I wanted was for them to do the assignment.

It was a frustrating paradox.

Over time, as I became a more experienced teacher, I would tell them, “Don’t try to figure out what I want. You can’t give me what I want. I want a villa in Italy. Just do the work as well as you can. Have someone go over it with you using the rubric. Bring your draft to me and I’ll help you all along the way. I’ll look at your paper over and over. I will really, truly help you.”

Still, the vast majority would wait until the last minute to do their projects and never find out how to do the project right. Or easily. Or with honest-to-god help from the teacher. The black-bag persisted and they hated writing classes (and writing teachers).

I believe they were more afraid of constructive criticism and one-on-one help than they were of doing the project wrong. I believe (I KNOW!) that some of my students (those who’d gone through school with No Child Left Behind and one standardized test after another) were convinced I would tell them the wrong thing so I could sabotage their grade. Teachers, after all, are the enemy, right?

My bread-and-butter professionally was teaching Business Communication, a class that was extremely challenging but equally inspiring to teach. In that class — essentially a writing class — more than in any other, the students’ belief they must please me impeded their learning. They’d come through at least 14 years of school with teachers expecting things. Most of them had succeeded (students needed a 3.7 to get into the business program) and had figured out how to please teachers. Most were shocked to learn that in my class it was different. I didn’t expect them to write pretty things or use big words (plethora being an all-time favorite). I wanted them to write messages their audience would understand. I hoped they’d begin to see that the imperatives of real-life writing are different from the imperatives in English composition or rhetoric classes where students are often told, “Write more words.”

Very often I was witness to epiphanies such as;

“OHHHHH! I get it! I just need to answer the question!”

OR

“I get it now — wow, that’s easy! I just have to be tactful when I tell the guy no, right?”

OR

“Teacher, dude, it’s like if I want the guy’s business I have to be nice, right?”

OR

“So the guy doesn’t really have time to read all this, that’s what you’re saying?”

OR

“This is the first useful writing class I’ve had in my LIFE.”

I concurred with that wholeheartedly. Writing — as it’s taught in schools — has little or nothing to do with writing as we use it in real life to communicate facts, ideas, and information. That strikes me as absurd. Good critical thinking is clear thinking. It asks necessary questions and does the research necessary to determine if there are answers to those questions. Critical writing presents all that in such a way that others can understand and benefit.

I know there is a plethora of other theories about writing, but for me if the reader can’t understand what I’ve said, I haven’t said anything. Reaching the reader with what the reader needs to know is good work, but it might not make the teacher happy (unless the teacher is me).

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