What is “Encouragement”?

And Its Role In Education

A few weeks ago, I had the fun of sitting in on an interview committee — something I never had done before. I didn’t expect to get much out of it personally, but in the end that proved to not be the case.

The questions asked were typical, but after I sat through several interviews, hearing them again and again, they started to take on a mantra-like feel. I started to ruminate on them as they were asked, and they grew in me to have deeper meanings than when I started.

One question especially hit me: “How do you encourage students to…”

I don’t remember the rest, but that part’s immaterial. The responses were more or less predictable and mainstream — “I model it”, or “positive reinforcement”, or “work individually with the student” — all reasonable answers, no clunkers that I remember. But driving home that day, with the advantage of repetition and time that the candidates didn’t have, I felt that the point was missed on the question itself — what does it mean to encourage?

Before that day, when I thought of encouragement, it was the typical rah-rah sort that I think most people envision: parents in the stands rooting for their kid at bat, the play director saying, “You can do this,” before the student takes the stage, teachers saying, “I encourage Johnny to take full use of the Extra Credit opportunities offered to him.” In these scenarios, encouragement is seen as persuasive, even coercive. At best, it is neutral to the wants of the encourager and the encouraged; at worst, it is a tactic for the encourager to make the child do what they want — encouragement, therefore, is often a tool to elicit compliance, and serves only the encourager.

Shouldn’t that be different? Driving home that day, I imagined a new definition of encouragement, one whose locus of control was entirely within the encouraged. I imagined encouragement as an action working solely to educe courage out of the encouraged. “Educe” is a word used on purpose; it is the root of “education”, and implies that the courage is already inside the person and the encourager’s role is merely to provide avenues through which it can be manifested.

True encouragement can be seen as the most important thing that a teacher can provide for a student. It helps the student fully realize their potential, their limitations, their strengths and weaknesses — simply put, who they are. This is the most essential knowledge a school system can elicit. It allows a student to accurately and honestly assess themselves, move into careers that suit them and make them satisfied and productive. It puts students in a position to “live within truth”, to harbor no false senses of their identity and their place in the world. A fully realized human being; the most grandest product education can hope for.

Educators and encouragers, beware though! True encouragement takes a huge and drastic commitment, one that educators everywhere have been systematically told is counter to good teaching: you should not care about the results of your encouragement. If you have a stake in the results, then the encouragement that you give stands a good chance of morphing into persuasion, coercion, or at worst, bullying. Not caring puts the benefit of encouraging solely on the shoulders of the person being encouraged; they work for themselves, not for you.

This is at odds with traditional schooling; we are supposed to care, aren’t we? And we are supposed to show that we care, aren’t we?

Well, yes and no. Yes, we should care. But we should show it by showing that we don’t, that we are ultimately unimportant in our student’s growth. In other words, none of the impetus for becoming encouraged should come from the encourager, only the avenues. A student’s success/failure in encouragement (and, it can be argued, success/failure in any aspect of their education) should be allowed to wash over the encourager, flow through them, be noted dispassionately and scientifically, but not affect them in any personal way.

This, of course, is very difficult. It’s made harder by the fact that many teacher’s assessments are based to some extent on student test scores. This effectively makes it impossible to extrude a teacher’s desires from student successes. It works against the notion of true encouragement. But I assert that keeping your stake in a student’s encouragement minimized will lead to maximal true encouragement. And that discipline, in itself, is the manifestation of caring.

Lastly, if true encouragement is as important as what I have alluded to, shouldn’t student assessment reflect this? I’ve seen a lot of assessment tools, and precious few have a “Growth in Courage” component. Wouldn’t it be great if we paid attention to this aspect of education, if every assessment had a “courage” component? It would drive all our lessons to have a courage aspect too… I believe that in the end, this focus would lead to students more fully realized as people, and more ready to contribute effectively to the world.


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    Chris Baker

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    7th Grade science teacher, Subject Area Coordinator (SAC), moderate iconoclast, all around swell guy

    The Synapse

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