I was flying through my post-graduate Teaching English as a Second Language program. I’d figured out the secret to good grades just the year before in my fifth year of my traditionally four year undergraduate degree program. That’s how long it took me to figure out learning, just in time for me to learn how to teach. I finished my last year in university with high 80s, and in this teaching program, I was going into the final two weeks with a 92%.
My classmates all thought I was a genius. They all came to me with the problem sets in our Pedagogical Grammar course because I had a linguistics degree while they were all still trying to figure out what a prepositional phrase was. They were amazed at how effortlessly I could draw sentence syntax trees for our Introduction to Language course. It felt good to be on top.
There was only one written assignment left, and I was determined to knock it out of the park. The only problem was that it was a textbook critique, and I wasn’t that great at being critical. I never have been. I didn’t like giving or being on the receiving end of criticism. But being able to critique is an essential skill in teaching, and I wanted to prove that I could do that too.
I worked hard on my textbook critique. I had a clear vision. I purposely chose an older, outdated ESL textbook and then applied all the newest methodological theories we’d learned in class to critique it. I called out everything from non-communicative, poorly integrated exercises to the boring black and white design. I picked at the archaic vocabulary choices and even the ethnocentric names in the examples. I was ruthless about the lack of learning objectives, the inconsistency of the themes and the consistent disorganization throughout. By the time I was finished with my critique, it was a masterpiece. It was like I was a food critic, and they’d just served me cold, overcooked steak with the wrong wine.
Imagine my surprise, as my critique landed on my professor’s desk, when she read the cover page and announced, “I wrote this book!”
I could only stare blankly at her.
She pointed to the author’s name on my page, Elizabeth Davidson. She explained proudly, her eyes alight with memories, “under my maiden name, years ago. First text I ever published.”
I wanted to snatch back my report and shred it to pieces. I wanted to crumple it up, shove it in my mouth and swallow. I wanted to light a flame and set it on fire. I wanted to smash through the window, jump out, and never look back. But all I managed to do was smile weakly and walk away.
It took her about a week to give me a 70% on it. No comments, and I didn’t ask. I deserved it.
The final assignment of the program was a practicum. I’d struggled with the observed lessons I had to teach because I’m typically shy, and I hate public speaking. Weird traits for someone trying to be a teacher, I know. I prepared really hard for my final lesson, I practiced and repracticed with anyone who would hear me.
Because of the way luck works in my life, Beth was my observer for my final practicum. Beth, who’d always been bubbly and supportive. Beth, who was the easiest marker in the entire program. Beth, whose textbook I’d torn apart. Beth was cold to me the day of my observation and left without comment. Then she gave me my second 70% in a row.
This time I was shocked. I had worked so hard on that lesson. I’d created amazing handouts. My timing had been excellent, and I’d met all of the pre-established goals outlined on my lesson plan. But even more so, I had done it confidently. I had taught the lesson with my head held high! My voice never even quavered once. And the students enjoyed it. I was there, I knew they had. The whole experience had been a real feat for me, but my mark reflected poorly on it.
I worked up my courage, and I emailed Beth to ask for more feedback. I got a one sentence email in response.
“Your lesson was inappropriate for the students’ level. – Beth.”
Whether she meant to, or not, Beth taught me something valuable about criticism that day. Criticism is important, but it should be handled with care. Criticism should always be constructive, with focus on the strengths, acknowledgement of the effort put forth in conjunction with suggestions for improvement. Criticism needs a purpose. Criticism for the sake of criticism only stings.