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 I purposely chose an older, outdated ESL textbook and then applied all the newest methodological theories we’d learned in class to critique it.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.


35 thoughts on “The Critique

  1. I taught for over forty years and criticism is a day to day task. But the lesson she taught you is that we all must learn how to accept criticism. I wrote something some years ago about writing school reports. I can’t find it at the moment but I will post it ASAP and let you know. I think you might like it.
    I don’t think Beth reacted as professionally as she should.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you so much and I appreciate the effort, but unfortunately the link above is not working?

      I get an error saying, β€œNothing Found
      Apologies, but no results were found for the requested archive. Perhaps searching will help find a related post.”


  2. Although I understand you learned a lesson due to her giving you 70% both times, I would have gone to a supervisor because if the other students truly enjoyed your teaching practicum I have a hard time believing that the lesson wasn’t appropriate for the level of the students. I would question your critique of her book, too. How do you know that she isn’t the one that can’t handle criticism?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. You’re definitely right, for a long time I wondered why the nature of the assignment was what it was, if she was so sensitive to criticism of her own work. I guess she never expected her old book to turn up!

      Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Words, mean anything you wish to the reader. That’s exactly what I love about reading. I reread books over time, and that same novel is enchanting simply because my mind interpretation changed. Isn’t that lovely. Your Professor long ago forgot to inform you her hormones were on overload those times. And here the moral to the story changes once again. Never learn from the opposite sex lol.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “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.” Great point! I too learned my lesson!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a hard lesson to learn sometimes, but a good one. It’s almost too easy to just be negative. It’s harder to find spots for improvement and give praise where praise is due.

      Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my gosh…that’s a massive gaffe made right there! Goes to show that it’s not criticism, but *constructive* criticism that makes all the difference between a high mark and a 70%…super sorry that the narrator had to experience that, but it’s definitely a harsh lesson learned!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. It sounds as though all of those who are responsible for “grading” you got too subjective to the projects you did, so, naturally, they couldn’t be completely, objective to read or listen to what you say, and, this us a lesson in teaching a class, I think, because you will, encounter students with various kind of life experiences and individual differences, so, I think, you can still, benefit from 5hes3 two specific experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Sorry, but you did nothing wrong–she obviously realized you couldn’t have known since it was under her maiden name. The professor should have been more mature about it. As a high school teacher myself for almost 25 years, I had to deal with some pretty interesting characters who maybe didn’t like my class, but I never took it out on them, especially not in terms of marks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You know, for years I didn’t tell anyone this story, not even my closest friends, because I was so embarrassed. I felt like I really messed up somehow. But now that I think about it, it’s kind of funny. What are the chances! But I absolutely agree, her reaction was too extreme.

      Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post! I taught English in San Fernando, California in the early 1970s. I too learned that criticism is an art, not a science and has to be applied with deliberate and delicate brush strokes.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. It seems to me that if your criticisms were unfair your teacher should have pointed out why. If they were valid she should have thanked you for your honesty, even if acknowledging that they hurt.

    I have been on the receiving end of criticism more than once and it can really sting, but I have usually been forced to admit to myself when they have been merited.

    Perhaps I am being a bit hard on the prof, but it seems fundamentally wrong to assign you to criticize something but to penalize you if you choose the wrong book.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. And the flip side is those who are on the receiving end of criticism should value it. Criticism is a gift for us to review open mindedly. An open minded person will train themselves to acknowledge if criticism of their work is warranted and therefor prompt to better outcomes in future. If not warranted then it still has value recognizing while perhaps unfair it could be what a significant number of people view to be the value our work. Then it becomes an exercise in trying to better communicate and persuade why they should reconsider what’s you’ve written as something valuable.:)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep, it’s always a delicate thing! I’ll admit, I’m not great at being on the receiving end myself, but I definitely see its merits and agree with everything you’ve said.

      Thanks for sharing! Glad you stopped by πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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