The Power of Wrongness

Yesterday in my English Language class, we were talking about comma splices and a student raised his hand to argue with the correctness of this example: “Cinderella searched for love, Jack searched for gold.” His argument boiled down to ‘what if it’s a stylistic choice?’ and he said if he had a student who wrote a sentence similar to this, he wouldn’t tell them they were wrong but first ask them if they knew that this was a comma splice and then if it was a stylistic choice.

It doesn’t bother me that he took offense with the example and decided to argue with the professor. What bothers me is that he said he wouldn’t tell his student they were wrong if they made this mistake.

When did it become wrong to tell a student that they’re wrong? Because this student is not the only person who is reluctant to correct a student. My math teacher mom tells me that her coworkers tell her all the time that she can’t tell her GT math students that they’re wrong. Why? “Because it lowers their self-esteem.”

This is the most absurd reasoning I’ve ever heard. First, lots of things lower a kid’s self-esteem. Yes, being told they’re wrong is one of them. You know what another one is? Finding out years later that, because that one teacher let them keep making the same mistake over and over, they can’t do basic things like multiplication or construct a sentence properly. The idea that some confidence, even shaky confidence, is better than no confidence at all is ridiculous and extremely harmful to a person’s psyche. Which is better: having a lowered self-esteem because someone pointed out you’re not perfect, or having self-esteem as sturdy as a house of cards that can be torn just as easily and leaving you even more broken?

There is, of course, a correct way to tell someone they’re wrong. It’s called “constructive criticism,” the purpose of which is to point out mistakes while also suggesting ways to fix them, and it can be done very tactfully, with hurt feelings reduced to a minimum. It gives a student a chance to improve for the next time and to decrease the number of mistakes, so the constructive criticism comes less and less.

People expect teachers to be passionate and knowledgeable about their content area and engaging to their students while simultaneously as neutral and unbiased as Switzerland. We must do everything and nothing at the same time – everything we can to teach and nothing to hurt a kid’s feelings. We’re all going to hurt kids’ feelings eventually; there’s no way to get around it. But you can limit the hurt you may inflict and use it to help them become better, and isn’t that what we as teachers want the most for our students?


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