Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Importance of Criticism

by Andy Hanson

I can clearly remember how I, as a teacher, felt on the last day of school when a student returned my copy of the high school year book. I hadn't seen it in a week. It had been passed around from student to student in a large high school. Where it had been, who had written in it, and what they had written were still a mystery as I drove home on Thursday afternoon. I was apprehensive. What had they said? Their grades had been turned in, and the seniors, at least, could really tell me what they thought of me as a person and as a teacher without fear of retribution. And there was always the possibility that unflattering anonymous messages might be scrawled across prominent signature pages.

A group of my students looked after the book and made sure that it circulated around the school during the last week of the school for the five years I taught at Wm. S. Hart High School. Through some mysterious process, they always managed to get hundreds of my present and former students' signatures and comments. What I allowed my students to do was what I had done to them every nine weeks for every year they had been by English and sociology students—grade me.

It was only at home, after the children had been put to bed, and after fortifying myself with a shower and cup of hot chocolate, that I could work up the courage to open the school annual and discover what my students said about me. It was often gratifying, only infrequently traumatizing, and always edifying. (The following is one unflattering remark that remains in my memory after thirty-five years. "Cooler heads than yours fall off fish trucks every day"!)

Being graded is almost always a traumatic experience, and it is often as stressful for the person doing the grading as it is for the person being graded. Consequently, if grades are to serve constructive ends, parents and guardians must believe that teachers, principal, and school board are working in the best interest of students. No matter how hard teachers try to be objective in their assessment of student achievement, grading is fundamentally subjective.

Consequently, grades are relatively easy to dispute by anyone who subjects a teacher to careful and detailed cross-examination. A teacher's ability, methods, biases, fairness, and consistency can all be grounds for dispute, as any teacher can attest who has ever been taken to task by a student, parent, or guardian. So if the process is stressful and subjective, why do it? Because it is necessary.

Responsible teachers must be critics if performance is to be improved. The Book of Proverbs emphasizes that fact. (1) Critics and criticism should also be evaluated in terms of their objectivity, sagacity, and intent. Proverbs makes that clear, also. (2)

Critics of the Adventist Church, “grade” the ideas and sometimes the behavior of their fellow members. Someone in the community should always take that “second look”. The credibility of the community is at stake. (3) Publicly reporting that critical “look” is enjoyable when praise is deserved, and stressful when it isn’t. When “it isn’t” it’s usually not something that “wins friends”, (4) but if it’s done in the right way, it might “influence people” to discover a better way to commit resources, deal with a problem, or influence a decision. (5)

At I’m a critic. Grade me. (6)

(1) Proverbs 9:9 Teach a wise man, and he will be the wiser, teach a good man, and he will learn more.
(2) Proverbs 10:13 Men with commonsense are admired as counselors; those without it are beaten as servants.
(3) Proverbs 11:11 The good influence of godly citizens causes a city to prosper, but the moral decay of the wicked drives it downhill.
(4) Proverbs 17:12 It is safer to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool caught in his folly.
(5) Proverbs 10:17 Anyone willing to be corrected is on the pathway to life. Anyone refusing has lost his chance.
(6) Proverbs 24:26 It is an honor to receive a frank reply