Teaching through Encouragement
Yesterday, after yoga I thanked the teacher for the encouragement in class and he said, “It’s a pleasure to watch you work.” It got me thinking about how the encouragement and positive feedback motivates me to work through the difficult parts of class. When I was in graduate school, I worked for a test prep company where I taught classes and also trained teachers for them. One of the regular strategies that we were supposed to teach was that teachers should provide consistent positive feedback to students, even if students were struggling. Evidence shows that encouragement motivates students to do more work.
Perhaps that point is obvious. And yet, in the classroom, I find myself focusing more on making students aware of their deficits in order to get them to work. In the same way that I sometimes hold back insight in order to motivate insight, I sometimes hold back encouragement to get students to see that more work, more thinking needs to be done. Obviously, it takes judgment. Sometimes students need to be made aware that they are not fulfilling expectations. But often, students need affirmation for the work they are doing in order to be motivated to do more and better work.
If we assume that students are putting in the time, doing the work and trying their best, then affirming that work can motivate them to do better work. Not all students are doing that, and we have to make that judgment, but it isn’t always obvious from the work product whether they are trying their hardest or not.
I’ve been learning about this by being a student again in yoga classes. I come to class generally intent on working hard, pushing myself to the edge. Sometimes that is harder for various reasons–what I ate for lunch, that I’ve gone to class five days in a row and I’m tired, that I haven’t been to class in a week, that I had a couple glasses of wine the night before–and that leads me doing my best on that day to be different from another day. Students in our classes might be struggling to do the work for a similar variety of reasons–the work they are doing and the factors affecting them are not immediately apparent. Sometimes teachers draw attention to things that I should be working on. For example, I have tight hips. I have a very hard time in eagle moving my knees toward the center to make my hips square. As my leg is wrapped behind the other leg, I work as hard as I can to try to center my knees, but it is almost impossible for me to do. But I know that it can be hard to tell that I’m working that hard. It’s hard to tell where I’m starting from.
This experience helps me think about how it isn’t always clear to me whether students are working as hard as they can from their performance in class. Students come into class with different degrees of preparation and different degrees of understanding of what is expected. Finding ways to encourage students and affirming the specific things they are doing well motivates their desire to keep working harder and better.
All this is leading me to think about how to encourage students authentically. That involves acknowledging that the work is difficult, that doing it well is not based on some kind of natural talent, that they can learn to do better work. It involves analyzing the reasons students are falling short, highlighting what it is they are doing well while helping them recognize and address what falls short without treating them as if it is character flaws that produce those deficits.