Congratulations on Brushing Your Teeth!

I had to smile when I read this opening excerpt in a recent column by Jane Magrath that a blog reader kindly e-mailed me:

Recently I saw a cartoon that showed two smiling parents watching their child as he brushed his teeth. A banner was posted over the top of the bathroom mirror that said, “Congratulations on brushing your teeth!” One parent was looking adoringly at the child, hands clasped, while the other stated, “I just feel like we’re setting him up to be disappointed in the real world.”

I could relate to this because sometimes I feel like that as a teacher. I hold my breath while a student carefully plods through a scale and let out an excited congratulations when they complete it with all the right notes and fingerings. Deep down I know that this is hardly a cause for celebration for most students; it’s just the weekly reality of poor practicing and failure to aim toward a high level of excellence and mastery. But at the same time I find myself grasping for anything praiseworthy that I can latch onto to hopefully spur the student on toward greater accomplishments in the future.

In the remainder of Jane Magrath’s excellent column, What matters more: talent or effort?, she goes on to discuss the importance of recognizing a student’s effort rather than the talent (or lack thereof) itself. Especially enlightening was the result of the research conducted by Dr. Carol Dweck on students responses to different types of praise.

I’ve touched briefly on this topic in the past, including a discussion of praising character vs. achievement in this post on Teaching Students to Play Beautifully. It’s a distinction that is almost foreign to education in our culture, though, so it’s easy to forget and revert back to coddling students and trying to make them feel good for every little positive thing they do, regardless of whether it springs from hard work or minimal effort. I am inspired anew to develop a deeper perspective as a teacher and use words and teaching approaches that address a student’s character, not merely their achievement. In other words, no more congratulations for just brushing their teeth! 🙂

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