I had four things happen over the course of two weeks. One, my latest book proposal got rejected. Two, I was accused of tearing down a child. Three, I found out I was Missouri's Journalism Teacher of the Year. Four, I received a note from a parent thanking me for caring about her child.

The fact that all four are highly intertwined brings me to this column today, and how my fellow teachers out there have probably been in similar shoes. That's because, we, as teachers, are put into the often uncomfortable role of being the deliverer of bad news. We must critique our students. We put grades on their papers. And today's students — and parents — often don't want to hear anything negative. They don't want to hear the truth. Every paper deserves an A, or at least a B, as long as the kid put in the effort. In this cutthroat world of college admissions, a grade of a C has become as much of a pariah as a D or F.

While singer-songwriter John Mayer claims there's no such thing as the real world, as teachers, we know there is. Washington University in St. Louis saw 27,000 applications for its 1,500-student freshman class. You can do the math as to how many were rejected. Unfortunately, rejection is a fact of life, a part of that real world, as also proven by my latest rejection. While I've sold many novels and self-published two, not everything I've written over the past ten years has been bought. As the clock ticked and February ended, the feeling in my gut said that this latest proposal would come back stamped an emphatic no. It did, with the reason "not enough focus on the romance."

Seriously. That was it. While I know what the editor means, I've written 23 romances that have sold worldwide. Couldn't I have revised it? But she wanted to see something else, so I'm going to put my rear in my chair and start over. I'm determined that the next book proposal gets a resounding yes. As to that current proposal, my agent is shopping it around. Neither of us is the kind to give up until the house lights come on.

So that brings me to my tearing down a child. While my book rejection came a bit later than those accusations, they reinforced that I'd done the right thing. It was my job to critique a portfolio so that it could go into national competition. I spent hours looking over everything. I wrote copious notes and a 10-step guide (which will be shared in other states come November) so this student's portfolio could be ready to face off against the other 49 state winners. My reward — I was told I'd torn her down. Belittled her. That I'd been petty. That my motives weren't pure. I apologized for the delivery — for as a communicator I know things can be jumbled. Never was it my intent to diminish her accomplishments.

But my message was dead on. As for petty, my principal, who knows I am not a tearer-downer of children, realized I was simply trying to help her be successful. While her work is brilliant, her packaging wasn't and she wouldn't have made it past round one. In this world of "The Voice" and "American Idol," judges look for every reason to cut you out. This competition is the same. I tried to make her rejection-proof. Instead, I had to write emails defending my actions and rationale. In hindsight, part of me wishes I'd never even tried and simply saved my time and the ensuing aggravation and done nothing. However, doing so would have doomed her to be cut. She had the talent to win — but it didn't come through in how it had been showcased and assembled.

My example is all too common these days. Unfortunately, for teachers, often doing the right thing leads to our own backs being bloody — our thin red line of ink on a paper leading to a gusher down our backs. Parents and students don't want to hear the truth. I've seen parents remove students from certain classes because the teacher is too hard. The truth is success takes a lot to achieve. Winning once doesn't mean you'll win again. Selling one book doesn't mean you'll sell another. Getting one job doesn't mean you'll keep it. As one of my former journalism students told me, "Thank God I had you. When I saw the red ink all over my first feature story in college I was prepared. It looked like what you used to do before I got better." (And, I'm happy to report, by the end of that college class the amount of ink on his papers had faded as well.)

We must teach our students that true learners don't get caught up in the pity party; they shed a tear and then push forward. We must somehow communicate to kids that we are not critiquing them to malign them. They and their parents must claim ownership and not immediately try to deflect the blame. Our feedback is designed so they grow and become better, and become competitive once out in the real world. If not, why should we bother giving any feedback at all? At a journalism workshop I just attended, a lifelong photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gave the students a dose of reality.  He said, "I'm looking at all of you sitting in this room. Some of you will make it. Most of you won't."

I'm not sure they liked hearing that. But it's true. Hit with budget issues, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch fired plenty of people who were bright and competent. Our economy is just starting to add jobs; plenty of competent people are without work. Television shows get cancelled all the time. "American Idol" only picks one.

Nothing will be handed to anyone on a silver platter, unless perhaps you're one of the one percent. The majority will have to work for things and develop work ethic — that ability to learn and grow from our mistakes. Kids must be taught to actually read the comments and take them to heart, and apply new knowledge. If they don't, if they pass the blame, they will never truly achieve. They will feel the world is against them rather than that they have some control at all.

Rejection hurts, but sheltering them from it by creating unrealistic expectations won't make it easier. I wasn't associate editor of my high school newspaper. After learning I'd failed to get the job, I remember crying for two days, and then I got over it and became the best assistant feature editor I could be. It was that or quit, and the latter wasn't an option, as I loved being on the newspaper staff. So I swallowed my pride and got to work. I never won any journalism awards in high school, which is why the fact that I'm a journalism teacher of the year was some positive reinforcement after the earlier portfolio commotion.

Critiquing is hard but it must be done. As teachers, our backs will be bloody. We may not see the fruits of our labors until much later, when students realize some of the hardest teachers were the ones who prepared them the best (if we even see then). So don't give up. Hold tight to teaching grammar, usage and punctuation. Keep on inking those essays to teach proper writing structure and voice. We must do the right thing, even when it's brutal. And sometimes, just sometimes, we might get some good feedback ourselves, like my parent note. I have a boy in my junior English class. He's gotten sick and won't be with us for a while. So I had all the kids sign a greeting card and we mailed it off. Mom emailed me to tell me it made his day. Her email made mine.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 15th 2012, 9:59 AM
Comment by: doctorephesus (Newport Beach, CA)
I took so personally my first essay in first year college English (1972) that I spent hours word crafting with a thesaurus as guide. Of course all this to continue so-called impressive writing chores accomplished in high school. It backfired, badly.
This new prof in my new real world would have nothing of it. Red ink bloodied my pages. The most penetrating were long red spirals through chunks of paragraphs. The most indelible stab that perpetuates to this day a self-critiquing haunt - through an engineering curriculum, medical school, graduate faculty stints and recently (age 58) a commercial law class - was the grand cursive "Whee!!!!!" liberally applied. Definitely not "Oui" and I got a D, as in deeply shaken.
My response remains: Thank You to that prof and now Ms. Dunaway's confirmation 40 years later, because my resultant successful writings in several fields all require the same diligence to content, clarity and readability. And all are subject to someone who cares - for various reasons - and wields a red pen, like it or not.
Thursday March 15th 2012, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Michele, thank you for your validation of teachers! I taught junior high art and English for many years, and the principles and challenges you describe are the same in those two areas and in dance, drama, music and the other arts as well.

In subjects such as science, history and math there are plenty of indisputable facts; most questions are clear, and answers are right or wrong. The arts are more subjective, and students feel personally insulted and attacked if their creations don't receive unconditional approval; in fact, often approval isn't enough - the students crave lavish praise and think they deserve it.

The kids are not to blame; often their well-meaning parents and other teachers and "experts" believe that a child's "self esteem" must be built up and protected at all costs, and that even mediocre effort should be rewarded. This feel-good attitude has been common in our society for many years; fortunately, it is now being questioned and disputed. I think that Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards" should be required reading for everyone who interacts significantly with children ... or with any people in their "formative years", even adults!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday March 15th 2012, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I loved this article, particularly because I am often the one who has to deliver the bad news and receive the nasty comments from people who don't want the bad news. But sometimes the truth hurts, and you have to accept it as a hard lesson learned, and file it away to remember. Learning things the hard way is painful but extremely effective. Not making the cut for the softball team means you either give up or practice harder for next year. Getting out in a spelling bee means you give up or practice harder for next year. Failing a test means you either go cry in a corner or swallow your pride and ask the teacher for help. Painful lessons are a fact of life and thank you Michele for pointing that out so eloquently. ( And by the way, I appreciate your stellar attitude about your book. That's commendable and I want to applaud you for it. Keep it up.)
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 10:58 PM
Comment by: Jessica S. (Rumford, RI)
As a 6th grade teacher, I completely appreciate this article. 6th grade is a transition year, so I am often faced with students who have been told in the past what "Great" writers they are because they have great ideas, and great voice, only to hit a wall with me because they are unable to write a complete sentence correctly and don't know what a verb is. Some have been crushed, and I have to help them gain confidence to continue working and not give up. Thanks for this article. It was encouraging.
Wednesday March 21st 2012, 4:52 AM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
How do we "correct" without hurting? I am almost 58 years old and still find my lack of acceptance into the world of writing hurtful. The critiques are only an opinion, after all... Especially in a world when, apparently, all forms of what used to be 'incorrect' grammar, spelling and sentence structure are now freely used all over the place... So why is mine so "wrong"??
Thursday March 22nd 2012, 12:17 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Keep writing. Never give up. Keep writing. Never give up. Keep trying to improve. Never give up. Keep looking at life. Never give up. Keep writing!

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