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.