In Praise of a Little Less Praise

By Peggy Wuenstel — I am considering sending a different kind of valentine this year, one that doesn’t praise the beauty of my true love’s eyes, the curve of his mouth or the strength of his shoulders.I’d like to honor what he has accomplished this year, raising his voice in support of those who often go unheard.

I love the clever pun as much as anyone. As a matter of fact, my project with the kids for the season is a wise -looking owl constructed with various sizes of hearts and the caption. “Owl Always Be Your Valentine”. But, what I want to recognize in my valentines this year is a little different. I want them to know I value their drive, their patience, their willingness to work. I want them to understand that how they feel about themselves is far more important than the valentines they receive from the world.

We’ve become a society that is addicted to praise, needing to be continually recognized not only for our accomplishments, but for our natural attributes. Athletic contracts, (So long, Prince Fielder) are at least as much about where they rank in order in the league as they are about valuation of the talent. And this filters down into the classroom. In the name of bolstering motivation we offer incentives, rewards, behavior programs and prizes for what we, if we are honest about it, wish our students would demonstrate without such devices.

I know what I am talking about. I’m a recovering praise junkie, and I know how painful it can be when it is not forthcoming. I read the comments and the ratings that people attach to this blog, and I relish the positive comments about my work here and on the job. But I am discovering in these later years of my career that this must not be why I do the things that bring me joy. I knew I was in trouble when I could not find contentment in a job well done if no one else remarked about it.

That is the danger of awards and accolades. They distract us from what should be the real carrot – the skills and competencies that we develop. I am working on being content when I notice the quality and depth of something I have done even if others do not. I truly believe that the pursuit is as valuable as the reward but I sometimes cannot get myself to behave that way. And I am very aware that is much easier to say and to feel when you come from homes, school districts, and communities where there is a rich underlying bedrock of these reinforcements of the value of who we are and what we do. Those who do not have them need and deserve our efforts to firm up their foundations and give them solid ground to stand on.

It is partly the result of our popular culture. We now value fame and notoriety more than accomplishment. We don’t know the names of firefighters, military heroes beyond Seal Team 6, cancer researchers or inventors. We know who the Kardashians are, but I am not sure what they do. The entertainment value in many competition shows is not the musical talent of the contestants, but the snarky comments of the judges. We want to be associated with award winners, to own the most highly rated products. Is this because they work the best or because they have the most cachet? We build a whole television season around watching performers receive awards in film, music and athletics.

I’d like to propose that as teachers, we try to tip the scales back the other way, that we enter into the process a bit earlier. Can we place more of our time and resources into support than acknowledgement? Can we bolster the completion of quality work, rather than waiting to extol it at the end? In my nearly three decades of intervention with children who need consistent and understandable feedback to develop communication skills, I have learned that nothing short-circuits continued effort more than a non-specific “good job”. It makes our students believe that they have reached the end, rather than taken an important next step. To spur learners onward and upward we must either identify what we want to continue with some specific language (The use of adjectives is outstanding in this paragraph!) or make a suggestion for improvement (I’m not sure that these three data points relate to your hypothesis). We can help develop Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation by changing what we recognize in student work. Our daughter’s artwork is very rarely “the most beautiful picture we have ever seen”, but it might well be the most detailed, colorful and realistic view of the backyard that she has ever produced.

When we help children understand that we value what they are working on and working toward, we help them understand that they are always important. We prevent the notion that we as human beings are only valuable when we are doing something for others to see and acknowledge, a dangerous and ultimately unsustainable construct. We help them receive valentines that come directly from the heart, all year long.

2 Responses to “In Praise of a Little Less Praise”

  1. 1 Amy Haney January 31, 2012 at 1:07 pm


    You are amazing! Your words are unbelievable! I’m so proud to call you “sister”. Thanks for always putting your entire heart and soul into everything you do! Your works inspire, motivate and touch so many! I know you don’t want to hear praises, but I can’t help it!


  2. 2 Pamela Nievinski January 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    You are so talented. Any children you teach are so blessed to have you as a teacher and I am blessed to have you as a sister-in-law :). Keep up the wonderful work.


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