My ex husband can tell you I used to be the kind of person who would self destruct over minor criticisms. This seems laughable to me now as I can see how annoying, growth-impeding and even self-destructive that behavior can be. Now that I’m older and wiser (and teaching middle school students) I have learned that criticism, whether ill-intentioned or not, is actually pretty useful. A couple of weeks ago I accused my fiance of tuning me out whenever I was ranting. He suggested it might be a good thing. If I forced him to listen to every rant, it would only annoy him. I laughed pretty hard at this comment because I realized that A) not everything I say or write is golden and B) sometimes it’s best to simply rant to yourself.
It seems that the more you are willing to hear criticism as contribution, the more you will learn and grow. It has a side benefit of giving you an enchanting personality. When I notice a student getting defensive I will often ask him what he is hearing me say. What students hear and what I say (or intend to say) can be different. I know that comes as a shock to middle school teachers and parents but kids from about age nine and up are in the process of developing self-awareness. In their younger years kids don’t think much about anybody else. It’s not a problem because it’s developmentally appropriate for them to be disinterested in the opinions of others.
Self awareness and concern about what other people think about them, especially for young teens, is a dual-edged sword. While it helps motivate kids to shower and use deodorant, it also contributes to issues such as low self-esteem and anorexia. Middle school is the time to be sensitive to an awakening self-awareness while helping your students understand the value of high expectations. Reaching for their personal best is fulfilling not because it impresses their friends, parents and teachers, but because it’s exciting, and part of the adventure of living. We can help our students see the difference between achievement for others and achievement for the joy of it. If taking criticism becomes difficult or even painful for your students, it’s a pretty good bet there is too much focus on what other people think. Help your students understand the difference and you’ll give them a gift for life.