Short term nice, long term harmful
I had a problem with being too nice. Because I once had a job that involved phone sales, I knew how hard the job is and I had a soft spot for those trying to make it work. So when someone would call, I’d be nice. I had no intention of ever buying the product or going on the cruise or signing up for the club, but I’d listen and I’d say I was interested and I’d agree to talk again. I didn’t want to seem mean. After three or four calls, it became apparent that I was in fact NOT nice. I had wasted the time of callers and led them on. If I had been honest at the first call, it would have been better for them. So in a way, being “mean” would have been nice.
This came to mind as I watched some 3rd graders do a presentation. Students had completed projects, and as a culminating event, parents were invited to come see the projects and listen to each child’s three-minute talk. Students were told that one child would be given a prize for being the best speaker. One child really stood out. He was poised, had a clear voice, had lots of feeling, looked at every audience member, gestured well, had a nice pace—he was good. I talked to his dad afterward, and his dad told me all that he done to work with his son teaching him specific skills and showing him how to be a more effective speaker. The other children ranged from mediocre to poor. They shuffled and fidgeted. Some were mumbling, others too quiet. Most spoke in a monotone, some with an odd sing-song lilt that went up in the middle of a sentence and down at the end. Few had gestures. Some were too fast. Bottom line—they weren’t good.
Mean, right? Criticizing eight-year-old children? They all gave their best, didn’t they? Well, it turns out that the teacher wanted to be nice. While it was abundantly clear to everyone in the audience that one speaker stood out, the teacher wrapped up the evening by saying, “I know we said that we would select one speaker as the best, but I think all of the children were winners. All of them did a great job, didn’t they?” Aww, that’s nice. Except it isn’t.
Short term, the teacher was nice. Long term, damage was done. An opportunity was missed. The teacher effectively said something like “All speaking is equal” or “It doesn’t matter if one speaker is better than another” or, even worse, “Who cares how well you speak?” In other words, she missed a chance to say, “Wow. Did you notice how well Victor spoke? Did you see what 3rd graders can do? Let’s learn how to speak better!” She short-changed every student by accepting far less than what they are capable of and giving them the impression that poor speaking isn’t a problem.
The truth is that speaking is the number one language art. Professional and social success is more dependent on effective oral communication than on any other skill. It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters if you can communicate what you know, and the main form of adult communication? Verbal communication. Robbing students of the chance to become better speakers is definitely not nice. Failing to give them help to improve is flat out mean.
Look at a video clip of 4th graders. The first part is from a video a teacher posted on YouTube; the second part is from a school that taught specific lessons about speaking using ideas from Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (see the book here). The video is here: https://youtu.be/dbYTc9ZZQNc
Did you notice a difference in the speaking skill? The book report students aren’t perfect, but they are better. A lot better. So which teacher was nicer, the one who said, “Oh, that’s fine. I don’t expect more from you. Let’s put this up on YouTube for the world to see” or the teacher who said, “You aren’t ready to record yet. Let’s have some lessons on speaking first”?
We aren’t nice when we pretend that all results are equal, something we would never do with any other subject. (“Well, Erik, that answer is wrong because 1/4 plus 1/2 doesn’t equal 1/6, but so what? Everyone wins here!”) We don’t do students any favors by being nice when nice means failing to give them needed help. And we aren’t nice when we ignore a language art that has huge long-term value.
I don’t rudely hang up on callers now, but I do tell them the truth. We can let students know the truth, too. Not doing so is harmful.