There is probably no term of recent vintage that has so captured the fancy of parents and educators as "self-esteem." Everything from Monica Lewinskys affair with the President of the United States to why Johnny cant read is blamed on a lack of self-esteem. Read ten observations of teachers and at least eight of them will admonish the observed educator to pay more careful attention to the avoidance of criticism that can be damaging to a students self-esteem. When faced with a report card grade, test result or an assignment grade that is not as high as they would like, our students are not adverse to seeking a reconsideration of their marks with an appeal to consider the impact of the low grades on their self-esteem. One of our teachers even recently received a call from a parent excoriating her for having devastated her daughters self-esteem by suggesting to the class that the young woman had done an outstanding job on a class assignment. If to criticize students or to praise them is potentially damaging to their self-esteem, what on earth are we talking about when we use this term? Why is it that vague notions of self-esteem appear to be driving so much of what happens in our nations classrooms?
In the March 6, 1999 edition of Newsday we read what common sense should have told us long ago. Research, the article claims, has shown that class time spent on teaching skills and specific content is more important to student achievement than exercises aimed at developing self-esteem . One is left to wonder how many millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to make this remarkable discovery. It should be self-evident that peoples self-worth is only improved by meaningful accomplishment. Yet, in the psycho-babble that too often passes for serious thought in the field of education, this simple truth has been ignored with grave consequence. For too long we have been more concerned with the way our students feel rather than with what they know or how they comport themselves. Those educators with the temerity to insist on the supremacy of high academic standards to student comfort have too often been thought of as unfeeling or uncaring, when they have cared more about the futures of their students than those who wrongly focused on how they feel now.
If we are serious about raising academic standards and if desire to improve student discipline, we must free ourselves from the very dubious notions that criticism is bad, that demanding real excellence is unreasonable and, above all, that students can't be corrected and disciplined and still be in a humane school environment.
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