Yes Means Yes. No Means No.

“I’ve been writing poetry since I was 13, and I’ve got a big binder with all my poems in it. Would you mark them for me?”

Over the years, those were the two sentences I most hated to hear from a student. I dreaded reading the poems, because I expected them to be really bad poetry, and depressing. I was always right on both counts.

I didn’t want to say yes, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying no. So I would take the binder and it would sit on my desk for a long time, and every time I looked at it, I felt guilty.

When the learner asked me if I’d had a chance to read them yet, I felt cornered, and I wished I had said no in the first place, but I couldn’t say no at this point, after having taken the binder…

Finally, I figured out a couple of things about the poetry request. Probably the learner doesn’t really want the poems marked—she asked me to mark them because I’m her teacher and that’s what teachers do. Probably she just wants me to know that she’s written them, wants me to be aware of the story she tells in her poems, wants me to acknowledge her suffering.

So how much am I willing to do? What can I say? “That binder is a big accomplishment! I’m impressed. But I don’t have time to mark them all. If you pick out your three best poems, and bring them to me, I’ll find a time to read them and talk to you about them.”

Finally, I put into practice my own lesson on how to say “No!”

Being clear with students about what I will do and can do gets me off the hook of guilt and procrastination. Being clear about what I can’t do or won’t do gets the student out of the role of (im)patient waiter. Being clear means we both operate from the same information, which lessens misunderstanding and lets us get on with what we came to do.

Why is “Be clear” so easy to say, and so obviously right, yet at the same time so difficult to do? Everyone who asks that question will have an idiosyncratic answer—for me it’s wanting to be nice, and not wanting to admit that I’m not SuperTeacher.

Still, it gets easier with practice, and the results are worth any effort it takes.

This is the second of five strategies for developing
stronger relationships with learners. 
See also "Listen."

8 thoughts on “Yes Means Yes. No Means No.

  1. Pingback: I’m not a counsellor. What can I do? | Working in Adult Literacy

  2. I often take on extra tasks to help my students because there is a gap in the system. For example, my incarcerated students can take ESOL, but many need writing in particular. But there is no writing course available, and there is no way or time for me to help them with that in class. This is a real issue, especially when it comes to my advanced students who are practically college ready. They really have a shot at turning their lives around when they’ve come that far. So I try to help where I can. I skim a lot. My “editing” and comments become more general, meaning, I can tell them areas to study and give them books when possible. Yes, it’s more work for me, but it can make all the difference to them.

    As far as reading students’ poetry? I find every writer holds nuggets of insight. The poetry might be poorly written in terms of academic standards, but it’s the message that matters. I can skim student poetry and say, “I like this one the best because…” Providing a simple handout on the art of writing poetry can make them feel like you’ve taken some time to care in a way that encourages them to continue writing. And you can suggest they form writing groups with their peers outside of class. IMO, do what it takes to keep students motivated to learn and to write, and I can take advantage of learning from their writing.

    What I will NOT do is read writing by those who are not in my class. If I did that, I would be reading and editing for the rest of my life! And if the students’ writing starts getting me depressed or if the extra effort means I start shirking other responsibilities, I can be honest and say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that right now. I’m behind on my work.” Students, of all people, seem to understand the concept of falling behind.

  3. I think your post today speaks to the value of teachers’ experience. It is hard to be ready to answer clearly to everything students throw at you until you’ve thought the situation through. What are my feelings? What does the student really want? What do I have time for? What would help learning? etc., etc. Slowly over the years one develops these answers and of course a blog like yours speeds up our learning! Thanks

    • So true. When things go wrong, two outcomes are possible: Either it will never happen again, in which case you don’t have to worry about what you should have done differently, or it will happen again, and you get to try out a different response. Either way, you win!

  4. I remember one time I was teaching high school graduation English. when we got to poetry I would present a wide range of poems and get them to read them out – going round the room. We did that a couple of times with the poems then I would ask what did they think made them poetry and not prose. One young woman had regularly asked me if i would accept her poems instead of other writing assignments. (I had the same fear as Kate about student poems.) I taught the poem

    The fog comes
    on little cat feet.
    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.
    Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (1916) “Fog”
    US biographer & poet (1878 – 1967)

    The student above said, dripping with sarcasm, “And you call this a poem!”

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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