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."