Teachers the world over are generous with their encouragement and criticism of their students, all for their development and success. Let’s extend our generosity back to those teachers and express our appreciation and respect for what they have accomplished.

Generous by Nancy Knowlton

If I were to ask 10 people on the street for the definition of the word generous, I would be willing to bet that all 10 would say something about giving money to or sharing money with others. And they would be right. This is the most common understanding of the word and its most common use. But there’s a more basic level of generosity and it doesn’t cost even a cent – it’s a generosity of spirit.

Generous teachers

When I think back to my school experience and my many teachers, my recollections are positive. Their encouraging and positive comments were significant gifts of generosity that made me love school even as I worked hard to develop in the classroom and in sports. My teachers’ kindness and generous engagement wasn’t directed just at me – they supported my classmates and other students in our school.

You could be cynical and say that it was their job to be encouraging, but that isn’t the way that I see it. No, so many teachers gave much more than their jobs required. They went out of their way to smile at me and my classmates inside and outside the classroom. They came to our games and commented on good moves. A tender touch on the shoulder had a great comforting effect at just the perfect time. They walked the playgrounds with us and kept us safe.

But it wasn’t all just sunshine and roses. Our teachers criticized and gave us some harsh evaluations so we could differentiate between excellent, mediocre and poor performance. I learned to appreciate the criticism as much as the compliments. Truth be told, I changed for the better from the criticism, and I value the insight that led to the negative comments from my teachers. Finding the right way to get my attention to recognize and work on my weaknesses was a particular skill of some of my best and most memorable teachers.

No expectation of repayment

And what was their reward for the time they invested in us? Our teachers saw us launched into life after school, whether that was to university, travel or work. For many, they would have only heard snippets of our later lives as many of us moved to cities and communities outside the area.

I think that my teachers’ behavior more than measures up to any of the definitions of generous – freely giving or sharing valuable things. I would add that teachers do this with no expectation of repayment other than the sense that they have done something good for someone else.

The importance of respect

And for this, we need to be generous back to our teachers, respecting them, recognizing them and thanking them. We need to do this one at a time, at a school level, for an entire district and for the whole profession at a country level. While teacher-recognition programs have been long ingrained in various schools, districts and systems, and parents show their appreciation with gifts and cards at Christmas and at the end of the year, the respect element is lacking. The irony is that it is respect that is most highly desired by teachers, and it is in the shortest supply. The chronic criticism of education and teachers does much to destroy the very group that will be needed most to transform education in the future.

Tony Mullen, in his article We Need a National Teacher Monument, noted the lack of recognition of teachers and the teaching profession nationally when he visited Washington. Monuments abound for specific people and professions, but not one of them acknowledges the contributions of teachers to the improvement of the nation.

Applauding teachers

So as we look to ensure a responsive education system that delivers curious and creative graduates who will be capable of solving the big challenges ahead, let’s be generous in recognizing that it has been that system and the millions of individual teachers that have gotten us to where we are today. Many good things have been done by teachers to inspire children to reach for their dreams and accomplish great things. Let’s recognize and applaud that accomplishment first.

Leave the language of criticism behind and focus on how we need to adapt and respond to future needs.

Be generous – there is little cost and much reward.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.