The Sentimentalizing of ‘Self-Esteem’

By Mike Schmoker — September 06, 1989 12 min read

A single word can wield enormous power.

The word I’m concerned with--its current use and its influence on educational as well as behavioral standards--is “self-esteem.”

At first blush, the word seems innocuous enough. But in finding its way into education, it has brought along some of the baggage of pop psychology--the fatuous implication that what is precious can be gotten cheaply. Nonetheless, the word has an almost incantatory power. Every discussion in education takes a bow in its direction.

Of course, educators must be concerned with the character trait this word denotes. That should mean we work to create an environment where it can grow.

What disturbs me is that self-esteem has been sentimentalized: It has become less a quality to be slowly earned than one quickly and easily given; not something wrought but spontaneously realized.

The emphasis, where this word is used, more commonly falls on creating good feelings than on connecting self-respect to effort and attainment. Indeed, there is a real resistance to tying it to achievement.

This is an understandable reaction to a difficult problem: Many children are burdened, through little fault of their own, with negative, defeatist feelings. We want to help them.

But it is mystifying that with time we have not seen this impulse for what it is. There’s something sadly comical about whole auditoriums full of students being told, indiscriminately, to feel good about themselves, even to stand up (I’ve seen this) and give testimonials on how much they like themselves. Never mind any concern for humility or any mention of the price that real self-respect demands. We’re all just swell, and if we only knew it, the world would be our oyster.

This is a flimsy notion, and no one believes it. Not for very long, anyway. Like it or not, self-esteem is very much a function of such unyielding realities as what we can do, what we’ve done with what we have, what we’ve made of ourselves.

Yet you’d never know it if all you read were education journals. Certainly, self-esteem is also to some extent a matter of luck, the vicissitudes of such factors as relationships, opportunities, and upbringing. But these are not, at least primarily, the school’s province. The school--with every effort toward sensitivity, compassion, and encouragement--is in the business of teaching: of cultivating ability, talent, decency, and the capacity for sustained application, the belief that you get what you pay for.

And in addressing interpersonal relations (a focus of our concern with self-esteem), we’d probably do well to make education more participatory and provide more opportunities for performance and interaction. Having students speak, discuss a story, explain a math problem, or read a paper to classmates would go a long way toward building the connections that help foster self-respect. These kinds of activities offer the best opportunity for promoting self-esteem, albeit on the wreckage of emotional misfortune some students bring with them into the classroom.

Shortcuts, such as lowering academic standards, do not work. Ask any teacher, in a moment of candor, if he can get average kids, the majority of students, to put forth a sufficient effort in school, make good use of class time, or apply themselves fairly conscientiously to homework and other assignments. An alarming number of teachers don’t think they can. Many complain that only about half of their students will even do homework.

Yet promotion is nearly automatic, and grades, which might point up these tendencies, are higher than ever. Can we, in an attempt to be “encouraging,” be so accommodating and still expect the level of achievement that makes for real self-esteem?

What grade inflation suggests, at least tacitly, is that what students are doing is good enough, and that our insistence on quality is a bluff.

It’s ironic that the rationale often cited for generous grading and a reluctance to fail students centers on developing self-esteem. In the name of self-esteem, we are asked to give young people something they didn’t earn in the mistaken hope that they can go on to master what is presumably harder than what they have already failed to learn.

What they do learn is to play the game--the essence of which is that standards are not based on what students should do, or are able to do, but on what they will do, no matter how low the common denominator. Which is, as we know, pretty low: Among industrialized nations, our performance in every academic category is embarrassingly poor.

But you’ll seldom see these deficiencies reflected in American report cards. The plain, unpleasant truth is hidden behind the good grades, lost in the inordinately upbeat climate that too often prevails in our schools. If you’re not sure that’s true, consider the results of a recent international survey': Korean students rank at the top in mathematics, it showed, and American students at the bottom. But when the students were asked whether they thought they were good at the subject, the Americans ranked first, and Koreans were at the bottom.

It is a commonplace that too much groundless praise can breed complacency. It can, and it has. There is a point at which even a good thing, however well-intended, becomes excessive, where a misguided concern with self-esteem is inimical to what we are trying to accomplish; it can keep young people from doing their best.

For our part, the best we can do is teach them, in an atmosphere of compassion and perhaps more active participation, that self-respect is earned, often with considerable difficulty, and equip them to earn it.

Mike Schmoker is coordinator of elementary libraries for the Amphitheater School District in Tucson, Ariz.

At the Command Of the Clock And Curriculum

Education Week
Volume 9, Issue 1, September 6, 1989, p 44

Copyright 1989, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

At the Command Of the Clock And Curriculum

By Tracy Kidder

Chris carried in her mind a 5th-grade curriculum guide. It conformed roughly to the 20-year-old official guide, which she kept in her desk and never consulted anymore. If she could help it, her students would not leave this room in June without improving their penmanship and spelling, without acquiring some new skills in mathematics, reading, and writing, and without discovering some American history and science.

At about ten of eight in the morning, before the children arrived, she stood at the chalkboard, coffee cup in her right hand, a piece of chalk in her left. ... The chalk rattled, never squeaked, as she wrote down the word of the day in penmanship under the lists of children who owed her work. ...

Sometimes she chose a word to suit her own mood (“fancy”) or the weather (“puddles”). Other days, she wrote the names of historical figures whom she wanted to discuss (“Benjamin Franklin,” “Martin Luther King”) and once in a while a word that the children would not know (“eugenics”)--she hoped thereby to train them to use the dictionary.

At eight, a high-pitched beep from the intercom announced math, which lasted an hour. Some children left her room for math, replaced by some children from the room next door. For math and reading, children were “levelized,” which means the opposite of “leveled"--they were grouped by abilities. Her lower math group began the year with a review of the times tables, and her top group with decimals. She would take each group as far as she could, but every child had to improve in problem solving, every member of the low group had to master long division at least, and all of the top group should get at least to the brink of geometry.

A half-hour of spelling followed math. For 15 minutes, Chris would talk to them about their spelling words. ...

Then came 15 minutes of study, during which teams of two children quizzed each other. Chris paired up good spellers with poor ones. She also made spelling an exercise in socialization, by putting together children who did not seem predisposed to like each other. She hoped that some would learn to get along with classmates they didn’t think they liked. At least they’d be more apt to do some work than if she paired them up with friends.

Her guesses were good. Alice raised her eyes to the fluorescent-lit ceiling at the news that she had Claude for a spelling partner. Later she wrote, “Today is the worst day of my life.” Clarence scowled at the news that he had Ashley, who was shy and chubby and who didn’t look happy either. A little smile collected in one corner of Chris’s mouth as she observed the reactions. “Now, you’re not permanently attached to that person for the rest of your life,” she said to the class. ...

Then, as a rule, she left the spelling partners quizzing each other and carried her coffee cup to the Teachers’ Room, where she sat down for a few minutes, the first minutes of rest for her feet since penmanship. Then she hurried back to her classroom in time to supervise the comings and goings of students for reading.

She had three different reading groups, composed of children from various 5th-grade homerooms. Two of her groups were lodged in the 3rd-grade-level and one in the 4th-grade-level “basal” readers.

The school had brand new basals. They were more than reading books. They were mountains of equipment: big charts for teaching what were called “skill lessons,” and big metal frames to hold those charts erect, and workbooks for the children to practice those skills, and readers full of articles and stories that did not fairly represent the best of children’s literature, and, for each grade level, a fat teacher’s manual that went so far as to print out in boldface type the very words that Chris, or any other teacher anywhere, should say to her pupils, so as to make them learn to read. Chris didn’t teach reading by the numbers, right out of the manual. She made up her own lessons from the basal’s offerings.

She spoke with each of her groups for 25 minutes every day about skills and stories. Most of the time, her reading students enjoyed those conversations, and many enjoyed the 25 minutes each group spent in reading whatever they liked to themselves--she let them lie on the floor if they wanted during that time. But almost every child hated the 25 minutes spent in the basal’s workbooks. Judith, a most proficient reader, who went to another room for that period, said, “I love to read, but I hate reading-reading.”

Chris had many disaffected readers, and the workbooks were not improving their attitudes. They slumped over those workbooks, and some looked around for other things to do. She could make them behave, but from many she couldn’t get more than halfhearted efforts. Her two lower groups weren’t making up the ground between them and grade level. She couldn’t quit the basal altogether, but she knew she ought to make the children see that there is more to reading than workbooks. She planned to give them breaks from the basal. She’d have them read some novels. Maybe they’d prefer that. She’d have to get Debbie, the director of the reading program, to find her multiple copies of some novels.

Chris wished she could vary the morning’s timetable now and then, so that she could linger over certain lessons. But the movement of students among homerooms for math and reading meant that, in the morning, she had to quit every subject when the clock commanded, and, on occasion, had to leave some children puzzled until the next day. ...

She almost always stayed on her feet for the next hour, which belonged to social studies. After the first day, they all knew the names of their city, state, and country, and could find them on the map that she pulled down like a window shade, over by the door and the social-studies bulletin board.

The official curriculum guide expected her to cover all of U.S. history. She had never yet gotten past Reconstruction by June, and did not expect to go further this year. ...

Eleven-thirty was lunchtime. She ate in the Teachers’ Room, a small, grubby sanctuary with three tables and a couple of orange vinyl sofas and a coffee machine. She usually sat with her best school friend, Mary Ann, and they talked about wakes and weddings, sales and husbands, and only rarely about students and lessons.

Afternoon brought some freedom from the clock. She read aloud for 15 minutes to the children, who usually came back from their recess with flushed faces. Her voice calmed them. She read novels, their favorite that fall about a boy whose toy cowboy comes to life and has adventures. Many times when she closed the book and said, “We’ll find out what happens tomorrow,” children would groan. “Read some more, please, Mrs. Zajac?” As often as not, she obliged them.

When she closed the novel once and for all, and said, “O.K., take out your journals, please,” several children would again groan. She said, day after day, “Oh, come on. I know you have lots of interesting things to write about.” They could write about anything, she told them. If they wanted, they could write that they hated Mrs. Zajac. But they must write.

The 15 minutes or so with their journals was to warm them up for an hour of more formal creative writing. They could write stories on any topic they chose. On her own, Chris had read up on the so-called “process” technique of teaching writing. Most of the gurus on that subject advised that children pick their own topics, but in her experience some children would not write at all if she did not offer them freedom from complete freedom. She’d turn off the lights and pass around the room a children’s book full of spooky illustrations, or she’d say they could write stories imagining how they got on the cover of Time magazine.

Every month, the children wrote a book report, a science report, a social-studies report, and several drafts of a story. They jotted down story ideas for a day or two. They composed rough drafts, which they read aloud to a couple of classmates, who were supposed to give them advice. They wrote second drafts and read those aloud to Mrs. Zajac, who gave more advice. When most had finished their final drafts, Chris would examine the stories and pick out a couple of frequent grammatical errors, and then for a week would teach formal grammar lessons--on the possessive, on verb tenses, on exclamations.

She left science for last. For several other subjects, she used textbooks, but only as outlines. She taught science right out of the book; this was one of those texts that takes pains with the obvious and gives the complex short shrift. Chris didn’t know much science and didn’t usually enjoy teaching it. Sometimes she let creative writing encroach on science’s time. About one day in 10, she canceled science altogether and announced--to cheers--an informal art lesson. She often felt guilty about science.

From Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Copyright 1989 by John Tracy Kidder. Reprinted by permission.

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as The Sentimentalizing of ‘Self-Esteem’