Student Well-Being Opinion

Are Grades and Evaluations Resulting in Feelings of Inferiority?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 07, 2015 4 min read
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No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” -- Eleanor Roosevelt

If only it were as easy as that. Following the logic of this statement, how is it that a less than fully positive evaluation from an evaluator or an interaction with a parent or colleague can leave us feeling badly or inferior? What does it take to separate feeling badly from feeling inferior? And what is the difference?

Feeling badly about an evaluation or an interaction is not necessarily a bad thing. If one takes the time to reflect on the “bad feeling”, it can be a motivator. Feeling bad is a part of life that all of us need to learn how to manage. We have a choice as to whether to allow it to turn into stress or to turn into an informant. Often it is the springboard from which we learn and change. Feeling bad about something can provoke our reflection on how to change “it” the next time. Let’s just say we feel badly when we disappoint, or do less well than we can, or make a mistake that calls for forgiveness or get hurt or misunderstood. Feeling badly happens in our core.

But when an interaction turns us toward feeling inferior, a slippery slope presents itself from which unproductive, self-deprecating and accommodating behaviors can develop. Feelings of inferiority are usually unrealistic and always destructive. Those feelings happen in our heads; hence, Eleanor Roosevelt’s words suggesting we can chose our thoughts. Adults have the capacity to maneuver through the paradox of their thoughts and feelings; children are just developing their capacity to do so. For them feeling badly and feeling inferior are more closely associated. We can be of help.

If we don’t address this issue as adults in schools, we will not be able to address this issue with the students in our charge. If teachers and principals being evaluated receive feedback as critical and, obviously, judgmental, the chances of feeling inferior arise. It is both the responsibility of the evaluator and of the evaluated to attend carefully to the language used, the translation that takes place in one’s head, and the reaction as the words settle.

If the adults feel that feedback and evaluation contributes to their inferiority or superiority, first, they are comparing themselves to others, not to the agreed upon standard and, second, they are internalizing it as judgment of them as a person, not a statement about a task or an action. The difference is huge. Teachers and principals are evaluated at least annually but, children are evaluated multiple times a day by adults and peers alike.

How Does This Impact Students?
If the adults are not good at giving and receiving feedback to each other, how can they do better with the students? Feedback, in schools and in personal relationships, can generate understanding and support growth. Words matter and, often, come quickly and directly from how we are feeling. Teachers and principals can “shut down” in their evaluations. We expect it is done in classrooms as well.

No one intends, we hope, to make another feel badly. There are times when we feel badly but we have the facility to turn it around before it takes hold within us. But children do not have the fully developed ability to maneuver through this maze of emotion. We can use words and tones and gestures that make them feel badly and inferior. It is hard to be resilient in the face of such a child- adult interaction.

Becoming aware of the language we use is an important step. Understanding its source is even more important. Herein, lies one value of reflection. Sometimes the language chosen is because of habit. Most times that habit’s source is how we are feeling or perhaps it is cultural. The route to change this is two fold. Become mindful; listen to yourself as if you were the recipient of your own messages. Take the time to question the source within that is generating that message.

The Concept of “Not Yet”
If we accept and understand the professional goals for teachers and principals, and understand the continuum leading up to their achievement, then any grade along the way is simply “not yet.” If the goal for understanding and achievement for students are understood and accepted by the students, then “not yet” is simply a nudge, not a comparison, certainly not a limiting judgment. If the rubrics currently being used to describe the journey toward the goal are the informers of the behaviors expected, then where we, or our students, are on that continuum tells us where we are in relation to the intended goal. The language of “not yet” forces a conversation about the learning journey, the current point, and the goal or destination. It forces, for the adults, the discussion and analysis of targets and clarification of the indicators along the route. The same goes for the students.

If we are to contribute to the social/emotional development of the students in our charge, this is one area that calls for attention. If teachers and principals are successfully maneuvering the emotions sent or received regarding their own evaluations, this is the best resource for turning around and helping students learn how to do so as well. Until grades are replaced with feedback and coaching, students will receive grades and they will internalize messages intended and not. With teachers as with students, if what we truly want is for them to improve in their work then the language must reflect that intention. As the intention becomes clear, the language follows.

Carol Dweck on This Topic:
Even Geniuses Work Hard
The Power of Believing You Can Improve

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.