“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is; treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.” (Goethe)
One of the first and most important lessons I learned as a teacher was the power of the aptly named “halo effect”—the obvious but at times overlooked truism that by looking for and celebrating the good (the angelic) in others, we help those qualities to emerge and grow. Too often, as teachers and colleagues and parents and friends, we do the opposite—we notice the flaws. And while it is part of our jobs as parents and teachers to guide our charges by helping them to recognize and correct their weaknesses, I truly believe that everyone benefits when we do that less. I believe in looking for the good in everyone.
In late April 2005, discouraged and disheartened by ordinary mid-career struggles, I was considering leaving my present school, and perhaps even leaving teaching. Somehow, what had always seemed my life’s work, was no longer making me happy. I felt underappreciated, unchallenged, unfulfilled. Simply put, I had lost my joy. Then, someone found the good in me. I was asked to serve in a new capacity as a curriculum committee chair—a role that at the time felt like a major stretch—and while I was still floundering and just beginning to process what this job would entail, the Head of School wrote me the following note: “You are the right person.”
Those five words changed the course of my career, and quite possibly my life. Because someone I revered believed in me, I started to believe in myself.
In his poem “St. Francis and the Sow,” Galway Kinnell reminds us of the immense blessings we can bestow on others by finding the good in them. While it may be true that “everything [ultimately] flowers, from within, of self-blessing,” sometimes, Kinnell suggests, “it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.” So St. Francis puts “his hand on the creased forehead of the sow, and [tells] her in words and in touch” that she is lovely. From “the earthen snout all the way through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail, from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine down through the great broken heart,” St. Francis blesses the sow by reminding her that she is good.
As a teacher, I am most effective when I emulate St. Francis—when I notice and celebrate the good in my students’ essays, their comments, their behavior . . . their heads and hearts. In the process, my students mirror back to me the good within myself. And all of us become what we should be.
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