“You Make Me Feel Smart”

In class yesterday, I try to make the point about just how difficult it is to be kind in argumentative writing. I’m teaching ancient truths like the rules of civility and the lost art of listening. We’re learning about how to defer to others, to believe the best about them, and to persuade them by finding common ground and acknowledging when an opponent is actually right.

To demonstrate, I ask students to give two genuine compliments to the person on their right. It’s so awkward. It’s so embarrassing. But they do it. We end up loving it. We end up laughing and nodding our heads in agreement with each compliment given.

At the end of it all, a student calls out from the back of the room to me: “You’re on my right, so I have to compliment you.”

“OK,” I say. “Go for it.”

He’s quiet for a moment, and then he says carefully and clearly, “This is my favorite class because you make me feel smart.”

I nearly burst into tears. It’s because I’m suddenly aware of the narrative he’s fighting; someone told him he wasn’t smart, that he couldn’t do it, that he didn’t have anything to offer.

But not here. You’re smart. Your particular intelligence matters deeply here.

Do you remember a teacher making you feel smart?  I had a few that shamed me instead. I think I’m adding this to my teaching philosophy: Teachers need to help students feel smart again.

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  1. Certainly a good reminder in the context of what you wrote about in this essay. We need to listen, give attention, and be willing to reconsider our own opinions so that common ground can be found. It is definitely a lost art today! And if we do that, others will recognize that they have a good mind and deserve to be heard.