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Stop complimenting

As an elementary school teacher, I have made it my policy for two decades to avoid commenting on a student’s physical appearance. A student’s appearance should be the last thing of concern to a teacher, but more importantly, these comments, even when positive, can be damaging and hurtful to kids.

This policy has been scoffed at by many of my friends and colleagues. I have been laughed at and criticized for my position. I’ve been told that I am taking things too far. Becoming too politically correct.

Yet I have articulated this position to every class of students over the past two decades, and I have never had a single student scoff or laugh or even question my policy. Every single student has appreciated and supported my position. Some of them have tried to adopt it as well.

It’s only certain adults who think I’m dumb.

A few years ago, just prior to a performance by the school’s choir, I watched a teacher compliment a young man on his appearance. The boy was wearing an impeccable suit and tie, and even his dress shoes gleamed in the dull glow of the hallway’s fluorescent lighting.

The teacher doing the complimenting was aware of my “no commenting on physical appearance” policy. After praising the young man for his appearance, she turned to me and asked how her complimentary words could ever be construed as hurtful to the child.

I pointed out to the teacher that while the young man was probably feeling great about her compliment, the boy to his left and the boy to his right, who were not wearing suits and had not received a similar compliment, and who were perhaps from families who could not afford suits and ties and gleaming dress shoes for their boys, might be feeling very differently as they take the stage.

Therein lies the danger.

As one who grew up in relative poverty, I know how it feels to hear your classmates and friends receive compliments for their appearance while you do not.

Worse, I know how it feels to receive a compensatory compliment from a teacher who suddenly realizes that he or she has probably made you feel lousy while gushing over the appearance of your best friend.

That student in the three-piece suit was also about to perform in a concert. The teacher had an opportunity to compliment the students’ effort, focus, collaborative spirit, or positive attitude. Instead, she complimented him on his physical appearance, thus reinforcing the importance of looking good over so many other more meaningful attributes.

There are simply too many other things worth complimenting for any educator to be discussing physical appearance. Effort, sportsmanship, empathy, helpfulness, rigor, respect, friendship, and charity are just some of the areas in which teachers can easily offer meaningful, productive comments.

Not to mention that a student’s choice of clothing and haircut, especially in elementary school, are often not entirely within the child’s control. Oftentimes a teacher’s compliment about appearance amounts to little more than a comment on how the student’s parent chose to send their child to school, making the words even less meaningful.

So more than two decades ago, I decided to stop commenting on students’ physical appearance, and I have held this line ever since.

It hasn’t been easy.

A girl walks into my class with a new haircut and asks me what I think.

I say, “I don’t know about your hair, but I love the way you use that brain underneath your hair to solve math problems.”

A boy walks into class with a new shirt promoting his favorite basketball team and asks me if I like it.

“I didn’t really notice the jersey,” I say. “But I noticed the way you played kickball yesterday. You were a great sport. Good job.”

Sometimes these exchanges are a little awkward, and sometimes the kids think I’m a little crazy, but I would choose awkward and crazy over the alternative.

In order to counter the furrowed brows and confused stares, I have made it a habit to tell my students about my policy now, and in almost twenty years, I have never had a student disagree with my rationale or debate my decision. In fact, almost every student responds positively to my policy.

Nevertheless, I have been told by many educators and parents that my policy is unrealistic and unnecessary. They typically bolster their arguments with statements like, “My teachers complimented me when I was a kid, and we survived” and “These kids are going to hear compliments for the rest of their lives, so there’s no reason for us to be sheltering them now.”

These types of arguments boil down to nonsense like this:

If it worked for me, it should work for them.

Change is not possible.

One person can’t make a difference.

If it’s going to be bad later, it might as well be bad now.

I like what I do and don’t want to change but have no rational argument to support my position.

But from tiny acorns mighty oaks grow. That means someone needs to be an acorn. As awkward and crazy and divergent as that acorn may seem, someone must take the first stand.

Don’t tell me that my policy is foolish because no one else adheres to it.

Don’t tell me that my policy is useless because everyone else in that child’s life will comment on physical appearance.

Change often begins with a few lone voices, and it turns out that I am not alone.

In a piece entitled  One Hundred Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do, Bruce Buschel writes:

“Do not compliment a guest’s attire or hairdo or makeup. You are insulting someone else.”

This is a man who understands the inherent hazard of a compliment, particularly when it addresses physical appearance.

In a piece entitled How to Talk to Little Girls, Lisa Bloom writes:

“Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.”

Or watched Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk “Why thinking you’re ugly is bad for you.” She would agree with my policy wholeheartedly.

In the end, regardless of whether or not you believe that physical appearance should be a matter of discussion with students, there are far too many more important things to comment on during the course of a school day for me to waste an ounce of breath or a second of time on a student’s dress or hairstyle or shoes.

I am too busy on a minute-by-minute basis helping children attain the skills they need to be successful in the future to waste a single moment on the way they look.

Perhaps you are, too.