Critical Winter


“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

-Albert Camus


“What do you consider the most humane? – To spare someone shame.  What is the seal of liberation? – To no longer be ashamed in front of oneself.”

-Friedrich Nietzche



Today, I thanked my students, just for being there – for allowing me the privilege to teach them.  I realize that as teachers, we often forget the gratitude and focus on criticism. It is our job to judge.  We are paid to dole out feedback and award grades. And, our job description tends to make a person…well, critical.

But, how do we as educators, as writers, as humans, get beyond criticism to show people love while helping them get better?

A mentor of mine was talking about criticism the other day at lunch.  She said, “Criticism without compassion is brutality.” I sighed in response.  What a great quote! I asked her to elaborate and she said anyone can judge someone, but it is an art to give compassionate criticism.

I have always been criticism-adverse.  Really. Who isn’t? Any time I submit work to be published, the anxiety game is on.  And, I’m just waiting for the fallout. Or, the silence. Not sure which is worse.  

I blame my parents.  I was brought up with two supportive and very loving parents who guided me and made me feel like everything I did was wonderful.  Jokingly, I tell my friends I was brought up in a “Praise Parade”. Although I am beyond thankful to my parents for their unconditional love and support, they did not prepare me for the harsh world of receiving criticism.  

How does one take criticism well?  How can you make sure to spare a person’s heart, while providing sufficient and honest guidance to help him or her improve?  The interesting thing is I am a fervent practitioner of “Praise Parade” principles with my friends, family. Yet with my students, I tend to stray from the parade route.  I do acknowledge their growth and praise them for learning, but I may be a bit curt and technical in the feedback I give them. I acknowledge this mechanical style of feedback can be strident.

Just this morning, one student submitted her draft and said, “I know it’s not good, but I will take all of the tough criticism you can give me.  All I need is your help.” This plea proves that students relate education and coaching with shaming. Why not? This is probably all they have received in the past.  She assured me “she could take it”. Why do we have to take it – to brace ourselves for the onslaught of brutality?

There is a quote floating around social media by Larry Martinek that states, “Children don’t hate math.  What they hate is being confused, intimidated and embarrassed by math. With understanding comes passion, and with passion comes growth – a treasure is unlocked.”  English comes with the same kind of baggage. People feel intimidated by writing and have already deemed themselves failures before even walking into my classroom.

I do not have a definitive answer, but I have been thinking a lot about about criticism and want to employ these changes with my students.  I am reading a wonderful book, Atomic Habits by James Clear.  In it, he suggests, “Focusing on the overall system, rather than a single goal…an atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent improvement.  They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results” (Clear 27). 

So, using this important book as a guide, let’s make a change.  Think about adding 1% of love into each criticism. The awareness of the person’s feelings, and leading with love and a sense of compassion can truly help a person become better at whatever task they are undertaking. 

I plan to infuse part of the proud tradition my parents started for me into my teaching.  I can still do the work of teaching/coaching, while charting onward with the “Praise Parade”.  

And, Joy Harjo, the Poet Laureate of the United States (who incidentally is coming to our campus in April), agrees with praise as protection of the soul:

Praise crazy.  Praise sad.

Praise the path on which we’re led.

Praise the roads on earth and water.

Praise the eater and the eaten.

Praise beginnings; praise the end.

Praise the song and praise the singer.


Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

-Joy Harjo, Excerpt from “Praise the Rain”


2 thoughts on “Critical Winter

  1. I love this post, Elizabeth! I always try to remember this quote when working with students, including when giving feedback. “Children don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I have found this to be true. I will add your quote and post to add more kindness to critical feedback. The intention is always to be constructive, but this makes me want to be even more conscious! Thank you!


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