Love and Praise - Valentine's Day Musings

Valentine’s Day is approaching and it got me thinking about expressions of love and affection (and particularly praise).  We use expressions like “I love you” and “I care about you” freely on this day.  Yet, how often do we express these sentiments on a daily basis throughout the rest of the year?  I’m not pointing fingers because I’m guilty of this myself. 

 When I retired from my school system after 30 years, there was a retirement party for me.  My daughter took off from her job teaching first grade in New York City and was there.  She spoke about how I had influenced her life and shared six rules (I won’t bore you with all of them), but Rule #6 was:

“ “Always tell your kids how wonderful they are.  So even through my awkward teenage years, I heard the words “I love you” at least once a day. Because of this, I make sure to tell my kids how awesome they are every day. Sometimes I even hear my dad’s voice when I tell my students, “You are so amazing,” because those are just the words he would use with me and my brother.” ”

 Which raises the question, “Is it enough to tell your students (and staff) that they are awesome (or great, wonderful, or fantastic)?”  Well, Indicator IIIA27 states that All teachers verbally praise students. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Well, as we know, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s a great place to start.

 Take a look at the Wise Ways for this Indicator and you’ll find some very valuable research and guidance.  Interestingly, the research demonstrates that praise is underused in both general- and special-education classrooms. In middle and high schools it may be because teachers “find it difficult to both deliver effective group instruction and to provide (and keep track of) praise to individual students.” (Wright, 2014)

 Wright (2014) provides some suggestions for improving the quality of the praise:

  1. Make praise specific, not general. Praising a student with phrases like “good job” or “nice work” may sound positive and they may be very sincere, but they don't let the student (or staff member) know what it is that they did well.  Better to say, “You are using adjectives in your writing very effectively. They made your description of the setting come alive to the reader.”  Or providing informal feedback to a staff member might sound like this, “Your students were all actively engaged when I visited this morning. Those new techniques you are using are very effective getting everyone involved in their learning.  Keep up the good work.”
  2.  Praise effort and accomplishment, not ability. It seems counterintuitive, but praising ability, rather than effort, can actually inhibit hard work and effort.  Praising effort and pointing out how hard work leads to success can enhance effort and improve performance.  I would highly recommend reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset for a thorough understanding of the complexities of this issue.  She has influenced the way I talk to my four-year old granddaughter. I’m still working on eliminating statements like “You’re so smart” when she says something that is pretty amazing. Maybe I should just not characterize the statement, but follow up with a question to make her think more deeply or justify her thinking. Fortunately, my daughter, the teacher and mother of my grandchild, also has read Carol Dweck and will understand if I don’t tell her, “You’re so smart!”   
  3. Match the method of praise delivery to student (or staff) preferences. Some people prefer to receive praise privately; others in front of the group.  I remember getting a “Glad Note” from my principal when I was a relatively new teacher and being so overwhelmed that he took the time to write me a personal note. I think it meant more to me than if he had said it to me personally. 

So as we approach Valentine’s Day, ponder this Indicator and look at the corresponding Wise Ways.  Think about how you praise students and staff and let’s all work to refine our praise to help the recipient of the praise know what they did well, encourage their effort, and match our method to the needs of the recipient.

 Maybe next time my granddaughter shows me one of the pictures she has drawn, I’ll say, “Maxine, you really put a lot of detail in your picture.  That really helps me understand what is happening in Frozen.” Yeah, right! I'm a grandfather!


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Paul Axtell

With more than thirty years of experience helping organizations and individuals be more effective, Paul Axtell has honed his insights in executive offices and training programs for everyone from office staff and line workers to managers and team leaders.

A large focus of his work is how to run effective and productive meetings—to turn them from something people dread into useful, productive sessions with trackable results.

Paul is the author of multiple books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Being Remarkable, and Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He can be reached at <a href=""></a> and via email at
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