Getting seniors ready for work

After reading my previous post on deadlines, one of the students in my senior seminar expressed disappointment that I hadn’t mentioned her name among those who have been posting regularly to our class blog. She was the first student to post, she noted, and has posted every week. She added that she had put her disappointment aside to concentrate on catching up on her missed work — and on getting her name off our weekly “Work Owed” chart.

That got me thinking about the importance of learning to live without much praise.

I remembered when I was a young reporter on the business desk at New York Newsday — so young, it seems to me now! I was 29 or 30 at the time of the incident I’m recalling; certainly I was old enough to know better, and I knew that at the time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’d been at the paper for about a year, maybe a little more. I was meeting with my assignment editor, Steve Zipay. I don’t recall what made me say this, but I clearly remember complaining to him, “No one ever tells me I’m doing a good job.”

He fixed me with a mildly exasperated yet kindly look. “Barbara,” he said, “at this level, no one’s going to tell you you’re doing a good job.”

It’s assumed that you’re going to do a good job, he went on. Occasionally, someone may remark on it, and if you do something really terrific, you may get some brief recognition. But day to day appreciation? No. People are going to tell you what they need. Everyone is busy, and everyone is thinking about the next thing that has to get done, the next deadline.

It was a lesson that stuck with me, obviously.

Most of my students are already working, but not at jobs that mean much to them. When they get a job that serves their passion and reflects their training, they may be hoping for more recognition than they expect now, from the assistant manager at the store, say. Keep that hope in check, I want to tell them. The reason for working at something you’re passionate about is that the work is its own reward.

Recognition comes in other ways. Extra responsibility. A tougher assignment. Eventually, perhaps, an award or a promotion. But day to day, the motivated worker finds satisfaction in the work. In teaching these seniors, I’d better be as demanding, and as frugal with praise, as the overworked editors at their first jobs will be.

  1. I think I know where the inspiration for this post came from…

    A relevant story:

    One of my friends, after writing a 25 page research paper, was asked if he was happy with what he produced. “I don’t know yet,” he answered. “I’ll tell you when I get my grade back.”

    I don’t think the burning desire for positive feedback should be treated as a given feature of human consciousness. Instead, I’d chalk it up to 22 years spent scrounging for As and “good job”-s from teachers. Perhaps we might reconsider the ways in which we condition students with continually produced, quantitative evaluations of their performance.

    • Adrian
    • February 28th, 2010

    This…is…so…true. I mean in our defense, we are constantly evaluated in school. Since it is constructive, we are told what we did well and what needs improvement.

    At work you have a job to do and everyone is so busy. Working nonstop from 5 am to 10 am on a morning shift during a show – no breaks whatsoever – everyone is able to just finish everything. I am part-time right now and I fill in when needed. The shift was from 5 am to 2 pm one week. I stayed to 2:30-3:00 everyday. People needed extra things done and that was that.

    My boss is great. Nice guy who explains things. He doesn’t adopt a negative tone even though he could and it would be understandable because of how busy he is too. I’ve helped him out a lot, I think I have done very well at times. I have received three “compliments” in six months. 1) “Drudge picked that story up…so it was worth it to produce it.” 2) “Thanks for helping out this week.” 3) “Thanks for the extra help today.” I have no problem with it because I have learned to push myself at certain things and take stock of my improvement. I know when I did well and then maybe I post it on Facebook. lol

    • blubell247
    • February 28th, 2010

    I totally agree — during my internships at least, I knew I was doing a good job because, like you alluded to in your post, I was getting extra responsibilities among other things. I was praised, but not often verbally and directly. You’re right — people are often too busy with their own responsibilities to praise others. I think in high school many students are accidentally trained to work for that grade or that praise. The true praise is working for your own intrinsic benefit, I think. Like you said, the praise will come and you are expected to be doing a good job.

    • Aisha Breland-Henry
    • March 3rd, 2010

    I agree with everyone. In psychology, if the parent consistently rewards a child for a behavior, the child will only do that behavior to receive the reward. It’s the same in the relationship between students and teachers.

    I personally prefer a little praise, not to make my ego big, but as some motivation. You’re not always going to be so involved in something that just doing the work is satisfying enough (we all start off at the bottom).

    I don’t have much confidence in myself. You can praise me a hundred times over and if I feel I can do better that praise goes out the window. However, when I feel hopeless, a little praise goes a long way. And I’m not even asking for someone to say, “You’re the best person ever.” I just want a “You’re doing okay.”

    I realize that I’m not going to get that, especially since entering the journalism program. I have this one teacher who just knows that I can’t write. He actually said that he’s scared for me. In the next breath, he tells me that he knows I can do better because he can tell I’m smart and all that good stuff. Despite that “praise”, every semester I had him, he said the same thing. It makes me think that I will never improve and at that point I actually prefer his concern over his compliment.

    I’m starting to also realize that I just need to build confidence in what I do so that the praise is just an added bonus to what I acheive, but I have setbacks. Nobody’s perfect.

    • Mom
    • March 3rd, 2010

    When I saw the word “seniors” in the header, at first I thought you were writing about people like me. It just shows you where I’m coming from!

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