There is no education like adversity

Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head… wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It.

I am often struck by how many people I meet that have been deeply affected by the words of a discouraging teacher. Words matter. They can deeply affect the way we feel, respond and be motivated and inspired – particularly when uttered by those we regard as ‘significant others’.

We expect teachers to encourage us, be supportive and constructive, to communicate high expectations of our achievement – not only by the way they design and organise our learning, but also by how they speak to us and the words they use. That’s their job.

I think most of us would have concerns about colleagues who were being regularly sarcastic and cynical towards students. Few of us I hope, would tolerate colleagues who were insulting, let alone abusive (even where extreme provocation might justify or tempt such a reaction).

But what about teachers who say negative, unsupportive or discouraging things or who simply don’t give us the reaction or advice we think we deserve?

Are they doing their job properly?

When I was studying for my A levels my Economics teacher told me in front of the whole class that I “should apply for a polytechnic or a college course” because “you will never get in to university”.

I remember the incident as if it was yesterday. I remember her exact words, her tone, her facial expression as she spoke. I even remember what she was wearing – it was the 1970’s, so I won’t horrify you with a detailed description – but such was the significance of that moment it is burnished on my memory nearly 40 years later.

How did I react?

I was shocked in to an embarrassed silence (perhaps that’s what she intended as I was being a bit lippy at the time).

And how did it affect me?

I sat there and thought to myself: “Oh… won’t I? Well… I’ll… show… you…!”

And I did.

But I look back on that incident not as a humiliating put down by a cruel and discouraging teacher (who may even have been justified in her frustration and anger with me). I look back on that moment as almost certainly the greatest motivating phrase I had ever heard in my life. Even now someone telling me “You can’t” provokes in me the thought “I can.”

As Benjamin Disraeli once said: “There is no education like adversity.”

Some of us are motivated by it too.

What are thoughts on this?


12 thoughts on “There is no education like adversity

  1. Funnily enough I was having a very similar discussion to this last night and I remembered an incident that happened while I was in Year 10.

    I was often in and out of the popular girl group and on one occasion I was rather offensively dropped from the group via a vicious rumour about my mother. On telling my form tutor she said:

    “Well when I speak to her, what is she going to tell me you have said about her?”

    “Nothing Miss. I actually haven’t done anything to deserve this.” Actually no one could ever do anything do deserve this.

    I would love to say that I turned around and found the incident motivating in some way, but actually, when I look at how I have handled later situations in my life I can see the remnants of that conversation in my actions.

    Teachers have to be so careful with what they say. It’s such a shame that they are only human.

    1. Thanks MissPip – it is very interesting how different people react in different ways to things said and respond to different kinds of motivation. There are certainly some organisational environments where ‘perverse’ incentives and ‘adverse’ motivational techniques are more regularly employed and seem to work for some people – military training is but one example. I’m glad you concluded that teachers are only human. While I think words are important and teachers should go in to work with the intention of gratuitously offending people, we should all remember the enormous ability of us all for robustness and resilience. Thanks for the post.

  2. My A Level geography teacher (probably accidentaly) did this. I needed a C to get onto the course at university I wanted and I’d been predicted a U or an E. I asked about a prediction of a C and she said “well I could, but you won’t get it.” I thought “right b****, I’ll show you”.

    I got a C, but at the expence of the B grade in my favourite subject.

    I honestly don’t think she intended to motivate me. She was just a cow!

    I don’t think this is a valid motivational technique, especially since I was a fragile child and this could have crushed me completely.

    1. Thanks Lyndsey. I agree – I don’t think it’s a legitimate way to motivate people – it’s not ethical for a start. I wouldn’t expect my doctor to tell me I was going to die as a way of motivating me to stop smoking – even if it did work and even if it was true. But I guess the issue I’m raising is… sometimes it clearly does work…! Thanks for your post.

  3. I spent the first half of my teaching career trying to prove that I could do the job? Why? Because of comments made by two teachers along the way! You forget everything positive that is ever said and hang off the negative comments. It’s human nature!

    1. Thanks Andy. It is interesting (psychologically) why some of us can be motivated by praise and approval and others can be crushed by criticism and disapproval. I don’t want to get too much in to psycho-babble (mainly because I”d have no idea what I would be talking about) but I’m keen to explore the ethical issues surrounding the language we use to ‘motivate’. You didn’t say whether the comments of your former colleagues resulted in a positive result or whether in the end it was just a damaging experience. Would you like to expand…?
      Thanks for your post.

  4. I agree, it is so true. I can’t recall any particularly negative experience. Although you do remember all those admonishments. So now, as a teacher, walk in with that thought in your mind. They may remember what you say for the rest of their life. How you want to be remembered? I think teachers strive to be remembered. Be positive, be concise, speak a grain of truth.
    truly, hopefully Mrs.Weir

    1. You are right Krista – but don’t be too hard on yourself. The teacher who told me I couldn’t make university did me one of the biggest favours of my life (though perhaps unintentionally). We can’t always say ‘perfectly motivational’ things to children – and when we do, most of the time they are not motivated by it. I do think we need to recognise that some people are actually motivated by adversity. Thanks for your post.

  5. You are so right – it stays with you forever. I am 35 and back in my secondary school years in 80s Liverpool it was apparently acceptable for the deputy head and my R.E teacher to nickname me ‘dead loss’ in front of the entire class. I was well behaved, diligent with my homework and tried very hard and I just lived with it and did not complain once. My grades were good but I was a bit forgetful sometimes, so in her eyes it appears to have been justified. I certainly did not deserve that label and I have never forgotten it. She was just a bully who saw an easy target in me.
    The same teacher called me in tell me not to opt for GCSE Latin because it was beyond me and that I would fail – her words. I ignored her – it motivated me to prove her wrong and I studied it anyway and achieved a grade B, which I feel was quite respectable.
    I have received counselling in the last few years which has worked on my self esteem. My experience has made me very aware of doing all I can to bolster my students and encourage them as much as possible.
    Thanks for this post – a subject close to my heart.

    1. Thanks for that mrsnelson. To call someone a ‘dead loss’ is indefensible and I can see how that might well be an experience that scarred you. While I take your point completely I am keen to explore the notion – accepted by you in the example you gave of your GCSE Latin – that we can actually be motivated by adverse comment even though it is arguably unethical for a teacher to do it.

      ‘Proving doubters wrong’ is perversely, highly motivating to many of us – but teachers have to doubt us in the first place. If we know that teachers will only ever make encouraging and supportive remarks – will we come to doubt that they really mean what they say..? What a conundrum..!

      Thanks for your post.

  6. A famous story in our family is that the headmaster at my dad’s school in the early ’70s explained to my Nan at a parents evening that her son would ‘probably never do very well’ and ‘wasn’t expected to achieve grades at A-Level that gave him any chance of getting to University’. He also told her that half the time the only reason he was aware of my dad’s presence in the school was due to his ‘shock of unruly red hair’ as he rarely contributed.
    My Nan apparently listened very carefully and thanked the teacher before heading home. A few years later when my Dad achieved his hoped-for results and was ready to head off to University, my Nan went back into the school with his A-Level results slip and his offer letter from Newcastle University. She showed them to the headteacher, told him never to underestimate her children and walked out.
    I think that there are occasions when teachers like this can motivate pupils to do better, but it’s a risk that teachers should never take.

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