Surviving the Teacher’s Goad

10 Nov

When I heard of the Nobel Prize winner whose teacher had said that he’d never make a good scientist I shook my head. Teachers, I thought. How could they do this to a child? Do they not know how much a child cares for their opinion, craves their approval and depends upon them for support?


Because young children are so suggestible nursery and primary school teachers need to be very sensitive to the unintended consequences of what they say to the children. A casual negative remark can scar a child for life and impair creativity. A generation ago it may not have mattered so much since most jobs were based on tasks and boundaries. The next generation will have to move beyond that and all premium jobs will include initiative and creativity. The rest would be delegated to the cheapest option. A teacher’s casual remark could mark the child for success, or not.


And yet, there are some who are stronger than we give them credit for – the Nobel prize winner being a case in point. He does remember the teacher’s remark, and most likely remembers the hurt too. But the fact remains that not only did he actually become a great scientist, but also was able to get recognition for it – requiring two entirely separate skill sets.


A school teacher does make a difference, but it does not necessarily mean that the teacher must approach all children with kid gloves. Sometimes children need a challenge too. I do not justify the negative remarks of the laureate’s teacher, but I do think we need to acknowledge that the smart teacher’s toolkit has more than sugar in it.



In the case of Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Gurdon, it seems to have goaded him on to great success. He has the remarks pinned on to his softboard in his office, reports say. Sometimes, the unfortunate remark has a transformative effect.


There are some of us who are driven by the need to fight back. There are others that are resilient and can deal with negativity. And then there are those that crumble at the first hint of feedback, justified or not.


While it is safe to ask teachers never to use negativity in the classroom, there is clearly a role for honest feedback. There is a role for using challenges to help students rise beyond their current abilities and a role for stretch targets that seem impossible. It is possible, sometimes, for a teacher to judge that a half joking – ‘naah, you will never get it’ may push a specific student to go that extra mile and actually achieve more. The teacher to Professor Sir Gurdon may not have been that well intentioned – but others might.


But in this day and age, few teachers will use such tools – they would be inappropriate. Right?


Sadly there are millions of students who suffer abuse from their teachers every day. One can only hope and pray that they are the resilient, vengeful type who will thrive under the challenge that the teachers so callously place in front of them. Corporal punishment is still not a thing of the past in many schools, and few teachers (and there are a special few who do) speak because they have already worked out the impact of what they will say. Many speak in anger, in frustration, in boredom, in acceptance of their lot – few speak to inspire their students to greatness. The goading remark is rarely used in academic classrooms to spur students, it is often a weapon of hurt.


In a perfect world we would have confident learners who would be able to see and rise to challenges in the spirit in which they are set before them. Such confidence too must be built step by step by the community of teachers, strengthened till it can deal with the vicissitudes of the world. Till then, it is the teacher’s task to be supportive and encouraging, lest the tender shoots of success wither away.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 10, 2012. Linked here, and


One Response to “Surviving the Teacher’s Goad”

  1. Prof. Neelam Sood March 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Negative remarks of the teachers have always impaired children’s creativity and continue to do so… really unfortunate how we destroy creativity systematically….wish teachers would be more sensitive and realize the long-term effect their comments have on children who take these very seriously.. true every child is different, yet shd we not be encouraging and challenging them constantly for being better…enough evidence to show how simple motivating remarks do wonders……and change lives of children…

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