Alec's maths test


Alec is a heartbreaker for most teachers. He is not the smartest, not the most gifted, but he has an indestructibly cheerful nature and a loud bell-like voice that echoes through the class whenever he is cheerful.

Alec is often cheerful.

He gets really loud, but I do not want to keep saying his name, so  he sometimes gets the milder version of my teacher death-stare: the version with less Voldemort and more Kermit. Every time that happens Alec apologises sincerely (but often loudly) and throws himself into whatever is next with unstinting energy.

He generally does not score very well in mathematics - he is not wired for the abstraction, the sheer puzzle-solving jam of maths. It does not properly reward the out-bursting energy that delights (and confounds) his sports teacher. For Alec the things he is learning work better if they go somewhere in his world, build or bust a thing. Nevertheless he genuinely likes maths lessons, so I really hate handing out bad marks to him.

Fortunately, Alec's last maths test was excellent. I set a very focussed test and he had obviously worked very, very hard. So after marking his test I looked at the mark in the corner and thought "that is not enough", so I took my red pen and listed as plainly and factually as I could all the good things about his test: his clear handwriting, his well-separated steps in a logical sequence. I did not write "great" or "clever", but I did put "you obviously studied hard, well done!".

Giving the right kind of compliment is key. Alec might easily find places in his life where he was not "great" or "clever", because we all do that when we get a vacuous compliment. We distrust it and we find counter-examples all too easily. But it was undeniable that Alec had done clean, painstaking, logical work and my noticing that might help him feel awesome.

When I gave the test back he already knew the mark, because it was already posted in the school's homework-diary system, but as I passed around the room I could hear him reading the comments aloud with enormous relish to his best friend,  the calm and dignified Justin. When I glanced back, he was luminous with joy and pride.

Job done.


  1. Meg says:

    Brilliant. As a parent of a similar child, feedback like this means the world to them to hear. Thanks for not only teaching the lesson but also teaching the soul.

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