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Elvira on education


“Listen sister, if I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you!”

– Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

If there is one thing that really irritates people, it is unsolicited criticism. It is hard enough to hear negative opinions that we ask for, but when someone’s harsh judgment comes at you out of the blue, how can you not get defensive? Repeated instances of unwanted criticism can breed resentment, feelings of defeat, and ultimately even hatred. This is what happens when we feel attacked.

Unfortunately, these are the feelings many children experience in our schools. Why? Because behind all the encouragement and support to learn, there lurks the ever-present shadow of judgment. In spite of our rhetoric about diversity, respect for the individual, and righteous crusades against bullying, just about everything a child does in school is evaluated and graded against a standard imposed by someone else. And while most are not as bold in their reactions as Elvira, it does take a toll.

In 1949, educator and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, wrote about the negative feelings that can develop when well-intentioned people continuously impose their wills on the powerless. “Hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thoughts in the life of the hater, so that his resourcefulness becomes completely focused on the negative aspects of his environment. The urgent needs of the personality for creative expression are starved to death. A man’s horizon may become so completely dominated by the intense character of his hatred that there remains no creative residue in his mind and spirit to give to great ideas, to great concepts.”

I realize that “hate” is a strong word, but the incessant pounding of unwanted criticism can produce strong feelings. And since the young naturally tend to see adults as authorities, these feelings are often internalized as rejection, depression, and hopelessness.

We can turn this around. We can make our schools into places where all children feel accepted for who they are, just as they are. Places where real diversity is not only valued, but actively encouraged and nurtured. Places where young people are invited to challenge themselves to learn and grow in directions that actually mean something to them.

Here are some ideas for getting started:

1) Abolish the practice of grading. Students can learn what they are able and willing to learn without being judged and compared to others.

2) Abolish mandatory homework. Students can be invited to extend their explorations beyond school hours in response to their natural curiosity and interests, but this is a decision that they can make for themselves.

3) Abolish the credit system for high school graduation. Students can take from school what they learn, and that is enough.

4) Abolish standardized testing. Diverse learners will naturally produce diverse outcomes.

The future of public education in America depends on our willingness to think outside the box and honestly look at what is working and what is not. Changes like these will open the door for schools to transform themselves into what our kids and our communities need – places where young people can flourish and grow into the adults they were uniquely born to become. And when a student is ready to receive some constructive criticism, they can simply ask for it.

Howard Thurman is also known for one of my favorite quotes of all time: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Let’s not spend our time arguing about what schools need. Let’s ask what our children need to help them come alive, and then go do that.

Jim Strickland is a teacher and parent in the Marysville School District. He can be reached at


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