Pearls Before Swine, a syndicated comic strip drawn by Stephan Pastis, always makes me smile. The Sunday strip on March 30, 2014 poked fun at the rise of politically correct terminology. You can view the strip by clicking here.
In the strip, a Zeus-like “Word Decider” determines which linguistic terms are acceptable, culminating in the decree that “Stupid is out! Smartless is in!” (Ironically, The Washington Post felt the word “midget” was too much of a slur and pulled the strip. You can read about that decision here.)
When the chuckles stopped, the thinking began. Some colleagues and I had been bemoaning—as teachers are wont to do—some of our students’ more hapless attempts at completing assignments. “What are they thinking?” we wondered. “Are they thinking at all? Are they just incapable?”
No, maybe they are simply smartless.
Here’s the thing: “Stupid” implies an intrinsic lack of intellectual ability. It is an ugly word. It does not suggest the possibility of improvement.
Smartless, however, offers a glimmer of hope. After all, a thoughtless person can, with a bit of sincere effort, become more thoughtful. A careless person can learn to be more attentive and cautious. A helpless person can become more self-reliant. A penniless person might find a way to earn some cash.
This weekend I ran into a student who took my class twice. Her first trip was disastrous, so I was surprised when she signed up again. The second trip through A&P was completely different. Her performance improved so dramatically that I pulled her aside to ask what had caused the change. She replied that she just hadn’t put forth a real effort on her first attempt. She’s now enjoying a successful career in a job that she loves. I’m sure that the people whom she serves love her as well.
When I first met her, she wasn’t stupid…just smartless.
So often, I assume that a student who struggles lacks the intellectual ability or educational background to succeed. Sometimes this is true. But when I take the time to talk with students about their problems, I often learn about obligations outside the classroom that stretch them to the limit. Sometimes I learn about distressing past experiences and poor perceptions of their own abilities. Again and again, I am struck by the difference that a little coaching, reassuring, and plain old listening can make.
I’m considering a new personal mission statement: Stamping out smartlessnesss, one student at a time.