Posted by: christinelaennec | February 17, 2011


Reproduction of an American Colonial sampler, stitched by the darling and much-missed Diane Populus.

Reproduction of an American Colonial sampler, stitched by the beloved and much-missed Diane Populus.

A recent comment on my “Learning to Knit” post made me so sad.  Linda wrote that a “ferocious” teacher had taught her knitting in primary school and she was so traumatised by it she could hardly bear the thought of trying to knit again.  I’ve been thinking for a while about teaching and kindness, and Linda’s experience confirmed my idea that it isn’t actually possible to teach anything positive without an approach that includes kindness.

In my job, I often work one-to-one with students who want to improve their academic writing.  This is always challenging and interesting to me – identifying the problems, trying to find creative solutions that fit the student’s own personality and preferences.  I love language, and the magic of what good editing can do, for example.

But all of these considerations are secondary to to fact that the person who has come to see me very often needs kindness above all else.  Because in my job we only ever look at work that’s already been submitted and marked, I go through the essay feedback with the student.  How often do I experience inside myself a sharp intake of breath at the callous comments I see in the margins!  I limit myself to saying things like, “Yes, I can see how this feedback would make you feel quite dispirited about your writing.”  And I often spend the hour building up the student’s confidence in themselves so that they can set out to undertake, once again, that daunting task of writing.  They need to see their own potential, and believe that improving their writing is within their capabilities.

I have huge regard for discipline and rigour in intellectual pursuits.  Students do need to be told when their logic isn’t strong, when they have missed an important point, and when their writing isn’t the best it could be.  But there are ways of doing this with kindness.  Certainly delivering criticism constructively is far more effective than slashing someone’s work (and thus, in some ways, self) apart.

It’s a cliché but the older I get, the more often I reflect that the most important thing of all is kindness.  “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;  but the greatest of these is love.” (1st Corinthians, 13:13)



  1. I so whole-heartedly agree. One of my dearest friends, now sadly in another world, had a great saying which has become my motto:
    ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’
    Hugs from Wales x

    • That was one of my Granny’s sayings! I often think of it – and struggle to comply half the time…

  2. Constructive criticism is so important to the learning experience: how can one hope to improve without it? I suspect that your students leave you feeling uplifted and with their confidence in their own abilities bolstered. I was a teacher once (although I still teach patchwork and quilting to adults, & the occasional child) and have seen how pupils flourish when treated appropriately- it should not be so very different merely because the institution changes.

    • I don’t know about my students, but I almost always feel uplifted after I’ve taught – whether one-to-one or a class. As you say, the importance of encouragement would seem to be a basic ingredient, but I think what happens is that people who have been taught in a harsh way perpetuate it. I think they must have learned despite mean teachers – so are essentially self-taught, and thus don’t really understand teaching!

  3. Christine, I had no idea that you’d written this blog when I responded to your comment and said how kind you are. amazing how that works.

    • Spooky and very cool! I love coincidences like that.

  4. My dear Christine, I love reading your blog, and I’d like it if you correct my sentences…I would love to improve my english so please be my teacher..
    And I love the sampler, she’s a beauty

  5. This is beautiful and so true. Why am I so blasted hurried that I let kindness fall by the wayside?

    Thanks for pointing out the essential.

    – Kelly

  6. Oh yes – Above all be kind. We need to be reminded of this often. I imagine your tutorials would be very uplifting, Christine.

  7. Wonderful post, and should be presented to all academics everywhere….would that they were all like YOU!!!!
    Also, catching up on your blog, I was SO jealous of your trip to Newcastle. Loved the pix, and so have resolved to visit the place …I’ve only been thru it by train, got out to buy a sarnie, instantly getting back onto the train. Nowadays, one of the most important friends of my life lives there, whom I haven’t seen for 25 years…so I MUST GO SOME DAY!

  8. Dear Erna, Kelly, Jacqui and Returning Scot,
    I didn’t mean to create the erroneous impression that I’m some kind of saint! I fall short of the mark on a regular basis… (Also, it’s easier to be patient in a work context than at home with one’s most beloveds, as everyone knows.) I learned an unforgettable lesson when, in my second year of lecturing, I unwittingly reduced a student to tears while we were discussing her essay. I was being enthusiastic, and also extremely insensitive to her emotional state. I’m glad to say she forgave me and continued as my student and it was a joy to teach her.

    Erna, I would never presume to correct your English! But when you come to Aberdeen we can have a wee session if you like 🙂

    Returning Scot – yes, you must go to Newcastle. It has such a different feel from the South of England, and the people there are really friendly and funny. We could have spent longer there, there was so much we wanted to see.

  9. Interesting…I know many architects where part of the course is to be reduced to tears by extraordinarily critical lecturers…on purpose and in front of all one’s fellow-students… presumably because future clients are going to be so horrible, the poor students have to be taught to have a very thick skin. It seems rather uncivilized to me, but perhaps they reckon they must be crual to be kind…who knows?
    I guess there’s a happy medium!

    • Hmmm… I suppose if they actually were teaching How To Assert Yourself in a very conscious way through role-playing, that argument might convince me. But it doesn’t sound quite like that!

  10. Oh, I can’t spell cruel…sorry! Great subject for a post though!

  11. if only every potential writer could benefit from such kindness as they were learning to find their voice. you are so true….only what’s done in love really matters. thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for coming by, Lisa! I like how you put it – “only what’s done in love matters”. If we weighed success in those terms, how different our society would be!

  12. Oh dear, I’m infamous! But what a coincidence. Just a few minutes before visiting your blog just now I was thinking ‘yes, I think I will try to re-learn how to knit, because I’d like something tranquil but purposeful to do’. My purposeful things tend to be far from tranquil, in terms of gardening and cleaning the house and running.

    Whether it has anything to do with my knitting trauma I don’t know, but I share your belief that all teaching has to include kindness. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a devotee of the Suzuki Method of music education, which both my children have followed. The book Dr Suzuki wrote about his method is called ‘Nurtured by Love’ – not ‘How to Produce Impressive Musicians’. As the British Suzuki Institute website says, ‘Love – because Suzuki music teaching is not about breeding musicians or inculcating skills in children. It is about the amazing results that can be achieved when understanding, sensitivity and discipline are brought together in a single field of study. The glue that binds these various elements together is, Suzuki believed, love.’ And I’m thrilled that my daughter now wants to train as a Suzuki violin teacher.
    Now, if I can just find Suzuki knitting classes…

    • Sorry, I didn’t mean to thrust you into the limelight, but I’m very glad you’re still thinking of trying out the handwork waters. How thrilling about your daughter wanting to train as a Suzuki teacher. I used to play the violin and the Suzuki-trained violinists in the youth orchestra I was in were noticeably more centered, let’s say, than many of the rest of us.
      I would venture to guess that the majority of knitters would instinctively use a Suzuki method to teach!

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