The Problem with Praise (or, My Case Against ‘Perfect’)

As a substitute teacher, I have observed teachers, especially in the elementary school level, lavish words of praise on students for nearly everything they say or do. I have heard showers of “excellent!” and “perfect!” and “great job” more often than anything else, even if the answer or action was not truly excellent or perfect or great.

Do these people know what these words mean? Mr. Webster will tell us that “excellent” means of exceptional quality, something superior to others, something that, to be redundant, “excels” — stands out over all others. Synonyms for “perfect” include flawless, faultless, without error, with no room for improvement. “Great” also means esceptional, superior, above the rest, excellent.

Now I ask: How often does one come across “excellent” and “perfect” everyday? And is every effort or action a “great job”? If this were truly the case, then teaching in schools would be the perfect job and practically effortless. Teachers would actually become redundant, if students were all as “excellent” and “perfect” and alsways doing a “great job” as often as I hear it said.

I think teachers need to expand their vocabularies in the praise department. in the same way we encourage students to find other words for “good,” “nice,” “okay,” and “so-so”, we need to find other words to express praise or approval. There are so many I can think of: awesome, wonderful, well-organized, colourful, attractive, well done, good work, nice technique, energetic, nice try, good effort, and so on and so forth. We should be more accurate with the praise we give so that students do not get the wrong impression — that their work is truly excellent or perfect, when it isn’t.

If students always receive the praise that they are doing “excellent” or “perfect”, does this ever reflect in their marks? Do we give them excellent or perfect marks to match the praise we lavish on a daily basis? How do we explain to students, when we release their report cards or return their papers with less-than-perfect marks, that their work is actually less than perfect? How do we explain to parents, after they see the “excellent,” “perfect” and “great job” comments on schoolwork, that their children’s final marks aren’t anywhere near the excellent, perfect and great job comments received on their children’s homework, projects, and other schoolwork?

Such is the incongruity between unqualified praise and reality. If we tell students they are excellent, they will think they are better than everyone else. That certainly isn’t a bad thing, thinking one is better than everyone else, but it tends to create social disparity and a tendency to think one really is better than anyone else. Which may not be the case, developing a superiority complex as opposed to confidence. If we tell them that their work is excellent, then they will not have any motivation to improve on the work, because it already is excellent, and better than any other work done in class.

If we tell students they are “perfect” or what they do is “perfect,” they might develop the belief that there is nothing more for them to improve, that they know everything, and that everything they do is right.

If we tell students they are always doing a “great job” they might just as likely not bother to try doing a better job, simply because they’re already doing a great job.

Some teachers might rationalize that they shouldn’t give negative comments. Indeed, calling students bad, lazy, stupid, idiotic, poor, slow, and other such negative terms is not only derogatory; it is labeling them with negative words that tend to stick and that reinforce negative behaviour. But calling some students excellent, perfect, or great is also labeling, which tends to stick as well, and helps feed egos that, in all likelihood, do not need that kind of pampering.

What’s wrong with simply saying “correct” or “right” if the answer is correct or right? And if a student tries but doesn’t quite get the answer, saying “perfect” or “good job” then seeking another answer from someone else contradicts the praise, because there should be no other answer, since the first answer was already perfect.

How many ways can we provide praise without going overboard? I have compiled a list of several words that can be used alone or in phrases that teachers can use to express praise. You can also, most certainly, come up with your own set of words, or mix and match what is in the list to suit different occasions. Note that some words will work in either list.

I will add to this list as I remember words of praise that suit various classroom situations, and I will also greatly appreciate your suggestions of words that can be added to this list.

A Praise Vocabulary for Teachers, Tutors, Parents and Leaders

Words to praise work

  1. accurate
  2. analytical
  3. attractive
  4. brief
  5. clear
  6. colourful
  7. comprehensive
  8. concise
  9. correct
  10. creative
  11. descriptive
  12. entertaining
  13. evocative
  14. exact
  15. good examples
  16. good reasoning
  17. good word choice
  18. grammatical
  19. illustrative
  20. inspiring
  21. interesting
  22. logical
  23. makes sense
  24. neat
  25. organized
  26. original
  27. pithy
  28. precise
  29. prompt
  30. resourceful
  31. sensible
  32. timely
  33. useful
  34. well-researched
  35. well-written
  36. wide vocabulary
Words to praise action or behaviour
  1. active
  2. affirmative
  3. audible
  4. attentive
  5. careful
  6. clear
  7. controlled
  8. cooperative
  9. coordinated
  10. creative
  11. effective
  12. encouraging
  13. energetic
  14. fair
  15. good initiative
  16. good projection
  17. good sharing
  18. graceful
  19. helpful
  20. inspirational
  21. inspiring
  22. motivated
  23. observant
  24. participative
  25. practical
  26. precise
  27. prompt
  28. quick
  29. reasonable
  30. respectful
  31. responsible
  32. responsive
  33. restrained
  34. rhythmic
  35. shows leadership
  36. supportive
  37. team work
  38. timely
  39. vocal
  40. well-behaved
  41. well-executed
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