"The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools." -Herbert Spencer
Because I teach in a program that trains our students to practice a health/medical discipline, part of that training is developing appropriate professional behavior. Patients and other medical professionals with whom our students will work don't want to deal with inappropriate behaviors like dressing in revealing clothing, eye rolling, clock watching, or inappropriate topics of conversation (like smoking pot) from our students. It is also important for our students to develop a calm, friendly, and competent manner that puts their patients at ease and engenders respect from other members of the health care team.
In order to help our students recognize behaviors that may be counterproductive we meet with them and discuss their professional behaviors. Each semester the faculty meets together and discusses the concerns we have about students' professional behaviors. Then each advisor meets with their individual student advisees and offers both positive and negative feedback from the faculty about their professional behavior. Most of the time the student listens to the feedback and responds appropriately.
Unfortunately some of our students come from backgrounds where they could do no wrong, where they received no criticism, where their tender feelings were always spared from the ugly truth that they are not perfect (gasp!). So, sometimes things do not go so smoothly. Last year I had the unfortunate experience of offering some constructive criticism to one of our students that resulted in my program chair threatening me with disciplinary action.
The student, I'll call her Betty, is a smart, pleasant, and stunningly beautiful young woman with long blond hair and blue eyes. The faculty felt that she also has the unfortunate habits of giggling a lot, flipping her hair, and asking questions that give the impression that she is not paying attention. In other words she can come off as an "airhead". This is not an image that her patients or coworkers will appreciate. When I met with Betty I began by offering her some positive comments about her professional behaviors. Then, I told Betty that some of the faculty had observed that she tended to giggle a lot and at inappropriate times, flip her hair, and that sometimes she did not appear to be paying attention in class. Betty did not seem to understand what I was saying so I tried again. I told her that it will be important for her patients to have confidence in her and that those behaviors would not help her patients to trust that she knows what she is doing. Betty still stared at me with a kind of confused expression on her face. So, I said, "Well, I don't like this word, but what I am trying to say is that these things may give the impression to other people that you are an airhead." At this Betty began to cry. She said she didn't want the faculty to think she was stupid. I told her that we do not think she is stupid, that we know she is a good student, but we want her to be aware that those behaviors are not going to work well for her as a clinician. Betty didn't say much else and left my office soon after.
The next morning she went to the program chair in tears and told him that I said that the faculty said that she was an airhead and that she did not appreciate being insulted like that. My chair believed her, and without discussing it with me first to get my side of what happened, he brought it up in front of the whole faculty at our regularly scheduled meeting later that day. He said that he was very upset that a student felt so insulted and that he would not tolerate the use of such hateful language. Without naming me he then threatened to turn the offending faculty member over to the social justice office for their offense. I am not the most assertive person in the world but I knew what really happened so I had to say something. I told him that I knew what he was talking about and that the student had not given him the whole story. I explained what happened, including that I did not call her an airhead but that I told her that even though I don't like the word that we were concerned that she may be perceived as an airhead because of the behaviors in question. I told him that if he wanted to turn that into the social justice office that I was fine with it because I was confident about what I had done. He immediately backed down from his threat and the entire faculty proceeded to engage in a circular argument with him that you will appreciate if I don't tell you about it. During this argument I remained quiet and struggled to maintain my composure because I was angry and when I am angry I tend to cry and I didn't want to do that (it's unprofessional you know).
The next day after I calmed down I knew that I had to talk to my chair about what happened. I asked that in the future if a student came to him with a complaint about me that I would appreciate it if he would give me the courtesy of asking me about it before he assumed that the student gave him the full story and that he ask me about it in private rather than anonymously reprimanding me in front of the whole faculty. I also told him that it concerned me that instead of encouraging the student to consider the feedback and apply it, that he did some figurative "hand-holding" that didn't help the student realize that her behavior could be a problem. He listened to me and apologized for not bringing the issue to me first. He tends to pride himself on being "student centered" though, and I don't think he agreed with me that "hand holding" is not what a student needs in these sorts of circumstances.
When we don't teach children that constructive criticism is okay, and in fact that it is for our benefit, we are setting them up for a lifetime of self-centered stagnation. When we walk on eggshells around children and are not lovingly honest about the areas that they need to work on we are not doing them a favor. I often tell my students that it is okay to be wrong, that all you can do is to do the best you can, and when you know better you do better. The only way to learn and "do better" is to recognize where you have gone wrong.
It's not "Betty's" fault that she looks like a walking Barbie doll and that coupled with a giggling and inattentive manner she will likely be incorrectly perceived as less than competent and intelligent. But the patients' perceptions matter and Betty can learn to behave in a manner that will give her patients confidence in her abilities. Not doing so is "her fault" and it would be my fault if I didn't give her the feedback she needs to make the adjustments, regardless of if she chooses to accept it or not.