• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The Tap on the Shoulder, Redux

The power of a few kind words of encouragement.

 

 

November 20, 2018
 
 

All of a sudden, she’s singing.

Last month, The Girl joined a birthday party trip into New York City to see Dear Evan Hansen. The party consisted of about a dozen ninth graders, so the parents rented a second minivan to drive them all in.  

The Dad told me a week or so later that at one point en route, TG had her headphones on and was singing along to something on her phone, and that he was struck by her voice. He described it as beautiful, and asked how long she had been singing. I had no idea what to say; other than a few half-hearted group renditions of “Happy Birthday,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing. I expressed some surprise, and thanked him, and the conversation moved on. I didn’t really think about it for a couple of weeks.

A few days ago, I mentioned it in passing to The Wife, who insisted that I tell TG, so I did. Now, all of a sudden, she’s singing while she practices piano, and she’s joining the choir at school. She’s even practicing her instruments more.

All she needed was the tap on the shoulder.

I’ve written before about my experience with the tap on the shoulder, when a friend at college told me from out of the blue that I should be on the radio. As a professor, I had students who only needed the tap on the shoulder as a sort of permission to excel; once they had that, they were off and running. As an administrator, I occasionally make a point of tapping someone on the shoulder to let them know that they could do administrative work well, if they chose to.  Once in a while, someone even takes me up on it; I’m happy to report that I haven’t been wrong yet.

I don’t know if there’s a scholarly literature on it, but I think part of the power of the tap on the shoulder is that it interrupts the internal monologue.  It does a number on imposter syndrome, at least briefly, and sometimes it highlights abilities that the recipient hasn’t valued fully. It offers unprompted validation, which is always nice, but it sometimes also offers a perspective too new to reflexively discount. 

Some of the messages that many students have received through their K-12 years, and even in other college settings, have been negative.  They induce self-doubt, which can be self-fulfilling. The tap on the shoulder can be a powerful antidote, when it’s genuine.

The ones that seemingly come from out of the blue are sometimes the most effective. I wasn’t looking for compliments for TG’s singing voice; it wouldn’t have occurred to me, and that wasn’t what the conversation was about.  When I told TG about it, she seemed surprised, but immediately moved to acting on it. It seemed to act as permission for something she may have actually wanted to try, but just hadn’t taken the leap.  All it took was a few unsolicited kind words from an adult who knows her a little bit

As we head into the home stretch of the semester, please just keep in mind the power of the tap on the shoulder. A few kind words to a student who doesn’t seem to realize just how good she actually is can go a long way.

Program note: I’ll be taking a brief Thanksgiving break, returning on Monday, November 26.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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