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  • Writer's pictureTerry S.

How Educators Give Keeper Compliments

It was my finest hour at McCollum High School in San Antonio. I had accompanied Mr. Parnell and Mr. Polk, my band and choir directors, in a performance for an all-school talent show. One played trumpet, the other played saxophone, and I played drums.

The crowd was with us, and we were really into it as we played on and on. When the show was over, I stood in front of the stage, savoring the moment. I had done it! I had played perfectly—not a single mistake. What a night!

Suddenly, a distinguished-looking lady approached me. She introduced herself as Mrs. Gonder. She was the wife of John D. Gonder, the superintendent of our school district. I was stunned. Does she really want to talk to me?

“Young man,” she said with a smile, "you did a marvelous job keeping up with those seasoned musicians.”

As trivial as this moment may seem to some after so many years removed, I have kept that compliment in my heart for decades. We've all had similar memorable moments. However, the story is not so much about me. It’s about what we can learn from the compliment. What made it, for me, a “keeper compliment?”

The keeper factor in this case had a lot to do with who gave the compliment. Even though I had just met this kind lady, as a teenager, who she was to me was a big deal. We didn’t exactly run in the same social circles, and I would never have met such an important person had she not taken the initiative. As a result, this person whom I considered a Very Important Person made me feel like a Very Important Person by giving her time along with a sincere compliment.

It reminds me of something the comedian Margaret Cho said: “When people think the world of you, be careful with them.” Though I hadn’t known Mrs. Gonder long enough to think the world of her, meeting her was a special event for me. Students often feel the same way about their teachers. If you’re a VIP to someone, treat that person with care and respect. Make them feel important with compliments.

Timing also made the compliment special. It showed sincerity. Instead of leaving immediately after the show, she took the time to immediately walk to the front of the auditorium and speak to me at a time when the compliment would have the most impact. What I had done on stage that night was a big deal to me. With good timing, her keeper compliment made it even bigger. Similarly, we look for compliment-worthy events and then deliver that praise at the most impactful time.

Mrs. Gonder’s compliment was also for keeps because of her specificity. It wasn’t a generic, “Good job.” She stated what she thought was good about what I’d done and directed it specifically to me. “You did a marvelous job at …”

And lastly, perhaps most importantly, she began her compliment with “You.” Nothing has a more positive impact than a person’s name. We should use it to preface a compliment as often as possible. However, in the absence of the person’s name, “you” is almost as powerful, especially when spoken with sincere eye contact and a smile.

In tying these thoughts together, the timely words of Theodore Roosevelt come to mind: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” I suspect Mrs. Gonder knew a lot in her own right. Do you think any of that mattered to me? All I cared about that evening was one thing: she cared about me!

I do not doubt that, as an educator, you know a great deal. However, along with sharing what you know, let them know how much you care. You’d be surprised at the impact of a sincere and specific compliment from someone whom a student holds in esteem.

CONNECTOR TIP: Give compliments that are keepers.

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