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Giving positive feedback gets powerful results

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates, Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

Any mother would be heartbroken if her 15-year-old son was called sexist at school by his teacher. It might happen without ever being reported to the parent by the child. This is particularly true if the kid's parents are uneducated or do not speak English. 

Labeling young kids with certain unwanted or derogatory terms is unethical and unprofessional. When an educator tells a young kid: you are sexist, or you are a bad influence on the team, or you are weird, it can be like a life sentence. The effect can be permanent. The power of labeling is like black magic; if care is not taken, the child will become the very thing you labeled them to be. 

I was not educated in the United States, so I don't know if derogatory terms are used regularly on students. I would be shocked to learn that it was.    

I was in China when I was 15, and in my high school, I had a math teacher called Ms. Huang. She had this quiet smile on her face and would never raise her voice at us no matter how naughty we were. At that time, I secretly struggled with math. I was kind of a tomboy and I felt that I had to be as good as these boys in math. I would cause drama in the math class that would lead to the boys getting in trouble.

I never made eye contact with Ms. Huang. I always wanted to stay away from her. One day, shortly after a math quiz, Ms. Huang called my name. Immediately, I started sweating profusely. I knew I was in trouble. She said softly: Ying, do you have the answer for me?" I quickly stood and darted my eyes around the room looking for help. The classroom was quiet and everyone was waiting for me to say something. I looked down to my feet and murmured: "Ms. Huang, I did not hear what you asked." In her usual calm voice, she said: "That is all right, Ying, let’s discuss that after the class".

I walked to her office and my legs were shaking. I could not even stand straight. I was very scared, thinking that she might have seen me peeping at Hua’s answers during the test.

In Ms. Huang’s office, students normally sat across the table from her so she could lecture them face-to-face. But she asked me to sit next to her on an empty bench, and without a word, she gently put her hand on my shoulder and said: "Ying, do you know you are very smart?" 

I looked up and shook my head without hesitation. I was not smart and I knew it. Someone told me that girls are never smart with math in high school. She continued "You actually can be very good at math but somehow you told yourself that you are not good at it." The only thing that came to my mind then was "When did I tell myself that?"

But she is right. I did tell myself that. I looked up and stared at the yellow-framed reading glasses on her face… that pair of glasses is imprinted in my memory even today. I love those kinds of frames and my reading glasses have always looked like those.

Ms. Huang held me tighter and said: "Can you stop telling yourself you are not good at math? I will be here for you whenever you need me. You can be a mathematician if you want to. Do you think you can prove to me that I am right?"

For a while, I visited her office often, I revisited all the areas of math that I did not like and later that year I won the Probability Math Contest in our school. As a kid I was just doing things to prove to Ms. Huang that she was right.

Ms. Huang changed my course of life by recognizing the good part of me. She could have labeled me in different terms – a cheater for copying from others, a sexist for creating issues with boys in class because they are better at math. She knew I was not perfect and she cared about me anyway. I loved her back by proving to her that I was worth her time and attention. Before I left China, I visited her at her home for the last time. She hugged me and said: "I always knew you would be wonderful."

Ms. Huang is the educator who lifted up a 15-year-old and put her on the right path to grow. Thirty years later, I finally can adequately articulate her impact on my life. It became apparent to me especially when I came to know kids being labeled this way in our system.

I am fortunate that someone labeled me in such positive way when I was in the stage of learning myself. Give children time to learn about themselves and do not label them so quickly and so irresponsibly.

Be like Ms. Huang.



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