A friend today was fondly reminiscing about one of his teachers in law school, a professor in whose class, my friend said, “you couldn’t give a wrong answer.” When I asked what he meant, he said the professor always found something right in every statement a student made. If a student’s answer was a little off track as far as the professor’s original question was concerned, he always managed to discover some praiseworthy gem of wisdom in the answer. My friend remembered many instances when the professor (he was a tax expert) said something like this to a student: “That wouldn’t work in this particular transaction, but it’s a very interesting idea, one that could be easily applied to the transaction we were discussing yesterday.” In this way, my friend said, you always had a comfortable feeling about speaking up in his class, because you knew he would find something to commend in your comment. As soon as my friend described this professor, I knew it was something I wanted to keep in mind when I'm teaching. “YOU CAN’T BE WRONG” might be a sign I could place at the entrance to my room, as a way of assuring my students that some wisdom will be found in each of their thoughtful comments during class. Indeed, my students need to know that wisdom is so huge, so complex, and so omnipresent that some of it always resides in all of us. Like my friend’s professor, I want my students to have faith in their own intelligence, to have the confidence and courage to share their thoughts with the class, and to know that I will always find the wisdom, however veiled, in what they say.
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