I remember my first day as a teacher. The principal told me I could pick up some supplies in the office cabinet. There wasn’t much in there, just some file folders, rolls of tape, boxes of chalk, and, of course, red pens. That’s what I wanted. To me, the red pen was like a carpenter’s rule or a doctor‘s stethoscope. It was the tool of the trade for an English teacher. I admit I felt a bit of a power thrill the first time I tackled a set of papers armed with my shiny red ballpoint.
Many years and thousands of papers later, I have learned that the red pen should have come with a warning label. “CAUTION: Use of this writing instrument may frighten readers, creating stress, negative feelings, and loss of self-esteem.”
At least that’s the verdict passed down by some parents and school administrators. Teachers at Daniels Farm Elementary School in Connecticut are prohibited from using red ink on student homework. Parents said the scarlet letters were just too stressful for their kids. In Pittsburgh, the principal of Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School has advised his staff to use only “pleasant-feeling tones” when marking papers. In Pacific Rim Elementary in California, the color of choice is lavender because, according to the principal, it is a “calming color.”
Pen makers have signed on. Robert Silberman at Pilot Pen says, “Teachers are trying to be positive and reinforcing rather than harsh.” Michael Finn of Paper Mate concurs, reporting that “this is a kinder, more gentle education system.”
Few students see red anymore when homework is returned. Green, maybe. Or purple. And, of course, lavender. But red is out.
It’s funny. All those years I was decorating papers with red ink, I heard plenty of complaints about the content but not the tint of my remarks. Once in a while a student would joke that it looked as though his paper had bled to death, but no one suggested that the color of my crimson criticisms had created any lasting psychological problems. I guess they were all holding it in.
Or maybe it didn’t bother the students as much as seems to bother parents and principals. I was a student once. I admit that I turned in plenty of papers that came back bearing almost as much writing by the teacher as by me, but I can’t recall what color pen the teacher used. I suppose it was red, but back then I guess our psyches were made of sturdier stuff. We were not cowed by scary ink.
It’s interesting to note the results of a recent survey which questioned more than 80,000 students in 19 states, including Indiana. Half the students said that they don’t often receive prompt feedback from teachers. Even more, 62 percent, said they don’t feel that teachers encouraged them to learn. 35 percent said that no adult at their school cares about them or knows them well. But no one expressed deep-seated resentment for teachers wielding red ink pens.
An old expression says, “Kids won’t care what you think until they think you care.” Students appreciate timely feedback when it is constructive and delivered in a caring spirit. It’s not about ink. Years ago, when teachers wanted to make sure their writing would stand out, they chose red because it was the only color available outside of blue and black. Now that office supply stores offer a rainbow of choices, lavender or purple or green will be fine. But a hearty “Well Done!” or “Keep Up the Good Work!” at the top of a paper looks absolutely beautiful in bold, bright red. Stress free. Esteem boosting. And definitely pleasant feeling.
Students saw RED...and that was a good thing