The Professor and the Pea

I’m sure many of you have heard the old fairy tale published by Hans Christian Andersen about the princess and the pea, but forgive me as I take a short, literary sidestep to review it.

In the tale, a prince is looking to marry a princess, but is unable to find one in the neighboring kingdoms. He searches high and low and cannot find a bride who can meet his royal expectations. One dark and stormy night, a stranger knocks on his door and asks to spend the night in the castle. The stranger is a beautiful, young woman and claims to be a princess from a distant land. The prince is taken by the stranger’s beauty and falls in love at first sight. But the prince’s mom is suspicious. She doubts that the stranger is really a princess and devices a test to determine whether the young woman is really royalty. In the guest room, the mother prepares a bed with a stack of mattresses and feather beds so the stranger is comfortable. To test the stranger, however, the mother hides a single pea below the mattresses and feather beds. The mother believes that if the stranger is truly a princess, she won’t be able to sleep because of the presence of the pea. The next morning, the stranger announces that she’s had a sleepless night. The kingdom rejoices because that stranger is really a princess and the prince has finally found a bride. They get married and live happily ever after. The end.

I was reminded of this story recently after a few of my colleagues shared student comments from their teaching evaluations on their social media pages. One colleague shared a picture of several of the anonymous student comments and asked her followers, “Guess which one will keep my awake tonight?” Among a series of amazingly positive student comments was one that read something like “This professor is the worst.” Sure, the student provided no context or basis for their assessment and it was buried under a number of really positive comments. But like the pea in the fairy tale, that single student comment was going to create some sleepless nights for my colleague.

The post generated some conversation among my co-workers. Some commiserated that they also tended to focus on the infrequent negative comments more than the numerous positive ones. I work with a lot of caring, inspiring, and motivated colleagues. I know they want to support their students’ learning and it pained me to see them agonize over these student comments. And then I remembered that I do the same thing. While I haven’t received a negative student comment in a few semesters (not a boast), I still agonize over them when I do. Which makes me wonder, why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we agonize over the negative comments, despite receiving positive comments that should act like mattresses and feather beds to cushion the blow?

Before starting this post, I googled “The Princess and the Pea” to make sure I remembered the story correctly. Within the list of links that Google provided, I couldn’t avoid one with a really clickable title: “This Popular Fairytale has a Hidden Meaning You Never Knew About.” In a post from 2017, an author identified only as “Mary” writes:

“The pea is the symbol of our truest selves. Despite the layers of the socially-acceptable, the princess passes the test because she feels so intensely. She cares and is authentic. She’s not afraid to face up to her own issues and discomforts. Ultimately, the prince recognizes her for the princess she is because above all, she doesn’t give up on herself.”

And maybe that’s the message here. Agonizing over negative comments shows how much we care as educators. It shows our true selves. We’re reflective, curious, motivated educators who want to reach every student. Like the pea that reveals the true princess, our agony reveals our true passion and desire to be the best teachers we can be. That may involve some sleepless nights, but we haven’t given up on ourselves. And that’s no fairy tale.

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