Constrictive Criticism

by forbloodysummer

Constrictive Criticism

Applejack stared down at the parchment in front of her, jaw slack and quill untouched. Her eyes weren’t even scanning the writing on the page anymore; she’d read it three times already.

They instead rose to the plaque on the wall, engraved with the latest EEA procedures for how teachers should conduct themselves ‘to best fit the learning needs of each individual child.’

It wasn’t Twilight’s fault, and Applejack knew that. The commandments had come down from on high, and the school’s hooves were tied tighter than a hog in a woodtrap when it came to following them and staying open.

Back when the school had been going their own way, they’d have done what they thought was right regardless of what the EEA said. But now the school had been accredited, she couldn’t really blame Twilight for not wanting to risk upsetting that.

Still, though, she heard the words in Twilight’s voice.

“All criticism should be constructive and positive. Focus on students’ successes rather than their failures.”

Again, Applejack dropped her gaze back to the parchment on her desk, tempted to drop her whole head onto it too.

‘1. It is always best to be honest with everycreature because:

Then everyone will believe you when you need to lie about something.’

She tried closing her eyes for a few moments, but, when she opened them again, the words remained the same.

Which was probably for the best, really. The last thing the fillies and colts of her class needed access to was enchanted parchment. Helplessly, she read on.

‘2. Generosity is considered a noble virtue because:

Everycreature will respect how rich you are if you act like you can afford to just give stuff away like it doesn’t matter.’

Although she’d never say it anywhere Apple Bloom might hear, occasionally Applejack missed the days of Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon being the worst foals anyone in Ponyville had to deal with. They’d been right mean to lots of ponies, but at least it had come from being jealous and insecure.

The foals she had to teach these days, though…

‘3. Kindness is sometimes called the most important of all virtues. Why do you think Discord tried to become a better draconequus after being shown Kindness?

Discord gets bare puss now. Fluttershy be polishing his pole day and night.’

That one had been shocking, the first time she’d read it. Even amongst the answers that belonged in a mucking shed, that one stood out. Back in the old times – not that any student would ever have written anything like that, before the new EEA guidelines came in – she’d have reported it to Twilight.

But reporting something was criticising it, wasn’t it? Saying it shouldn’t be said, and that was negative. ‘Stifling of a student’s self-expression,’ they’d told Rarity last year when she’d slapped a hoof away from squeezing her flank in class.

Clearly somepony high up in putting together the way things were run had had good intentions. No one wanted to see foals having their feelings hurt, and Applejack didn’t want to be the one hurting them. And every teacher in schools all across Equestria already knew to keep criticism constructive nine times out of ten. Ponies of all ages got their hackles up when you told them they were wrong, but if you showed them how they might be able to improve, then they listened.

So Applejack understood. It worked most of the time, it looked good as a thing to be telling ponies, and it would look terrible to go back on it.

But when it was a flat rule, applied to every situation with no alternative, well now, that caused problems. 98% of the time you wouldn’t want to burn down any of your apple orchard. But, occasionally, a few trees would get the blight, and if you didn’t act fast and torch them to stop the spread, you’d lose the whole crop.

Every once in a while, a foal did something so bad, got it so wrong, that they needed somepony to be frank with them about it. Not sugarcoat it, not try to put a positive slant on it, not water it down in any way. And if they didn’t get that when they needed it, the problem would take root, and in time it’d infect far more.

The rot had spread to the foundations, now. And, still, she had to find something positive to say.

Applejack felt a tugging inside her head, like an itch that needed scratching, and it pulled her attention over to the filing cabinet behind her. She fixed her eye on it, biting her lip.

She could just look at the reports she’d written last term. Rephrase them, rearrange which compliment was used where, make them fit this term’s activities. She very much could do that. The students, the parents, the local educational authority… they were all just being told what they wanted to hear anyway, so why not make it the same thing as before?

It wasn’t like the students had actually progressed or anything. Improved. Getting better would imply they hadn’t been doing it perfectly to begin with. Broadening their horizons suggested they weren’t broad enough already; learning about other cultures, other ways of thinking – why, that might suggest there was something wrong with their own.

And that was the thing that really made Applejack’s ears droop, as she sat at her desk.

She’d gone to Manehattan. She’d stayed with the Oranges, and that change of scenery had let her know what was really important. She’d grown as a pony.

Fluttershy had overcome her fears, Twilight had made friends, Rainbow even admitted she read books now.

But under the new guidelines, Fluttershy would have been told the world was wrong for making her afraid. She’d never be challenged, never have it suggested to her that obstacles were things to try to overcome.

The foals in Applejack’s class would never get that, under these new rules. They’d remain the same – exactly the same – when they left school as they had been when they joined it.

Applejack loved Ponyville with all her heart. It was her home, and there was no place she’d rather be. But it had never felt so darned small.

And then she sighed. The education system, the culture that pushed for it – all of that might be breaking, but still, she’d been hired as a teacher.

Hired to teach them honesty. She wouldn’t cheat, and copy her old reports. She’d find something constructive to say, even if it took her all night.

She picked up her quill.

‘The student’s choice of ink colour for answering the question with was technically not terrible…’