Journal of Secondary Alternate Education

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Column: Lukiv's "Place" for Educators to Think About Teaching

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Tact, for the Researcher and the Educator (from Direction for Creative Writing Teachers—A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Perspective—Monograph One. Vancouver, BC: BCTF Lesson Aids, 2006, and Academic Exchange Extra, 2007, January/February/March), by Dan Lukiv.

Do you sometimes grow too concerned to get the job done? The bell will ring soon, and you need the students to complete that worksheet before that happens, but Ursula asks a question that, if you answer it fully, will rob you of time needed to explain to the whole class the last section of the worksheet, which is somewhat confusing.

Do you say, "Ursula! Why do you always interrupt me while I'm trying to teach the class? Why don't you ask your parents to teach you some manners?"

Tactful? Even if Ursula does interrupt you often, would you resort to this tactless response?

That first interview you want to conduct for your latest qualitative study is to begin in five minutes. You scheduled an hour with the learning assistant to ask her about how she deals with a lack of resources in a school with many, many students with problems in reading. Four minutes left, but the principal, who you introduced yourself to as you met him in the hallway, keeps blabbing on about his school. Now he's giving you a grand tour of the art room.

"Notice how clean the room is?" he says. "The children clean it up before the end of each class, and at the end of the day--look!--the custodian has hardly a thing to do!"

Do you, in no uncertain terms, inform him that you came to his school to conduct an important interview and he is wasting your precious time?

I'm putting a humorous twist to this important subject of tact, which is, according to Webster's: "A quick or intuitive appreciation of what is fit, proper, or right; fine or ready mental discernment shown in saying or doing the proper thing, or especially in avoiding what would offend or disturb" (Tact, p. 982). Therefore, a tactful person has "the ability to appreciate the delicacy of a situation and to do or say the kindest or most fitting thing" (as quoted in Learning the Art, 2003, p. 29). You might see logic in the word tact once referring "to touch. Just as sensitive fingers can perceive if something is sticky, soft, polished, hot, or hairy, so a tactful person can sense the feelings of other people and can discern how his words or actions affect them" (p. 29). Clearly, the tactful person feels a "genuine desire to avoid hurting others" (p. 29).

Max van Manen tells us that tact "is a particular situations, and how to behave in them" (2000d). We might believe that "every professional practitioner (such as a teacher, nurse, physician, or a clinical psychologist) carries socially and personally constructed 'theories' or 'philosophies' in their minds" (2000d). Cognitivists and social constructivists sometimes conduct research to "retrieve these theories in order to find out what makes a good practitioner behave in certain ways" (2000d). As researchers they may study "the behaviors, reflections, memories, and meaning-constructs of 'excellent' teachers in order to determine the knowledge that underlies their exemplary practices" (2000d). Whatever conclusions and recommendations they make, the common denominator for all tactful action is thoughtful, intuitive, intentional, perceptive, kindly action.

As an element of tact, perceptiveness provides us with "a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others" (as quoted in van Manen, 2000c). A tactful person, then, knows how to "act quickly...and in an appropriate manner with quite complex or delicate circumstances" (2000c). He or she interprets "inner thoughts, understandings, feelings, and desires from indirect clues or evidence such as gestures, demeanor, expressions, and body language" (van Manen, 2000a). He or she would have a sense of how to deal with "shyness, hostility, frustration, rudeness, joy, anger, tenderness, grief (etc.) for particular persons in concrete situations" (2000a).

Tact, then, is not selfish. Some call it pathic: "It allows one to grasp the situation from the other's point of view" (van Manen, 2000b). The tactful person addresses individuals in "difficult" situations with a certain confidence, and "the more thoughtful and reflective a person stands in life..., the more likely that this person will be able to act confidently in situations marked by contingency and uncertainty" (van Manen, 2000e). Some situations may call for a social, cultural, and ethical awareness. Although "the notion of tact is inherently a factor of personal style of individuals, it is also at the same time inherently an intersubjective, social, and cultural ethical notion" (2000e).

The word ethical brings to mind morality. Perhaps you agree that "tact seems to be characterized by a moral intuitiveness" (van Manen, 2000l). The tactful teacher, researcher, or anybody, really, "seems to sense what is the good or right thing to do" (2000l). The tactful teacher is able to "see what goes on with children, to understand the child's experience, to sense...pedagogical significance..., to know...what to do, and to actually do something right" (2000l). Van Manen calls tact "a kind of practical normative intelligence that is governed by insight while relying on feeling" (2000l).

Armed with this understanding, we might realize why "as teachers, we sometimes catch ourselves about to say something but then hold back before we have completely committed ourselves to what was already 'on our lips'" (van Manen, 1995). Tact, in a sense, channels our thoughts, words, and actions along a route of what is best for the student--or for whomever we are dealing with. During one of my phenomenological interviews, I sensed the participant was growing weary of my questions and needed a break. He did not admit this when I asked him if he needed a break, but then I asked if he minded stopping for a while because I needed to regroup my thoughts. I did not lie. That was how I felt, although I could have kept the interview going. As it turned out, he almost jumped at the chance to stop the interview for a while. Once he seemed refreshed by a general discussion about what makes a good poem, he got back to being interviewed with a newborn energy. Was I being a tactful interviewer? You be the judge.

Tact acquires itself inside of us, one might say, through experience and reflection that focuses on the needs of others. I often find tact feels like a thinking, feeling entity within me that makes up its mind about what to do or say without my actually reflecting on what would be best. I relate to van Manen's statement that "usually, the teacher does not have time to distance himself or herself from the particular moment in order to deliberate (rationally, morally, or critically) what he or she should do or say next" (1995). There are, of course, situations in which speed is not of the essence. They provide us the opportunity to reflect on what tactful response or word would be best.

The point: When we employ tact we may find ourselves rejoicing over the good results: "A man has rejoicing in the answer of his mouth, and a word at its right time is O how good!" (New World Translation [NWT], Proverbs 15:23). The teacher's words that are "apples of gold in silver carvings" (NWT, Proverbs 25:11) can encourage, inspire, strengthen, motivate. I marvel when I see that tactful teachers spur on students to want to keep trying in spite of difficult circumstances--and many of the troubled students at my secondary alternate school have difficult circumstances.

Now then, would you call this a tactful reply?: "Ursula, that's an interesting question [assuming it is]. After I finish helping the students with the last section of this worksheet, I'll answer that question." Would you call this a tactful statement to the principal who is so proud of his school?: "Thank you for the tour, but I have a meeting in a few minutes with Mrs. [ ]. After I'm finished, could you give me the rest of the tour?" Would that encourage good relations? Sometimes school staff feel animosity towards so-called ivory-tower researchers who want to ask questions, do esoteric quantitative analysis, or generally take up time (McEwan, n.d.). Tact doesn't hurt--no doubt because you catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Do you imagine the tactful teacher as positive? Certainly, when he has great optimism, great energy in the classroom can result. Even given the challenges as found in the poem called "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," by Stephen Spender (1967), the tactful teacher tries to find the "word at its right time" for the benefit of all his or her students. Undaunted by "[the] tall girl with her weighed-down head" (exhausted?, ill?), "the paper- / seeming boy with rat's eyes" (thin, hungry, and weak?), "the stunted unlucky heir / Of twisted bones, reciting a father's gnarled disease" (an inherited disease or disability?), and "[a boy's] eyes [that] live in a dream" (a mental illness?), the tactful teacher will never cease trying to encourage, inspire, strengthen, and motivate them all. The tactful teacher is pathic and selfless, with the interests of his students deep in his heart. He becomes a humanistic model for students and colleagues alike (Horwood, 2003). The tactful researcher is nothing less to those he meets in his research journeys/adventures.


Horwood, D. (2003).
An analysis of Nechako Elementary School's pink slip discipline referral program 1998-2001. In M. Shamsher, E. Decker, & C. Leggo (Eds.), Teacher research in the backyard (pp. 129-138).
Vancouver: British Columbia Teachers' Federation.
Learning the art of being tactful. (2003, August 1). The watchtower announcing Jehovah's kingdom, 29-31.
McEwan, E. K. (n.d.).
Discussion about Making sense of research: What's good, what's not, and how to tell the difference. Retrieved October 8, 2003 from the Elaine K. McEwan Education Resources Web site:
New world translation of the Holy scriptures. (1984).
Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York.
Spender, S. (1967).
An elementary school classroom in a slum. In C. Gillanders (Ed.), Theme & image: an anthology of poetry/book II (pp. 101-102). Toronto, ON: Copp Clark Pitman.
Tact. (1992).
New illustrated Webster's dictionary. Chicago, IL: J. G. Ferguson.
van Manen, M. (1995).
On the epistemology of reflective practice. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 1(1), 33-50. Retrieved September, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Max van Manen Home Page Web site:
van Manen, M. (2000a).
Interpretive sensibility. Retrieved April 8, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Phenomenological Inquiry Web site:
van Manen, M. (2000b).
Pathic intuitiveness. Retrieved April 8, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Phenomenological Inquiry Web site:
van Manen, M. (2000c).
Perceptiveness. Retrieved April 8, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Phenomenological Inquiry Web site:
van Manen, M. (2000d).
Practice as tact. Retrieved April 8, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Phenomenological Inquiry Web site:
van Manen, M. (2000e).
Situational confidence. Retrieved April 8, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Phenomenological Inquiry Web site:
van Manen, M. (2000l).
Thoughtful action. Retrieved April 8, 2003 from the University of Alberta, Department of Education, Phenomenological Inquiry Web site:
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