“That Thing Where You Tell Us What We’re Good At”

At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.

Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

As described in previous posts on The Power of the Positive and Neuroscience, humans are naturally wired to scan their environment for problems or errors, and we often feel compelled to tell the whole truth – warts and all. However, we can be truth-tellers without telling the whole truth, and sometimes it’s really important that we do so.

Like so many things, I have learned this lesson from my students.

We were in the final week before the end of the first semester, and in the throes of finishing up final drafts of our Capstone papers. Students and teachers alike were feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and irritated. One day at the end of morning meeting, as we were transitioning to academic instruction, Nate pulled me aside, and asked, “Ms. Taylor, when are we going to do that thing where you tell us what we’re good at?” I knew immediately what he meant, but I had entirely forgotten that I had promised to provide it.

“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at.”

This was a practice that I had formally begun the year before at the conclusion of our Leadership Camp ceremony – a description of each student at his or her best. I had indicated that we would do something similar as part of our celebration of the fall or winter holidays, but I hadn’t gotten around to scheduling it.

Nate beat me to the punch by directly requesting what he, and the rest of the class, needed. It was time to show faith in our students, to demonstrate that we wouldn’t give up on them, and to encourage their positive contributions, no matter how small. Nate recognized the importance of telling them “what they’re good at” before I did, and I am profoundly grateful that he had the courage to point it out to me.

“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at” is a process akin to panning for gold. The first step is to envision each student with a singular focus. What is true about this child? The entirety of the truth is there – rocks, mud, silt, and all. that-thing-where-you-tell-us-what-were-good-at-2Narrowing the vision, and selecting different lenses through which to see, is like running clear water over the muck and allowing the pebbles and dirt to be washed away. Eventually, only the golden nuggets are left behind. Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” The golden nuggets are “the good.” They are what remain after the layers of defenses, and shields, and mistakes, and poor choices have been washed away. Every student in every classroom has golden nuggets just waiting to be revealed. Some of them are easy to see; it is a joy to hold these students’ gifts up to the light and celebrate them. However, for other students, the golden nuggets can take effort to uncover. It is for these students that this process is the most important. For many of these students, a teacher may be the first person who has ever helped them to see themselves in a purely positive light – free of hidden put-downs, backhanded compliments, or veiled barbs. These “golden nuggets” may not be the whole truth, but that doesn’t make them untrue, nor are they any less true if they are described in isolation from the rest.  These visions of possibility allow students to perceive their best selves. This can be a tremendously powerful experience.

So, when was I going to tell them what they were good at? It was a great question, and a great moment, and yet I almost missed it – this overt cue. Instead of acknowledging the import of his query, and providing him with a sincere response, I jokingly responded, “I don’t know. Maybe when I like you better!” Nate laughed. I laughed. The moment passed. But later that evening, upon reflection of my day, I recognized my error, and I immediately began planning how to incorporate this ritual into the tea party that was already scheduled for the end of the week.

It is tradition at Gamble for the junior high students to celebrate the end of the imagefirst semester with a high tea. Students and teachers dress up in fancy attire, we decorate the classroom, practice etiquette, and serve fancy tea and cookies. I decided to fold the individual strengths ceremony when I “tell them what they are good at” into this formal and celebratory occasion.

In preparation, I spent many hours filtering through what I knew about each of my students and sifting out the negative pieces. Ultimately, I was able to write a true and unique statement for each of my students, describing his or her “best self.”

The highly anticipated day arrived. Girls arrived in dresses and bows, male imageteachers helped the boys tie their ties, Each student group spread tablecloths and arranged centerpieces to convert our daily work space into a festive reflection of the season. We poured tea, served cookies, and then it was time.

 

To set the tone, I shared the following excerpt from Aspire by David Hall.

This story was told to Hall by an Indian shopkeeper:

“I grew up in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. Through education and hard work my family was able to break the shackles of poverty. My mother taught me many great things. One of the most important was the meaning of an ancient Hindi word. In the West you might call this charity, but I think you’ll find this word has a deeper meaning. The word is “Genshai” (GEN-shy). It means that you should never treat another person in a manner that would make them feel small. As children, we were taught to never look at, touch, or address another person in a way that would make them feel small. If I were to walk by a beggar in the street and casually toss him a coin, I would not be practicing Genshai. But if I knelt down on my knees and looked him in the eye when I placed that coin in his hand, that coin became love. Then and only then, after I had exhibited pure, unconditional brotherly love, would I become a true practitioner of Genshai. Genshai means that you never treat anyone small – and that includes yourself.” [1]

I explained to the class that as a component of not “treating them small,” I wanted them to see the “best self” version of themselves that their teachers saw in them. I wanted each of them to hear themselves, and each of their peers, described in this way because “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”

Students will take these types of ceremonies seriously if the teachers work to imageestablish a formal tone. To set the stage for this event, I placed each child’s “best self statement” inside of a gift box to symbolize that not only was this my gift to them, but that each of them was a gift to our community, and to our world. To prepare the space for the occasion, I ceremonially displayed the boxes in the front of the classroom, dimmed the lights, and played soft music.

While students truly love hearing about themselves and each other in positive ways, they need guidance and direct instruction on how to listen appropriately, so that they create a space that is emotionally safe for every member of the community. Feeling vulnerable is uncomfortable for most of us, and knowing that you are going to be spoken about publicly – even, or perhaps especially, when this is done positively – can often lead to laughter, or even inappropriate behavior, as a means to relieve the discomfort. Being directly instructed about how to manage themselves in this type of situation helps to dispel the nervousness and anxiety that many students may experience. They need to be reminded that we applaud equally for every individual, and that any comments that might possibly be seen as critical are a violation of the principles of community. They need to be provided with clear expectations about the importance of being quiet and attentive as each person’s individual statement is read.

After establishing all of these expectations for my students, the room was hushed and serious as I began the individual reading of the “best self” statements for all 50 students as well as the 4 staff people who were with us.

Together we recognized James, for whom sitting still and not blurting out answers is a constant challenge, but this statement is also true about him: “You are one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. You are conscientious about making sure that everyone is included, and you can’t stand it when things are unfair. I can’t decide whether I am more proud of you for trying to throw the game when you realized that the Outsiders impressionistic lesson was rigged, or for the encouragement and companionship you offer to Kim (a student with Down Syndrome) on every field experience. You are a gift.”

And Margo: “One of your most noteworthy character strengths is gratitude. You always remember to say thank you – even when it’s for helping you redo an assignment that has been handed back to you for corrections over and over again. You hate to make mistakes, but you must learn to be gentle with yourself. It is through mistakes that we learn and grow; we must embrace them! You are a gift.”

And Denise, who struggles academically more than any of our other students, and who tends to be discounted by her peers as a result: You are often under-appreciated in our community, but where would we be without your ready willingness to help? From providing a pencil to someone who lost theirs, sharing your annotated reading with those who don’t have one, or taking on extra duties in the classroom, all of us lean on you. For all the times we may have forgotten to say thank you, well . . . ‘thank you’ from the bottom of our hearts. You are a gift.”

And on and on, until each student had been acknowledged and had seen his or her unique contributions to the group as a whole. This took the better part of an hour – a beautiful hour of student engagement, support, and attentiveness. After four months together of learning to follow expectations and procedures, figuring out how to interact with each other, and tackling rigorous academic content, like Algebra I and the Capstone Project, we were dearly lacking in energy, patience, and enthusiasm. However, in the space provided by that hour, we came together in the final moments of the semester to celebrate and recognize the progress and growth that each student had achieved individually, but that had truly been accomplished in conjunction with each other.

I knew that I had taught them well, when after the last statement had been read, many students immediately noted that I had not received one. Two young ladies took it upon themselves to write a “best self” statement for me. Their statement mirrored my tone and verbiage, ending with “You are a gift.” How powerful it was that, as a group, students understood that when we do things as a community, it is imperative that all members are included. It was unacceptable to them that anyone was left out – including me.

Did these “best self” statements reflect how students always behave in the classroom? Most certainly not. Negative behaviors attract our attention readily. The 4:1 positive to negative interaction ratio is much touted as being critical to student success, but it is so hard to achieve. Even when providing positive feedback, it can be so tempting to temper praise with “the whole truth”, or what I call, “the but”. “The but” can take many forms; in each, the positive feedback is subtly turned into a partial criticism. This strips the compliment of all of its intended power. Listen closely to yourself or others when positive reflections are provided; you may be startled by how often the tribute is undermined by some version of “the but.” Sometimes, the recipients – children and adults alike – will even add “the but” themselves. We are so uncomfortable with our own goodness. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Providing “best self” statements helps each of us to fight against the temptation to focus of faults and flaws, and to reinforce the importance of those things we do best.

Managing a classroom requires frequent behavioral redirection. Making academic progress requires the pointing out and correction of error. Students regularly hear teachers reflect on what they are doing poorly. It is important that they also have opportunities to hear themselves described in their most positive light. It provides them with a possibility to live into, invites them to see themselves in this way, and engages them in the process of their own growth and development. It sends the message that they can be successful, that the adults in their life believe in them and their ability to succeed, and that we won’t give up on helping them to become their best selves.

Students absolutely love seeing themselves through a wholly positive lens; it is that-thing-where-you-tell-us-what-were-good-at-1profound to see how much stock they put in this, and how often the words we give them re-emerge later as a way in which they describe themselves. As teachers we hold tremendous power in influencing how students view themselves. This is a weighty burden, and a responsibility that we must not take lightly. Don’t forget to “do that thing where you tell them what they’re good at.” It will likely mean more than you will ever know.

 

[1] Hall, Kevin. Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose through the Power of Words. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print.

 

Seeking Inspiration? — Read this Book!

-by Krista Taylor

If someone had told me that I would discover my favorite book of all time at a school sponsored professional development training, I would have laughed out loud. No way. Simply not possible. But it’s true, I did. During the summer of 2011, among the three books assigned as pre-reading for the Ascend Leadership Institute was The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. The text on the back of the book says, “In the face of difficulty, we can despair, get angry . . . or choose possibility,” and from the very first pages I was hooked.  Jack was also deeply impacted by this book – it served as the impetus for the Giving an A teacher evaluation process that he implemented shortly after reading it, and when discussing who would get to write this post, we had a bit of a scuffle. I won.

The Art of Possibility is a life-changing work. I have recommended it to others more often than any other book I’ve ever read, and rather than loan mimgresine out, I purchase new books for those who want to read it. I love my copy so much that I consider it a kind of talisman . . . or perhaps a blankie. It is underlined and annotated, and has been so well-loved that the pages are beginning to separate from the binding.

So what is this book actually about?! It’s about life. And leadership. And perspective. And hope. I would like to say that reading this book opened my eyes and elicited such great changes in me that I am now . . . well . . . that I am now perfect. Unfortunately, that would not be a true story. Instead let me say that reading this book opened my eyes, and now, sometimes, I can see with a different perspective. Other times, I forget entirely, and for every two steps forward I take, it seems that I take one step (or sometimes even two) backward. Just as I say about my students, progress does not happen in a straight line, and surely mine has not. This book, however, has served as a catalyst for change, and it continues to provide grounding and reminders when I feel that I have lost my way.

The content of this book seems impossible to summarize, so rather than trying to do so, I want to share the ideas I have found most impactful. I know that these sections have such resonance with me because they are the areas with which I struggle the most. While it is tempting to tell you stories of how I courageously implemented these practices and mindsets, the truth is I don’t have many of those stories – I ask that you view those that I share here as the exception for me, rather than the rule. I continue to be a work in progress.

The Myth of Scarcity

In the first chapter, Zander and Zander discuss the myth of scarcity. The idea that when we believe that there is not enough of an important thing, it leads to competition, judgment, mistrust, and fear, but that ultimately, this way of understanding the world is false. Here is how they describe living with a scarcity focus. “On our path to achieving a goal, we inevitably encounter obstacles. Some of the more familiar ones, aside from other people, are scarcities of time, money, power, love, resources, and inner strength. . . . The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through – surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.” They write that a better model is found in seeing the world as “A Universe of Possibility.”   “Let us suppose, now, that a universe of possibility stretches beyond the world of measurement. (p.19) In this reality, the relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.” (p. 20)

We no longer live in a world in which “survival of the fittest” makes sense. While neuroscience has taught us that the human brain remains wired to scan our environment for threats in order to trigger the “fight or flight” response when necessary, we no longer have to live this way in order to survive. Instead of seeking out the threats, or problems, what if we embraced possibility? The Zanders note that living “in abundance” brings greater abundance — that when you give up competition and scarcity thinking, greater connections and resources follow. We don’t have to succumb to the temptation of constant comparison, or that what you have takes from me. The thought that if you are an incredible teacher, it makes me less of one; that your creativity reduces the uniqueness of my work, or that your success threatens mine. We live in a society where we are regularly pitted against one another in competition. This is true, even in education. Over a year ago, out of 20 finalists, I was named the Hawkins Educator of the Year. I rarely talk about this honor, and the official plaque with my name on it sits at the bottom of my desk drawer where it has been since I first brought it to school. I simply cannot bring myself to hang it up because, you see, in my mind, if I am the Educator of the Year, it somehow seems to imply that those around me are less, and that is simply not true. Why not 20 winners? Why not 200? Why not all of us? Ultimately, it is only in giving up the idea that there isn’t enough to go around that allows us to “step into a universe of possibility.” (p. 23)

Being a Contribution

Without the inevitable competition that scarcity thinking necessitates, we can let go of the notions of success and failure, and instead focus on the more achievable concept of being a contribution.

“The drive to be successful and the fear of failure are, like the head and tail of a coin, inseparably linked.” (p. 56) It seems nearly impossible to let go of the importance of success. Isn’t this the whole purpose of living – to be successful? Perhaps not financially per se, but to be successful in each of our roles – as a spouse, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc? This list could go on and on. Just thinking about being successful in all the possible ways feels exhausting, but, without that, what is it all about? Isn’t success the whole point? The Zanders say no. They suggest that we replace that entire concept. “All at once I found that the fearful question, ‘Is it enough?’ and the even more fearful question, ‘Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?’ could both be replaced with the joyful question, ‘How will I be a contribution today?’” (p. 57) How much easier it is to think about simply being a contribution each day, rather than getting it all just right. I wish I could tell you that I have mastered this perspective shift, but I have not – I’m not even close. That’s why my book is falling apart; I have to keep returning to it to remind myself that there’s a different way. As the book notes, it is a “discipline of the spirit” (p.62) that is transformative. The one thing that I have discovered is that there is great joy is saying yes – in making myself a contribution to others. So often, I come across the advice to “set boundaries,” “know your limits,” “learn to say no.” Each time I hear this, I want to say, “Why?” Why on Earth would I say no to something that will help? What would happen if we all just said yes to one another?” I get teased about this socialist-type philosophy of relationships, but why not “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need?” Beau said it best on a summer evening when I was overwhelmed by a time-sensitive and monumental work task that had nothing to do with him. He offered to come and help. I protested, until he clearly and firmly said, “Shut up, Krista. We’re a team. We help each other.” Being a contribution allows us to use our ability to meet another’s need. It leads to relationships that are rooted in the premise of “I’ve got you” – when you have a need, I am there to contribute. 

Being a contribution, to individuals or to the world in general, occurs most easily through calling on our Passion. This is how the Zanders describe the process of giving way to passion: “Notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you connecting you to all beyond.” (p. 114)

Please allow me to be the first to say that the idea of “letting go” sounds utterly terrifying. And yet, I know how it feels when I have done it. It feels like flying – like being lifted by an ever-present current, so that no matter what risks I take, I cannot fall. Why is it so hard to trust that process?   And while I don’t believe in magic – I only believe in hard work – tapping into passion seems to elicit a kind of timeless magic. “The life force for humankind is perhaps nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. “ (p. 139) I don’t believe that we can do this unless we say yes to one another. Let’s give up the concepts of balance and limits in favor of “scattering light in all directions.” We need more light.

Responsibility

And yet sometimes Passion eludes us. Sometimes we get seduced by the siren song of the downward spiral. It is easy to fall into this trap as it can feel so much safer to assume failure. “Downward spiral talk is based on the fear that we will be stopped in our tracks and fall short in the race.” (p. 108) The downward spiral occurs by focusing on the negatives – that same scanning the environment for threats. This leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, which can be paralyzing. This is my great Achilles’ Heel. During the first five weeks of this summer, I compulsively walked the equivalent of several marathons while engaged in countless hours of obsessive rumination on the challenges Gamble was facing at the end of the school year. In the process, I mentally catastrophized the situation such that I had myself nearly convinced that things would never get better, I was powerless to effect change, and that the best recourse was simply to quit trying.   I allowed myself to become fully entranced by Downward Spiral Self-Talk.

The Zanders strategy for addressing the Downward Spiral is through taking responsibility, or what I would call “owning your part.” As comfortable as it is to point fingers and assign blame, responsibility for every conflict and every challenging situation is held by all impacted parties. “You can always grace yourself with responsibility for anything that happens in your life. You can always find within yourself the source of any problem you have.” (p. 152) While on the surface, it may seem that taking personal responsibility might only result in greater discomfort, this is not, in fact, the case. As I frequently tell my children, my students, and myself, “You can only be responsible for you, but you are always responsible for you.” You cannot force anyone else to change, but you have the power to make choices that influence every situation you are a part of. This dispels the feeling of powerlessness that the downward spiral elicits and allows for the emergence of glimmers of hope. Ultimately, this is what knocked me out of my early summer Downward Spiral stupor. What was my role in the situation and what corrective actions did I need to take? Once I was able to answer those questions, I was able to see how I could get the things I was responsible for back on the right track.

I reflect often on the Zanders’ question, “Who am I being that they are not shining?” (p. 74) They being anyone you are engaged with – students, employees, colleagues, friends, family. Essentially, when there is a problem, what is my part? I am ineffective, helpless, and hopeless when I find myself stuck in the blame game – focusing on who is at fault. I open up to possibility and to change when I can see the steps that I need to take to impact the problem. This attitude extends far beyond personal benefits.   “Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for (with) you if they felt no problem could arise between you that you were not prepared to own. Imagine how much incentive they would have to cooperate if they knew they could count on you to clear the pathways for accomplishment.” (p. 158-9) The benefits of combating the downward spiral through personal responsibility are far reaching and generate a deep-seated trust that is powerful and inspiring.

Rule #6/How Fascinating

While I certainly acknowledge that the perspective shift the Zanders propose is challenging and requires difficult internal self-reflection and work, they are light-hearted in their approach, providing just one rule, which they call Rule #6. Rule #6 is very simple – “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” (p.79) They prevail upon us to “lighten up,” saying, “Humor and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humor can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions, and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other’s throats.” (p. 80) Ummmmm . . . guilty as charged . . . I don’t do Rule #6 so very well. One strategy for getting closer to not “taking yourself so damn seriously,” is the procedure they provide to their students when a mistake has occurred. Fortunately it is simple, humorous, and nearly pain-free. “When they [students] make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’”(p.31) So, next year, if you see me briskly walking through the hall, with my arms in the air, muttering “How fascinating,” under my breath, understand that this is progress for me. Just continue about your business knowing that I have not lost my mind, I have just screwed up yet again, and am practicing embracing possibility and Rule #6 .

An Invitation to Possibility

I highly recommend that you read this book. It is challenging in the best possible ways. As for me, I’m waiting on the incantation, magic pill, or snake oil that will transform me. Until then, I will keep my trusty copy by my side and continue re-reading the underlined and dog-eared pages, each time trying to get a little closer to living within The Art of Possibility.