Welcome to the penultimate portion of this post series (here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). If you like this post, you might like Never Finished: Continually Becoming the Teachers We Want to Be (and Staying Sane in the Process).
Today, we’re going to examine a part of the most underrated element of the three-fold strategy I recommend if you’re trying to maximize the impact of your teaching career: the adult level.
Let’s break it down
So there are a few reasons why I’m going to break The Adult Level (feels more official in caps) into two different posts:
- There are some general, big-bang-for-your-buck principles when it comes to dealing with any adult, and I want there to be a post that gives them space to live and breathe before we get into specific tips for dealing productively with the specific types of adults we deal with as teachers;
- I want to try writing something a bit shorter this week;
- I am prepping for a trip to lead PD in California — when this post comes out, I’ll have left yesterday — and am just coming off speaking at a conference on Monday, and there’s a pile of papers to grade and, you know, life.
That said, this week we’ll look at general principles and next week we’ll finish up the series with tips for working well with specific groups of adults: fellow teachers, administrators, parents, and support staff.
But for real, read this post — the principles are more important, in my opinion, than the specific tips in next week’s post.
Why working with adults matters in the first place
Before we start, I know there are more than a few readers who probably think like I did when I started out in teaching: my job is to shut my door, teach my kids as best I can, and that’s it.
But also, if you’ve been around my blog for a while, you know that our goal in this community is to promote the long-term flourishing of students. That’s what it means to be an educator; that’s what we’re driving at every day.
With this in mind, working strategically with adults simply becomes a mathematical imperative: the amount of students we can impact through our efforts alone is minuscule next to that which can be achieved indirectly through working with other adults. My hunch is that this kind of thinking has led more than a few life-dominating educators to shift from the classroom to roles in coaching, administration, or consulting. So whether you’re a classroom teacher like me or engaged in some other role as an educator, heads up: the principles below are for you.
#1: Develop humility
There are several reasons why I think humility is the number one character strength to develop if you’re going to work well with other adults.
I have two go-to lines in my head to remind myself of what it means to be humble.
C. S. Lewis, in his apologetics masterwork Mere Christianity, says, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”
The other one in my head is from the Bible, but even if you don’t read or believe in the sacred nature of that text, I think you can appreciate its description of humility: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself. Look not only after your own interests, but also after the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
There’s one more great definition of humility that I found while doing research for this post today.
A common misconception is that humility involves having a low self-esteem, a sense of unworthiness, or a lack of self-focus. However, true humility involves an accurate self-assessment, recognition of limitations, keeping accomplishments in perspective, and forgetting of the self. Humble people do not distort information to defend or verify their own image, and they do not need to see — or present — themselves as being better than they actually are.
Why humility is key for working well with adults
Nelson Mandela, in an interview with Oprah, I think explains it best: “If you let people know that you are no threat to them, they will embrace you, they will listen to you.”
To put it another way, it feels great to be with someone who seems to value you more than they do themselves, and it feels not so great to be with someone who seems to do the opposite.
Let’s get practical
Here are a few tips for developing humility in yourself:
- Never brag about yourself. Instead, trust that word of your achievements will spread if and when they need to. Keep your head down and become great at your job; recognition will follow.
- Frequently brag about others. You want to become known as someone who shares pleasant (rather than gossipy unpleasant) truths about others.
- Keep telling yourself that very few, if any, people in your building are operating out of ill intent. Just because someone is doing something unpleasant or unethical or unprofessional or unkind does not mean they desire ill for others; people are more complex than that.
- Also remind yourself that while years on the job doesn’t perfectly equate to job ability, folks who have been doing this longer than you probably know quite a bit that you don’t.
- Similarly, just because you’ve been teaching since the new teacher down the hall was in diapers doesn’t mean you don’t have a thing or two you could learn from him. The more humble you are, the more able you’ll be to learn from any adult in your building.
The good news with humility is that it will also make you special to your students. They are so used to having pride modeled for them in every single sphere of life, yet humility is a rare thing.
But season that humility with humble-boldness
It’s worth saying that being humble doesn’t mean you aren’t a fired up, passionate, even bold person. I think Jim Collins does a great job describing humble-boldness in Good to Great.
From Good to Great:
“A burning, passionate, obsessed ambition for the cause, for the [school], for the work — not for themselves — and an utterly stoic will to make good on that ambition.”
That is probably one of my favorite “I want to be like that when I grow up” quotes from any book. Picture the humble-bold teacher — she is simultaneously disinterested in herself and wholeheartedly interested in long-term student flourishing. Someone who is humble-bold will hold not to a cherished teaching philosophy but to what actually does the most toward that ultimate goal.
In her sweet book Thrive, Meenoo Rami powerfully advises teachers to view mentors less as the formal person assigned to you when you start working at a school and more as “invaluable models and guides for particular parts of [one’s] professional and personal life” (4).
A mentorship can be as formal or as casual as you and your mentor would like. Perhaps the word mentor might sound stiff to you — you might instead consider asking the person to grab coffee and talk through something with you or take a look at something you were planning on trying out with your class next week. Asking for advice on a specific situation and seeing how it sits with you might help to give you a feel for how a mentoring relationship might go.
When I look at some of the most influential people in my professional career, my “mentors” are far from just those whom I’ve been officially assigned (both Tanya and Cindy are the bomb, though) — they are colleagues, principals, parents of students, and even people from the business world.
Having Meenoo’s open definition of mentors is one more way to think smarter about how important our relationships with other adults are if we’re to maximize the impact of our careers.
#3: Encourage others
If you meet a person with a pulse today, guess what? They could sure use some encouragement.
I’ll say that again: every human being isn’t opposed to some genuine encouragement.
This universal need, mixed with the learnable, simple nature of encouraging others, means that encouragement is a high-bang-for-your-buck strategy for working with adults because 1) it’s a matter of simply saying a sentence or two, and 2) it’s fun 🙂
So here’s how it’s done.
- Listen to (or ask for) the genuine praise your students give to adults who have positively impacted their lives.
- Make a note.
- Seek out a run-in with that person within the next couple of days. If needed, make a phone call or write a quick email.
- In the encounter with the appreciated person, specifically tell them what the student said and why you thought it was cool.
- Rinse and repeat.
There are other variations on #1 in that series of steps. For example, you can simply make note of cool things you notice (e.g., the maintenance worker who cleans your room does something special; the teacher whose class is doing something special when you walk by) and bring that up to the teacher.
Becoming a habitual encourager is one of the great goals of my life. I hope I can be half the encouragement to the people I work with as countless folks have been in my life.
#4: Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to engage in autobiographical listening
One common pitfall that I’ve noticed in teachers near and far (near being as near as myself, by the way) is the bad habit of autobiographical listening. That is not my term — I think I first heard it from Steve Seward — but it’s perfect for something we’ve all experienced (or done).
Here’s what I’m talking about when I say autobiographical listening:
- Person A: Oh my gosh, today the most amazing thing happened — my students did __________.
- Person B: Cool! That’s so crazy because my students today were like _____________ and I was like ______________ and they were all like, “Oh, you just changed our lives, teacher!” and I was like ___________.
- Person A: [Walks away while Person B continues commandeering the conversation to suit the needs of their ego.]
The idea is, when an adult shares something with you, you need to hear that thing, paraphrase so that they actually know (and you actually know) that you heard and understood it, and then keep the conversation on them.
#5: Speak well of people when they are not there
Seriously — instead of giving in to the strong, human urge to share negative truths about others (i.e., gossip), be the freak of nature person who habitually shares good things about others.
Not going to lie — I have 100% learned this technique from people who were (and still are) much better at it than me.
The idea is not (nor should it ever be) to be fake; the idea is to become a person who singlehandedly makes a dent in a school’s culture simply by consistently, tirelessly thinking about others more — and about long-term flourishing more — and themselves less. It all goes back to humility.
#6: A person’s worth isn’t based on their job performance
This has been true in every job I’ve had, and maybe it’s just the nature of work, but we tend to view people badly who don’t perform well at work. All I’m saying with this point is that poor work performance is not something we should tolerate, but it simultaneously is not something we should look down on someone for.
Keep in mind that when you encounter someone who does poorly at their job, you are encountering the deficiency not just of the person in question, but also of the system and people who allow this person to continue doing poorly at their job.
At the end of they day, we will have trouble distinguishing our own identity from our job performance if we cannot also do the same for others. The work of identity separation sounds like wishy-washy psychobabble, perhaps, but I’ve found it imperative in my development as a teacher.
#7: When an adult seems to not like you, it’s probably not personal…
This one is big, especially for newer teachers. In every building I’ve ever visited or worked in, there’s been at least one teacher (and often more) who give off this palpable vibe that says, “You, Dave Stuart, are not welcome.”
But here’s the thing I’ve come to understand — this vibe is rarely, if ever, about me.
There are at least two reasons that the colleague or admin or parent at your work may be giving you a negative vibe:
- They feel, likely at an unconscious level, that you are a threat. This may be somewhat perpetuated by you, your behavior, the way in which you were introduced to them, etc. — but it’s pretty unlikely that it’s mostly because of you. Rather, it’s because your presence wreaks havoc on their insecurities. (And before you go looking down on them for having insecurities, keep in mind that their vibe probably wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t have your own insecurities.)
- They’ve been burned before by [insert whatever you represent — the new, promising teacher; the smart, savvy colleague; the well-meaning administrator]. In this case, once again, their demeanor toward you isn’t about you — it’s about how they feel about whatever you represent.
I think these two things account for a lot of the “So-and-so hates me” drama that happens in departments and school buildings across the country.
The solution? Why, I’m glad you asked!
#8: …so view your relationship with them as a puzzle, not an indictment of your soul
Socially intelligent folks realize that very few people act in ways that don’t make sense — at least to them. In a similar manner, people who are good at putting jigsaw puzzles together realize that no matter how messed up it looks when you first dump it out, the puzzle can make perfect sense if you just start putting pieces together.
This sounds pretty logical, right? And yet most people don’t think like this because their identities are far too threatened by folks who give off that negative vibe. Most people assume that the adult with the vibe simply doesn’t like them for some personal reason.
But, like I said in #7, it’s not personal. At the same time, unlike the Godfather clip in my last post suggests, it’s also not business.
Instead, it’s just a puzzle.
#9: A thank-you a day…
Let’s end on a “You could seriously do this if you wanted to” note. One of the few blogs I subscribe to is that of Eric Barker over at Barking Up the Wrong Tree, and one piece of advice that seems to come up again and again in his posts about how to be happy is the importance of a simple daily habit — write a genuine (not necessarily long) thank you note or email to someone you know.
That simple action doesn’t just make your relationships with adults better — it gets you practicing the powerful character strength of gratitude.
Now get after it
I know that was kind of a lot, but those principles are too near and dear my heart to keep them off this blog. They are now here. Share, apply, and/or critique liberally, family.
Teaching right beside you,
PS If you liked this post, you might like Never Finished.