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What to Do When You Need a Credibility Breakthrough: The Student-by-Student Ground Game

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last time, we looked at the CCP of teacher credibility. Now, let's examine the top trick I know for building it rapidly. This is useful if you're new at a school or if you feel like you're credibility is stagnating.

What Kevin Hart taught me about teaching

I read a story recently about comedian Kevin Hart. It's not a perfect comparison to what we're trying to do, but I often find that imperfect comparisons are exactly what I need to create mental breakthroughs. Let me share a fair-sized excerpt, from Ryan Holiday's book Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts:

After the comedian Kevin Hart experienced several disappointing failures in a row, his career was at a crossroads. The movies he'd expected to make him a star hadn't hit; his television deal hadn't panned out. So he did what comedians do best–he hit the road. But unlike many successful comedians, he didn't just go to the cities where he could sell the most seats. Instead, he went everywhere–often deliberately performing in small clubs in cities where he did not have a large fan base. At every show, an assistant would put a business card on each seat at every table that said, “Kevin Hart needs to know who you are,” and asked for their email address. After the show, his team would collect the cards and enter the names into a spreadsheet organized by location. For four years he toured the country this way, building an enormous database of loyal fans and drawing more and more people to every subsequent show. (pp. 185-186)

Holiday goes on to describe how it was Kevin's “fan-by-fan ground game” that eventually allowed him to reach his current success.

So listen: we don't have assistants, and there's no national travel included in our job. But we can take some clear things away in creating our own, scaled-down “student-by-student” ground game.

The student-by-student ground game

If you want to make quick gains in your teacher credibility, you need to become systematic about collecting moments of genuine connection with as many people as possible. (Read my description of moments of genuine connection here — it includes a handful of specific examples.)

Step 1: Start with the kids on your roster. Your objective is going to be to create a moment of genuine connection with every kid at least once.

Step 2: Devise a simple (!!!) system for keeping track. Listen, you've got a complex job, you don't need another complex thing to operate. This ground game needs to be simple. Notice how Kevin Hart's was simple: do lots of gigs, especially in small places; collect email addresses; keep in touch with email list. The simplicity made it easy for him to keep doing it, year after year.

  • If you teach secondary, do your best to get every kid's name to fit on a single sheet of paper. The goal here is to have a simple method to keep track of who you've connected with, and having all the kid's names on a single sheet helps.
  • If you teach elementary, you might be able to get more space for the kids so that you can take better notes.
  • If you're a techie, do some kind of techie version of this.
  • If you're a journaler, then get one of those cheap composition notebooks, write a kid's name at the top of each page, and keep track of what you learn that way.

Step 3: Get after it. Go connect with every kid at least once. And then do it again. If you think you're a real hot-shot, then determine to make 10 moments of genuine connections (MGCs) with EVERY kid within the next month.

Step 4: Expand. Create a new sheet to keep track of kids you connect with who aren't on your roster, or fellow staff members, or the parents of students. The goal is to connect with as many people as you can in your setting.

Important rules of thumb to keep you from messing this up

There are ways to mess this up. (Trust me.) You can come across as inauthentic, or as a stalker, or as annoying. These tips can help.

1) Don't keep track of the conversation while it's happening. Put the clipboard somewhere else. People don't like to feel like projects or data points.

2) Keep it quick. If you're worried about coming off as awkward or weird, then keep the conversation quick. I try to make MGCs during passing times between classes, when I chance upon kids in the hallways during my prep, and during independent work segments of my lessons using hallway pull-outs. But they're quick. I'm going for a large quantity of nice, even powerful moments, not a small quantity of long and deep conversations. (Mostly, I just don't have time in my workday to do much of the latter.)

3) Build the skill. One big benefit that Kevin Hart gained from his fan-by-fan ground game — and this is a benefit that Holiday doesn't bring up in Perennial Seller — is that he got tons of practice delivering stand-up and interacting with fans. His craft improved. Likewise, when we set upon a three-month intensive student-by-student ground game project, we're going to get better at interacting with kids.

4) Keep your eye on the long game. When we do this, it's not going to magically fix our credibility issues. But when we do it for months, we're going to learn a ton about the cultures of our kids. We're going to demonstrate, repeatedly, that we care about the individuals in our classes. Word of mouth is going to start favoring us.

It'll start with little mentions: “Man, Mr. Stuart today, he was all right.”

And then it'll build up to extended conversations: “You're so right, you wouldn't believe what Mr. Stuart said to me the other day. It was just what I needed to hear to get me focused back on school.” “Wow, you too? That happened to me in his room last week.”

And then eventually, it'll be an established fact: “Mr. Stuart is a good teacher.” You'll still have to work for it with each new person you meet and with those kids you already know. You'll still need to bring the ruckus, the energy, the passion, the wisdom to every lesson. There won't be any resting on laurels.

But with your credibility established, you'll be able to start focusing on something else. You'll be less stressed and more fulfilled.

So now, go to it. Where does your Student-by-Student Ground Game start?

Note: These are the kinds of ideas we come up with in the Student Motivation Course. Learn more about that all-online, schedule-friendly, intensive PD experience here.

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