Monday, November 26, 2012

How Fast are You Getting the Bad News?

Captain Dave Boudreau, one of my first mentors and teachers back in my early army days, used to say that you can always tell a good commander by how quickly they got the bad news. Capt Boudreau explained that everybody likes good news, and it is always nice to pass it on, especially given that involvement in good news can be beneficial to our careers at any level. 

But to know if you are really trusted, in whatever role you may be playing; to know people believe in you and what you are doing; to, in short, know that goals and values are shared in a high trust climate; the litmus test is bad news. Are you one of the first ones told? Are you trusted to
advise people how to get out of a tight spot? Are you asked for advice in stressful, emotionally volatile situations?

I have seen managers in both education and business with signs on their doors or in their offices saying things like 'excuse limit 0' or 'no complaining zone' or, in classrooms, 'no whining zone' etc. These people often think they are being witty or cute, but what they are really doing is cutting off honesty and frankness and stifling direct and open communication.

What happens when openness is stifled? When honesty becomes a vice instead of a virtue? One of the first things that happens is there is little anger or frustration shown on the surface, for fear of reprisal. Does the anger disappear? Hardly! Usually it migrates underground and causes a cancerous growth which, over time, eats away at the health of the organization. An organization, whether it be a school or a bank or even a family, is really a living organism with its main blood flow being sound and honest communication. Closed or one way communication, that is not direct and honest, clogs the arteries of the organization. The heart, meaning management, must pump more and more blood (that is, give direct orders) to overcome the clogging created by the dishonesty and duplicity that is a byproduct of failing to encourage and reward open communication. Over time, the weight and drag of this ineffectiveness, unchecked, will cause an organization to deteriorate, and, eventually, collapse.

I teach in a classroom. I work with kids who have trouble learning in a normal class setting. I am very concerned about open communication and think a lot about how to encourage it. I do this because I know a frustrated kid can't learn, and nothing is more frustrating than not being listened to when one has a concern or is hurting emotionally.

So, how can we encourage open communication? Start with being open and frank when you mess up. People of any age will pick up on this.

Often I hear people say that if they do this, they will be seen as weak. But this is not my experience. What happens is people, seeing you as having vulnerability and humility and as being unafraid to let others see you as flawed, as human, will open up to you and tell you straight out what is on their mind.

Not a day goes by a child or a colleague does not come in and tell me what he or she feels is a better way to do something. And often they are right. And I just change the procedure when that situation comes up again. The kids love it; because I will publicly recognize the contribution and the contributor.

Part of this also, and maybe we can call this a second 'thing to do' is not to be over-invested or wedded to any one procedure. You see, to me, how I am doing things right now is just how I am doing them. Somebody can come along a day or an hour from now and say "Andy, look, this works better, and here's why..." If it makes sense, I am going to give it a shot! I can always revert back if it does not improve things. I love the medical metaphor "practicing medicine" meaning we haven't got it quite perfect yet; we can still adjust and get better. Yes, I am practicing teaching. Maybe you are practicing hair styling or computer programming or dancing or acting or automotive mechanics.

Kids come in on a regular basis and tell me they messed up or were not honest with a friend or another teacher or have been hurtful with their parents. It's not because I am super human or some wonderful guy or anything like that! It's because I mess up. A lot. And they know it and that I am not scared of it or worried about them knowing. I get impatient and angry and frustrated and upset. I am real with them; they are real with me. And because I get the bad news quickly, I can respond while there is still plenty of time to sort things out.

So, think about it: How fast are you getting the bad news?...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why are we doing this?

"I enjoy teaching the most when I see my students enjoy learning in my class. I believe that learning becomes more meaningful if students enjoy the process of learning. Of course, results of learning, such as exam marks and quiz scores, are important, but learning only for test scores will not produce any joy in learning. When I teach, I often wonder how I can get my students to enjoy the learning process itself and not to study only for exams. As a teacher, I would like my students to find enjoyment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, or any positive feelings when they learn. I believe that cooperative learning is one way to achieve this goal. Cooperative learning is one of the excellent student-centered approaches, which is based on a social constructivist view, and this teaching method becomes more effective when certain conditions are met and structures are well implemented." (Chie Katsuda, 2010)

The lady who wrote this is a former graduate student of mine.  I recalled these lines from one of her papers, after having a conversation with a friend and colleague of mine, Ray Rennie, who teaches values at our school.  Ray has been teaching in Canada for somewhere around 30 years or so and here at our school in Thailand for a few years now.  He's a guy I am always learning from.  One of the things we focus on at our school here is life-long learning, and Ray exemplifies that. We’re always talking about what’s going on with the students and ways we can help them get along better and learn from each other.

We were having a chat, which turned to experiences in education, and Ray was explaining something to me about how he likes to start his classes and why he uses a somewhat unorthodox procedure.  “See Andy, look at them,” his kids were gathering in the room at the start of a values class, “we are just getting started but they don’t come in and sit down, they are walking around.” Ray went on to say, “look, a lot of people tell you to get the kids on task and get them started right away, but I don’t believe in that.”

Ray’s methods are a little different.  Hid kids came in, and often the direction is simply to try to find something.  On this particular day Ray had hidden a toy rubber gecko that he keeps on his desk somewhere in the room.  So the kids are searching for the gecko. The one who finds the gecko gets a candy.

“But you see, while they are looking for it, I watch them,” Ray elaborated.  “And I notice things, I learn about how they are that day, what their feelings are.”  There are days he will notice someone is looking a little down and he can pull them aside for a private word and see if he can help or possibly find out what the situation is that is causing stress for that individual. On other days he can notice a particular troublesome mood of the group as a whole and make adjustments to what he is doing to accommodate it.

Ray looked at me as I watched his kids moving around in the room: “You see, these kids, they are more important than the subject; they are more important than me.”

Ray Rennie, a guy who knows, has always known, why we are doing this.