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Saying Yes And

My first year of teaching was at a high school in The Hague. I remember sitting through a presentation on student interactions wherein the presenter talked about the different ways a teacher could respond to a student in class. I’ll translate what I remember her saying the options were:

No but…

No and…

Yes but…

Yes and…

I don’t remember all of what came next. It was in Dutch, and I was struggling to keep up. It was also several years ago. However, I do remember that ‘No’ and ‘but’ were not good words to say. They’re negative. The answer that was best (for the student and for the interaction) was Yes And.

A few years ago, I took an improvisation workshop. I’d always been curious about improvisation. I’d already heard about the cardinal rule of improvisation being that one’s response must always be Yes And.

We’re on the Moon.

– Yes. And it is in fact made of cheese.

Yes. And it’s inhabited by rats.

– Yes. And they speak French poorly.

It could go anywhere from that.

Contrast that with a scene where Yes And is not the rule.

We’re on the Moon.

No we’re not. We’re in my living room.

Scene dead.

Similarly, in a class where you shoot the student down (with a No) or where you contradict them (Yes but), the energy dies a bit.

I will admit that there are many time when I have asked a student a question (on a multiple choice question, for example) and they have answered with A when it should be B. What am I to say?

I say, “No. Anybody know?” Of course tone of voice plays a huge part in the way the No is received. In these cases, I have primed my students with the idea that they are in class in school to learn. Part of the learning process is to be wrong. It’s okay to be wrong. I’m wrong all the time.

Getting the students to think in a Yes And way is about getting them to think expansively:

What do you want to do after you get out of school?

– I don’t know. I know I like social media.

Yes. And what kinds of jobs deal with social media?

My experience of students is that they are so often unsure of themselves and what they are capable of. This stands to reason, as they are standing on the very front edge of adulthood. They have no experience with being a grown up. It’s the rare student who walks in saying, “This is what I want and this is how I plan to get it.” And while my response is always, “Go for it!” I know that any number of things could happen that could stop them from doing that or that could cause them to veer off that path (hopefully) onto another, but I am encouraging. It’s how I’m built.

We should always encourage our students. Try it. Explore it. Do some research. Find out more about it.

Be the teacher in their life who makes them think Yes And.

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Embracing Failure

Last night I had one of those experiences where after it was over, all I could do was sit down and think, “Embrace the failure. What can I learn from this?” Also, I kept thinking, “Deep breaths.”

I’d been recruited to give part of a series of presentations. I was just the warm-up act. And while the presentation and the parameters and the timeline of when I was to do it the first time kept changing, I wasn’t prepared. I was wending my way through my part when part of my brain just thought, “The best thing for you to do is wrap up and hand it off to the next guy. If you missed anything (and you did), someone else will pick it up.” I was just way over my head. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time.

When it was over, I talked to two people who are very experienced speakers and who knew the extent to which my presentation had gone off the rails. I told them both that this experience would inform how I prepare for the next presentation.

I’m not big on beating up on myself. I am a true believer that we are all doing the best we can at any moment. Thus, the thing to do is learn from it. Also, think of the good things about this failure.

  1. It was a small room mostly filled with people who I either rarely see or might never see again.

    This is takes me back to an old friend who used to say, “What do you care what they think? You’ll never see them again anyway.” Granted, that particular moment was about dancing in club and fearing looking silly, but I’ve soothed myself with that thought many many times in the past quarter century.

  2. I now know how I will prepare for the next time I give this presentation.

    This has happened a number of times in my life. I think, “Well now that I’ve done it, I get it. I could do it so much better next time.” And now I can. I know what’s coming. In this case, at least, it’s the same presentation eight more times.

  3. This will inform how I prepare for other presentations and talks I’ll need to give.

    I expect to speak I front of audiences and give presentations and trainings for years to come. I have gotten much more comfortable and I’ve gotten myself into some good habits. I’m aware of how my brain works and I generally upload information into my brain so that it’s accessible. I know what I did to prepare for this. Note to self: that didn’t work.

Years ago, I found a book entitled, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter. It changed my life. It changed the way I think. It’s a great book, but the gist of it is this: Quit saying mean things to yourself. Say nice things.

I had a rough moment last night, but lived through it and I learned something.

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How Much Do I Want My Students to Know about Me?

When I started teaching at university level in the Netherlands, I realized that teachers often encouraged students to call them by their first name. I did it for the first year, but when I changed schools, I decided that I would be Mr. Baker. Yes, the students at my new school were a bit younger, but it also just felt right to me. They knew my name was Andy, but I always said, “It’s Mr. Baker.” I liked having that boundary. We’re not friends. This is a teacher-student relationship.

Interestingly, when I look back at my own undergraduate program and my favorite teachers, they are Pam, Mary, Jean and Joe. Not a Mr. or Ms. in the bunch. And that was the Eighties in Texas.

This got me thinking about both how much I want my students to know about me and how much I want to know about them. Everyone has their own rules. These are mine.

What They Know

My students know that I am gay, that I am married, that I live in Amsterdam, that I American, that I was born in Texas, and that I spent a good chunk of time in New York City. These are all just demographic bits of information that they could probably find online. I even told a class of students that my mother has Alzheimer’s because I was concerned I might have to take a few weeks off if she were to die. (This was years ago and she is still with us. Alzheimer’s takes its own time and my mother is apparently not yet ready to go.)

What They Don’t Know

But what would I not tell them? I wouldn’t tell them if I had some chronic or terminal illness. I don’t know what would be gained from that. I mean I would if I thought it might come up and that I might have to miss class. (This was my reasoning for disclosing my mother’s illness.) I wouldn’t tell them if I were having marital difficulties. I wouldn’t tell them if I were having housing issues, again unless it would somehow affect them. I note all of these because I have had colleagues share this information with students.

Social Media

I don’t friend students on Facebook until they have graduated. (And then I have to re-train them to call me Andy.) However, I will connect with students on LinkedIn. I have connected with former students on other social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter), but I don’t know that I would connect with a current student. I’ve even had former students visit Toastmasters. I’m always thrilled when that happens.

Being connected to a current student on social media just feels like having a student poke his their nose in the teacher’s lounge. We’re not doing anything illicit, but get out. Mine your own business! There is always the possibility of having a student-friendly version of social media accounts, but I would need a good reason for creating and juggling one more of those.

Boundaries are personal. What feels right to me might not feel right to you, and vice versa. Also, what felt right to me as a student doesn’t feel right to me now that I am the teacher. However, I absolutely believe that it’s something we all need to think about and consider. These are important relationships, and our interactions with our students should be well considered.

What are the boundaries you’ve set with your students?

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How Much Do I Want to Know about My Students?

The flipside of the question about how much personal information I want to share with my students is how much I want to know about them.

Getting to Know You

When I meet a new class of students, I do a ‘getting to know you’ exercise that is outlined in my post about learning students’ names. In it, I ask them to tell me a bit about themselves: their name, how old they are, where they’re from, hobbies, work, and why they’re studying what they are studying. Sometimes I ask them to tell me something that is particularly interesting about themselves.

Each of these components has some reasoning behind it. I want to know their name for obvious reasons: I want to be able to use their name when I call on them. And I believe it makes them feel seen.

I ask their age because I like to know the outliers in the class. I once had a 16-year-old in a class of mostly 17 and 18-year-olds. Similarly, I’ve had 23-year-olds in the same situation. Also, the question I ask is “What kinds of things do you want to know about someone when you first meet them?” And the students always say age.

Knowing where a student is from is just good information. Most of my students are locals, even coming from the same city. Some come from smaller cities or villages. Occasionally I have a foreign student or someone with an interesting background. Again, it’s just information.

Hobbies and work are just so I have something to hang onto when I’m trying to remember their name. She’s the girl who owns a horse. He’s the guy who works in a flower shop.

The same goes for why they’re studying what they’re studying. I generally get “I decided to study _________ because it’s a broad subject and I can decide exactly what I want to do later.” (I’ve heard this with Communication, Commercial Economics, Human Resources and Psychology students.)

I’ve had students who tell me they’re dyslexic. They want me to know, but they’re really nothing I can do. Occasionally I get a student with some sort of medical condition that’s pertinent to them being in my class, as they might have to miss class. Beyond that, I don’t need to know medical stuff. Also, will I really remember it?

What I Don’t Want to Know

The list of things I don’t want to know about students includes anything that does not have to do with their participation in my class. I don’t want to know what they did last weekend in terms of partying. I don’t want to know the details of why they need to rush to the restroom during class. I once had a class of female dancers all in their late teens. At the end of the year, one of them said, “Everyone in our class has had a pregnancy scare this year.” Really? I didn’t want to know that. Also, breakups. I’m not on that committee. I don’t want to know about that. Home address and contact beyond school email? I don’t need to know that.

It’s informative to know about deaths in the family, parental divorces, moving house and other personal life events that might affect a student’s attendance and performance in class, but beyond that, I don’t want to know. Students are teenagers and young adult. They have messy lives. I’d rather not know the details. Does this make me sound callous? In my defense, I have colleagues whose job it is to deal with those issues and to disseminate that information to me if I need to know.

Boundaries are personal. These are mine. Are yours much different?

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We Offer Daily Digital Detoxes

I just read the line “Digital Detox as the new therapy” and I smiled. It was partially because I know I could use one, but I can see my students desperately needing one as well.

Several years ago, I worked at a school here in the Netherlands where the average age of the student was 16-19. At some point, the administration decided (briefly) that before class each day, the teachers would take a clear plastic box and have the students drop their phone in the box. They could pick them up after class.

Oy! The whining.

“The box will be right here in plain sight throughout class,” I pointed to the table in the front of the room. You’d have thought I’d told them they would get it back in a week.

One girl told me that she didn’t have her phone with her. That was laughable.

I only did the box once more. It took too much time. I couldn’t take the drama.

Students have a connection to their phones that most of us don’t because we can remember a time when we didn’t have a phone. I can remember getting home to check the answering machine. (I can also remember when we didn’t have an answering machine.) I can remember waiting to get home to log on to a dial up connection to check my email. I can remember searching for a pay phone on the streets of New York so I could make a call. These kids don’t have those memories.

They are always plugged in, always connected. It’s part of them being Generation Z. They wait for that buzz or ping and react like…dare I say it…Pavlov’s dog. Maybe the drool is figurative.

The idea of having a student do a digital detox feels like the stuff of TV movies. Crying, denial, kicking and cursing followed by giving in and connecting with nature and with other people sans digital device.

However, I like to think of my classes as digital detoxes. I tell them that I am putting my phone on silent and in my bag. (See? I’m modeling how to do it.) And then I tell them that at some point during the class, I’ll get an email or an instant message and I tell them how excited I will be when I get it. I tell them that I look forward to waiting and I look forward to reading the messages. Nothing will happen in the next two hours that any of us will need to know about immediately. (And if you’re waiting for news about a sick relative or friend, of course you can keep the phone handy.)

It’s good to be disconnected from your phone and from the digital world for a bit. Be present. Be in the now. Pay attention to what is going on in class.

For most of our students, any time away from the phone seems like an eternity. They need these small, digital detoxes. I have to think it’s good for them.

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The Inspiration Project

Yesterday afternoon, I was listening to The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’d heard her interviewed on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, and I was intrigued. I then downloaded (and subscribed to) her podcast. After that, I downloaded the audio version of her book (she’s got several more books).

In the book, she outlines what The Happiness Project is. (It’s basically a book about a year of her life that was spent researching and trying out things that might make one happy or that are supposed to make one happy.) The book is great. I like how it’s set up. I love the premise. I feel inspired by it. Part her idea is that reading (of listening to) The Happiness Project might inspire someone to try their own happiness project.

Then this morning I thought, “What if I wrote a series of posts on things that inspire me?” And not just in terms of teaching. Certainly teaching-specific items will be included, but it is my belief that if one is inspired in general, one will be inspired in the classroom.

It also feels to me like being inspired is a habit. Like being bored is a habit. If a person constantly thinks, “This is boring. I have nothing to do,” it becomes the norm of their life. And on the other hand, if a person is constantly thinking of new ideas and having fun in life, that becomes the norm of their life.

Another person I find endlessly fascinating and inspiring is James Altucher. He has a podcast called The James Altucher Show. He speaks to all kinds of people about their lives, how they got where they are (they are generally successful in some area of life) and how they think.

One of his books is entitled Choose Yourself! It’s probably his most well-known book, but all of his books are infused with his curiosity and energy. In the book, he suggests making a list of ten things every day. It could be anything. The idea is that if you do this every day, your brain will get used to it and you’ll become an idea machine. There are six months worth of list ideas in another of his books, Become an Idea Machine: Because Ideas are the Currency of the 21st Century. It’s actually co-written by his then-wife, Claudia Azula.

My idea here is that thinking (and writing) about things (or people or events) that inspire me will make my brain think of more things that inspire me. Also, I’d like to read about things that could inspire me and try them out.

So these are my first two: Gretchen Rubin and James Altucher. I eagerly await their podcasts each week (Gretchen’s is done with her sister, Elizabeth, which makes me wonder how I could get my own sister, Kathy, involved in this). And when I run out of podcast episodes, I listen to their books.

Will I call it The Inspiration Project (which sounds so amazingly derivative)? Who knows? What I know is that I suddenly want to write.

Help me out and tell me what inspires you.

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Work Drag

“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”

RuPaul

For years I’ve referred to the clothes I wear to work as my work drag. I’m not a drag queen, as RuPaul is. I’m a teacher. And I will say that I feel like RuPaul is using a more liberal definition of the word ‘drag,’ which doesn’t necessarily mean “dressing in clothing conventionally worn by the opposite sex.” It’s just dressing in clothes that transform us into a certain character. Thus, there are days when I feel like I’m getting into a costume in which I will perform the role of ‘Teacher’ (a male teacher).

I have always been from the school of Albert Einstein in terms of work clothes. I don’t wear the same gray suit every day, but I want to spend as little time and thought as I can making the decision about what to wear. As stated in this article from LinkedIn, many successful individuals wear the same amount every day. So maybe I come from a sister school. I have a more modified approach. Perhaps it comes from having spent so many years waiting tables. I like a uniform. It helps me remember that I’m performing a certain task.

My work outfit for years has been casual-ish pants (a standard, gently worn pair of jeans – blue, khaki or gray), a shirt (always ironed) and a cardigan sweater (although I’m moving away from that). My shoes are generally black, generally polished. It’s not the same as wearing the exact same gray T-shirt (hello, Mark Zuckerberg) or all black (hello, New York City circa 1995), but I don’t have to think about a shirt-tie combo or whether I’ll wear a suit.

Granted, I’m a man. Dressing for work is easier for men (in general). Women have so many more options. Dress, pants or skirt? Sweater or blouse? Along with all of that, there is the question of fit. How tight is too tight? How loose should it be before I look frumpy? Then there’s hair and make-up.

I love this RuPaul quote (partially because my friends were using it long before it became a song) because when each of gets us dressed every day, we really are doing something to influence the way people look at us. And some of those people for teachers are students.

If I were to show up in worn out jeans and a T-shirt with an unshaven face, it would give my students a certain impression: maybe that I’m having a rough time or maybe that I don’t care. But what effect does that have on my ability to inspire them or to motivate them?

Similarly, if I were to arrive in a suit and tie, it would give my students a certain impression. It might say that I was serious, but it might be a level of serious that I am not willing or able to live up to. And again, what effect does that have on my ability to inspire or motivate them?

I wear what I wear because I want to be taken seriously, but I know that being too formal with my students (both because they are Generation Z and because they are Dutch) wouldn’t work. I want to be the adult in the room, but I want to be somewhat relatable. (I also dress for comfort, and I like being consistent.)

The way we dress is a very personal thing. I would never comment on your work drag unless asked (and if you do, I always have an opinion), but I would encourage you to think about how you dress for work and how it works into the overall image you are trying to project.

What do you wear to work?

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Resulting Basics

Listening to Annie Duke’s most recent book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, I was intrigued with her discussion on ‘resulting’.

The word (a term that is used in poker meaning “creating too tight a relationship between the quality of the outcome and the quality of the decision”) came up when she was talking about deciding if a non-poker-related decision had been good or not.

I feel like I need a good example here, so I’m going to use my decision to leave my last job. I had a permanent contract and I was guaranteed .5 FT hours, but I regularly got extra hours, bringing me up to .7 FT hours. It gave me a regular (rather modest) income with time left over to pursue other interests (both income producing and non-income producing.) In a lot of ways, it was a pretty nice deal. However, I wasn’t really happy. I didn’t particularly like the pace of the workload or school year, and I had a few other issues with the job. (Not the students. I always loved teaching those kids even when it was a challenging group.) Also, in terms of my money-making prospects, it was a dead end. I decided to leave. Was it a good decision?

I could say, “Yes. As it turns out, I landed on my feet. I got a couple of classes in another department at the same school and I’m making up the rest of the hours teaching Chinese kids online with time left over to do other things.”

However, that’s resulting. That’s putting too much emphasis on the results. The question was about the decision. Was it the right decision?

What if the opposite had happened? I could say, “I haven’t worked much. No one’s hiring English teachers, and my freelancing isn’t working out.”

Again, this is looking too much at the results.

My understanding of resulting is that while the results may weigh in on the question of whether it was the right decision to leave the job, I have to look at the whole situation. I was not happy. I was in a situation where I walked into that building every day and thought, “Why am I still here?” Had a stayed, I would be in a terrible situation mentally and emotionally. I can’t imagine being happy still doing that. I felt so penned in.

Also, leaving made me feel really good. I’m always one for new adventures, new possibilities and new challenges. And the feeling I had when September rolled around and I didn’t have to go back to school was everything. Interestingly, I’ve always loved September. I love a new school year. I love meeting new students. That’s why I’ve always been a sucker for school: new books, clean classrooms, new people to meet. However, I can still feel that elation I had of being at home and not going in to school.

It seems to me that resulting also applies to our students. That was my original point. According to Ms. Duke, we are all born resulters. Outcomes affect us. Notice how I talked about how happy not going back to work made me. That was a result, right? However, if I look at how I made the decision, balancing my work history, my age, what I had to offer to the world against my happiness (or lack thereof) and the cost of spending all that time at school (as well as the travel to and from), I have to say that it was a good decision.

The fact that I was very happy in the end might just be an extra, added bonus.

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Moments of Enjoyment

I am a Toastmaster. I have been a Toastmaster for about six years. A friend of a friend asked me if I’d like to attend a meeting back in 2011 “for a kick”, and I was immediately intrigued and then addicted. If you’ve never been to a meeting, I encourage you to attend as a guest. You may not be bitten by the bug, as I was, but you’ll probably have a good time.

The founder of Toastmasters, Ralph Smedley said, “The simple fact is that we grow or learn or work better when we enjoy what we are doing, and this is the secret of success in Toastmasters.” Maybe that’s why I’ve always taken to it on at such a deep level.

I’ve recently been preparing for a presentation, and I’ve had to go over a lot of information about Toastmasters. That’s where I read the quote. It made me reflect on my own philosophy about teaching college and university students. I’ve long said, “It helps if there is some entertainment value while you’re teaching.” This is not to say that it has to be a party or that you have to put on a show, but a congenial atmosphere and classroom activities that are planned to provide as much enjoyment as possible help.

There are any number of ways to help students enjoy themselves. Here are three:

  1. Small group work. I had a manager watch one of my lessons years ago. One of his suggestions was to have students work in small groups at some point during the lesson. After an initial eye roll, I decided to give it a try. It really worked. They seemed to appreciate the change in atmosphere and in focus. As an extra added bonus, I got to go back to the manager and tell him that I’d taken his suggestion (and that I’d done it reluctantly) and that it had worked. I thanked him.
  2. Allow time for student to talk amongst themselves. In my experience, expecting students to sit quietly throughout an entire class is a fool’s errand. I’ve found that if I let them talk sometimes, their need to talk doesn’t get bottled up. Every once in a while, I allow them to talk a bit. It feels like that allows them to get their talking out during the appropriate times and it’s less of an ‘ask’ for them to stay quiet for the rest of the lesson.
  3. Tell stories. I feel like there’s a whole blog post (or a series) on story telling. I’ll get to that. I’m a storyteller. My father is a storyteller. I come from a long line of storytellers. They illustrate points. They engage students in a way that mere facts and figures do not. Also, my stories are a peek into who I am. I am a bit ‘exotic’ because I am an American in a Dutch school, but do not underestimate your own exotic qualities. Even if you are teaching in your hometown, you are a different generation. You have experiences that your students have not. You lived through the Nineties (or Eighties or Seventies or…)

Do what you can to make your classes enjoyable for your students.

Share your ideas, tips and tricks.

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The Power of I Don’t Know

As a teacher, it feels like I am often expected to have all of the answers. To everything. In every aspect of my life. I misspelled recently something and the response I got from someone was, “But you’re an English teacher!”

Yes. I am. But my name is not Merriam Webster.

This expectation certainly extends to the classroom, but I try to quash that as soon as I can, with a story if possible. I regularly tell my students that I always have the answers to the handout I’ve given them right in front of me. One of my favorite stories comes from my first year of teaching.

I was trying to make a point to a class of high school students. (No idea what the point was, not a part of the story.) I wrote on the board: 120 ÷ 30 =. (I actually did it with the Long Division Symbol used in English speaking countries.) Then I stood there and stared at it. I had no idea how I would even begin to proceed to solve that problem.

In class, I turn to them and say, “Before you say it, I know the answer is 4. However, that convinced me that I am not good at standing up here and thinking.” Yes, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I think that sort of slightly self-deprecating humor works with this audience.

There are colleagues I’ve worked who seemed to think that the place of power in their classroom depends on them having all the answers. They were the one who was always right. They were the last word.

My research into Generation Z tells me that they appreciate authenticity. And me being not perfect and telling them that I don’t have all of the answers is part of me being coming from a place of authenticity. If you have all the answers, that is probably your place of authenticity.

(However, I will warn you that if they find out that you don’t have all of the answers, you’re sunk.

Not having all the answers, telling them that I don’t know something, also gives me the opportunity to ask questions. I’ve asked about YouTube personalities, pop stars, catch phrases, TV shows, festivals and other topics that are not part of my life experience. I’ve gotten students to open up about school-specific topics, things they like about what they are studying, things they don’t, teachers who they find tedious or difficult. (This is a touchy subject and I generally ask about behaviors rather than specific colleagues. And I’ll always steer it back to the behaviors once the teacher’s identity has been revealed. Also, I would never tell a colleague what student said. That is not my pot to stir.)

Telling students that I don’t know something has been one way to open a door to dialogue, which is part of having a good relationship with my students. I’m still the one in control of the classroom. I’m still the one in charge, but they get to be the expert for a bit, and it seems to work.

 

 

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