Once upon a time...
It was a dark and stormy night...
Call me Ishmael...
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
So, my cousin's best friend's sister told me...
In the beginning...
Words have power, and when those words connect us to a story, the power is exponential. Stories wrap us up in a blanket of imagination, and drift us off to new places and new experiences- some fantastical, some mundane, others terrifying.
Stories are our escape.
But our lives and the lives of students are stories, too. And they are not an escape, but reality.
For many of us, our story is a comedy or a drama, for some it is a horror. Our stories can be full of intrigue and adventure- but unlike the thrill we experience when we read these stories, these lives can lead to stress and emotional pressure. Every day you encounter students and fellow teachers living out a story, and the pages you need to turn are the emotions written in their eyes, they intonation of the voice, the posture with which they stand. When determining the stories going on around you, yours is a detective story, piecing together these emotions and inflections and looks and sighs- suble variations that tell you if this story you are seeing started out "Once upon a time, " or "It was a dark and stormy night."
It is important to remember that not all stories end the way they start, too. Beauty and the Beast ends better than it starts, but Romeo and Juliet does not. And not all stories are a single plot line. That teacher down the hall that seems to be struggling with their class is showing you just one storyline- what is going on at home, or with their health is a unique storyline but it is affecting the story you read as their neighbor.
My campus has talked about the danger of the single story this year, recognizing that when we believe one thing about a person- even if it is the dominant thing- we are not getting their whole story. That superstar student or teacher may seem to have it all together, but maybe they are hiding a deeper hurt, or masking a need for approval with a constant strive for success. That student or teacher who is struggling may have some epic tragedy unfolding.
A story can be a comedy and a tragedy all at once- I can use dark humor to deal emotionally with a trial- but no everyone gets it. While it is important that I strive to explain the narrative of my life, it is also my call to seek to understand the meaning in others'.
Your story is not just your own, and it informs the stories of others. And no matter how your story- or theirs- started, there is a chance to change the ending.
But it means being willing to get wrapped up in the stories of those around us- and embrace our own.
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how to begin building a classroom culture of team. Looking back, that idea was a bit short-sighted. See, a team needs to exist not just in your classroom but also on your campus. Your teachers and administrators have unique skills- and personalities- that can mesh for success, or clash for implosion. If you are a leader on your campus and a teacher in the classroom, you need to develop a bit of psychological prowess to identify and approach your team. How do you motivate and engage diverse learners in the class and on the campus? By recognizing their strengths and weaknesses- along with their interests.
In short, differentiation.
Pros: Wonder Woman is the perfect Idealist model- she believes things can get better, and will fight to see it happen. The Idealist often sees the world in black and white. They clearly see a path to follow and will pursue it doggedly to its conclusion. The Idealist is usually positive, and sees the best in people, so they are often the ones that are compassionate and helpful towards others. They will defend the bullied or champion the underdog because they see potential where others do not. They probably make great mentors and class/campus cheerleaders.
Cons: They can burn out if they do not take time for themselves. They can get frustrated with others who are negative or do not try as hard as they could. They can become Social Justice Warriors- which is not necessarily bad, but they can get wrapped up in a cause and lose sight of the bigger picture. Their positivity is a clash with the Cynics and realists, and while that can result in compromise, it can also result in conflict.
Role: Mentors, cheerleaders, social chairs, greeters, and tutors. Give them jobs that let them spread hope and positivity, and a chance to serve others.
The Energetic Funny One
Pros: You know this kid/teacher, they make you laugh. Witty and quick thinking, they always have a joke. They are entertaining. They are Flash-y. They come to class awake and ready to go...somewhere. They tend to be easily excited by things you talk about, and are usually pretty positive. They feed on attention, and when they feel appreciated, they are very loyal. They are the first to volunteer for new oppportunities. If they feel you genuinely care about them, then they will be your biggest supporter. But....
Cons: ...without the right attention they can be your biggest problem. Imagine a whirlwind of activity that exists solely to disrupt your class. They need encouragement, but when they do not get it, they burn out or act up. You need to be intentional with them because any attention can reinforce their actions, so make sure you properly reinforce the right actions.
Role: They want to be comic relief, so let them be. Give them a time for jokes, let them be a sort of funny man to your straight man. In class, give them jobs involving movement- cleaning up, rearranging the room, setting up activities. As teachers, they can make great "product testers." They are always willing to try new things, so let them troubleshoot new strategies or tools.
The Tech Guy
Pros: They know technology. Better than you. Like Cyborg, they almost live by and for tech. They know the new apps, the new codes, the new systems almost as soon as they drop. With minimal clues, they can diagnose your tech issue quickly- and they want to do it. By nature, they are problem solvers as long as the problem is mathematical or tech based. They often have the patience needed for longer projects and are good at spotting the flaws in systems.
Cons: They struggle socially. Computers and tech have clear-cut answers for problems and with time they can be figured out- human relationships are less defined. They can be distant or fragile, or a sort of tech bully akin to the old SNL skit "Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy." If they have been marginalized in the past, when they get power, they could become difficult to deal with.
Role: Students make great "roadies." They can help you optimize your tech, be testers of new edtech, and maybe even innovate some new solutions. Because they identify problems well, they make excellent troubleshooters. Let them help you set up presentations, or be the "go-to" student when a sub has tech difficulties.
The Superman (woman)
Pros: They ooze charisma and confidence. People like them because they are competent and successful. They are good at what they do, and everyone knows it. They are usually trustworthy, and are intentionally in pursuit of integrity. They are, for lack of a better word- a superstar. They succeed at whatever they do...
Cons: ...And they know it. This could lead to humility or arrogance. Also, popular superstars are not always popular for the right reasons. While most Supermen/women pursue integrity, some pursue glory no matter the cost. They can become so successful that they become almost alien- unrelatable to the average student.
Role: Play into that charisma and help them be a leader in the classroom. But do not start by putting them out front. Let them lead from behind the scenes. Teach them about servant leadership. If you are looking at teacher leaders, letting them experience humility will keep them grounded, and prevent them from eventually becoming that immovable old teacher who refuses to compromise. That servant leader role humanizes them for other students, teachers, and even themselves. Once that is in place, they will be a stronger and more relatable leader for all.
Pros: Yes, Rebels have Pros. In fact, a Rebel is really just a potential Superman that has a different perspective than the establishment. They are often charismatic and capable- even holding a sort of leadership quality- if not successful like the Superman. But they disagree with the status quo. Like the Cyborg, Aquamen are able to see the flaws in the system, but they prefer not to fix the problem, just create a new solution. They are excellent problem solvers.
Cons: The issue is, their creative problem solving may not exactly follow the established rules and expectations. They lack the social grace to respectfully challenge the status quo and instead want to reject social norms altogether, or substitute their opinion. They are hard headed, and often unwilling to use their natural charisma to help others, unless those others want the same thing they want.
Roles: Rebels can be innovators. Engaging them in the process of troubleshooting ideas, of being the voice of the unheard (because they will share their voice) and even having an official role as the "devil's advocate" empowers the Rebel to use their powers for good, rather than evil.
Pros: They take nothing at face value. They ask questions about everything. They need to have things proven to them before they accept them.
Yes, those are positives.
They are scientific, and they plan. Batman ALWAYS has a plan. They see potential outcomes, and their tendency toward negativity actually is a strength because they plan and counter-plan. Strangely, this leads to a weird sort of hybrid flexibility combined with rigidity. Also, they can be loners, so they can work independently, and make good risk takers- because they plan with flexibility.
Seriously, these are positives.
Cons: So, yeah. All the Pros are also Cons, if not properly motivated and aimed.
Roles: Students who are Batmen make excellent students to lead out in inquiry exercises. But make sure to monitor their questions, they can be deeper than the average question. They partner well with Flash, strangely, and provide a kind of counter to each other. Things can be tough for Teachers who are Batman. They ask hard questions and are loners. They need to make efforts to connect with others, but when they do, they emerge as leaders. They are excellent at planning things, and creating strategy.
But sometimes they really just want to be alone to think over their questions.
I love the idea of putting together a team. But rarely do we get the chance to build our own team of students or even teachers. Instead, we must learn to identify our Justice League that sits before us each day, or stands before our students. No team is without its issues, but identify the personalities and skills of those we work with is a great- and necessary start.
So, start with you- are you Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, Superman, Aquaman, or Batman?
And how does that affect your teaching/leading style?
One of my favorite tropes in media is the team building trope.
Someone sees a need and begins to cultivate a group of individuals to meet that need. You get to meet the individuals, see their particular skill set and just how they are introduced to the team. The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Avengers, and coming soon- the Justice League all have this trope.
What I love about it is how the individual's strengths play into the team's success. But at the same time, their individual personalities do not always mesh. The psychology of the team can drive or destroy a group. There is a line in the Avengers about this psychology.
Teams are a volatile mixture of talent and ego, skill and personality. Find the right mix, and you get amazing things. But find the wrong mix, and....
Personally, I am a Justice League guy more than Avengers. So I am eagerly awaiting November, and soaking up all the trailers being released. In each trailer, we see that there is a need for a team, but there will be some volatility. But I also think that volatility is why we love these team movies. If everyone just gelled immediately, it would be boring to watch.
But when it is our life, our classroom, we do not want volatility. We want cohesion, unity, collaboration. We want a team.
The truth is, our classroom is our team, our Justice League of Students. There are lots of personalities represented- we've got our Supermen, our Wonder Women, our Batmen. We also have our Cyborgs, Flashes and Aquamen. Each with skills, each with personalities, each with histories and struggles. In part two of this blog, I want to go into detail about dealing with these personalities, but for this blog, I want to focus on you, the teacher. Because, according to another great team movie, Remember the Titans:
It does not matter how talented or amazing a group is, if their leader reflects a poor attitude, so will the team. And....
Is your classroom chaotic, disorganized, and rebellious? Check your attitude to make sure you don't come off as random and unfocused.
Is your class sullen, disengaged, or checked out? Maybe you've been acting kinda cynical.
Is your class driven, focused and productive? Maybe you've set clear expectations and upheld them.
In short, check your attitude. It could be positive or negative, and the way you check is to read your kids. Their behavior is in many ways a mirror of how you teach. They can become like you, or respond to you. If you are condescending and treat with little respect, guess what? They will return in kind. When I am down, they can tell. When I am excited and ready to be there, they can tell.
You cannot control how students come to you, but you can control how you come to your students.
You may be a Batman or a Flash, a Wonder Woman or a Cyborg, but as the leader you must find a way to relate to each student. That starts with an intent and willingness to engage the students and meet them where they are. When you do that, you set the stage for uniting your class- or league.
The simple steps to start with today are these
1. Identify your attitude
2. Make needed adjustments to attitude
3. Read your students current state
4. Move to where they are
5. Create meaningful opportunities to connect there.
In Part Two, we will look at the students' various personalities- and maybe even identify your own.
Not surprisingly, the Coffee Talk (student led discussion) in four of my five classes today centered around the tragedy in Las Vegas. Students argued for gun control, countered with the difficulty of enforcement, and the fact that gun conrol laws will never stop all violence.
Students were, for the most part, humble and respectful and more than a little insightful. They were sad, some were fearful, but few where angry beyond what is normal when lives are lost for such...senselessness.
One student asked a pointed question, though- "Does it impact you personally?"
There intent was if we knew anyone there (I think), but the question is hinting at something that always lies just beneath the surface of most conversations in education:
"Why does it matter to you?"
In the face of yet another national tragedy, latest in a line far too long to count over the last few years, let alone decades, we can become desensitized, or even question why the things we teach daily even matter when there is such madness in the world.
But today, I say it matters all the more. We teach math, science, reading, writing, history, debate, art, athletics, career tech, and personal skills. But hopefully we teach so much more. Hopefully we teach character and kindness, patience and endurance. We should be teaching how to offer a hand not a judgment, and a second chance instead of a failing grade. We should, at the same time, teach consequences and expectations- though not in that order. We need to show that we care and are there- and approachable. We need to listen to the room even when the room is full of overactive kindergarteners (or seniors) because these are the voices that can save us from the mess we have made.
Why does Las Vegas matter to me?
Because if it is ever going to stop, it will not be because of legislation or destruction of guns or sweeping reform of mental health screening.
It will stop because people learn to be better. It will stop because we teach respect and honesty and integrity and the hard way that is sometimes the best way to make a difference.
It will stop because teachers- those professional educators and clergy and parents and peers and people on the street who are all in fact a part of our human education- show us why it matters to each of us.
It matters to me because I believe we can be better. And I believe we will be.
We just need to learn how.
And it starts with a conversation.
Join me, won't you?