When in Conflict, Talk

a photo of a lockHumans can be pretty dumb animals. My parents’ cat Amos was recently in a scuffle. My mom has spent the last few days nursing him back to health with Hydrogen Peroxide, Neosporin, and some babying (of course), while my dad contributes to his recovery by caring about it slightly.

My best guess is that Amos started the fight. He’s like that. He was probably upset another cat was hanging around his house. So, he got in a fight and that was that.

While I am not advocating aggression at all (see below), Amos is smarter than a lot of people I know. We humans can be quite slow actually. Of all animals, we have the most advanced form of communication, yet often we hold our concerns and feelings inside, preferring to let them fester. Amos got his feelings out. Granted he got his butt handed to him because of it, but he wasn’t allowing his “feelings” about this other cat to stay “locked” inside and manifest as stress and depression, slowly killing him from the inside. His anger and hatred for the neighbor’s cat didn’t last and control him for ten years either. Ahh, what we can learn from animals.

Many people have been taught to deal with conflict issues in three unhelpful ways and this plays out in our personal and work relationships.

First, some people get emotionally and physically aggressive. They yell, scream, and even get physically violent. This accomplishes little, except to make everyone involved more defensive. It may get the cops involved, or result in your colleagues hating you, and even losing your job.

Second, some people dance around issues, by being passive and waiting for somebody else to address the conflict. This often involves expecting other people to be mind readers and figure out that we are upset, bothered, angry, etc. Unfortunately, most people have too many other things to worry about than try to keep up on how every person in their life is feeling at any given moment. Thus, the issues never get resolved, and get “pushed down” and the negative emotions grow and grow until they express themselves as anxiety, depression, etc.

Third, others have gotten in the habit of being passive and indirect, but in a manipulative way. This is “passive-aggressive” behavior, which is expressed as appearing to be passive (“Oh, I’m not bothered by you!”) while being aggressive behind the scenes (thinking to self: “but I will slash your tires later, hehe”). Often, sarcasm (not the obviously humorous kind) and “jabs” are passive-aggressive in nature.

These ways are ineffective, and have led to lots of communication problems at home and at work.

What does work is very simple: calmly, firmly, and accurately addressing any concerns. This is called assertive communication. Let me briefly explain each component:

Calm – Don’t be aggressive and deliver the message in a way that is friendly. Remember you are dealing with another human being!
Firm – You stick to your point. Don’t get passive and retreat from the issue if you have a need to be heard, or an issue needs addressed. Just because you are calm doesn’t mean you don’t have a point that needs to be gotten across.
Accurate – Be honest with people. There is no need to share every feeling you have, but if something is bothering you, and you have a need to “get it out” be sure to express it accurately.

A few years ago I got a passive-aggressive email from a colleague. I knew it was a subtle (actually, it wasn’t that subtle) jab at a fellow teacher and me, for some sort of perceived exclusion on our part. We didn’t intend to exclude our colleague and were a bit taken aback by this letter. So, rather than ignoring it or firing back in kind, I simply talked to her. She was shocked I approached her about it, rather than ignoring it or writing her back (clearly she was hoping to keep it on a passive level).

I wanted to deal with it calmly then and there, and we did. Sure enough, she realized it was miscommunication (most problems are) and things were fine from that point on. She felt great and so did I. Amazingly, had I ignored it or responded aggressively or passive-aggressively, the problem could still be festering two years later!

So, when in doubt, talk!

Teaching Soft Skills

friends on a pathMany of my teaching colleagues were amazed that I interacted with students so easily. And, since they related to me, they liked me as a teacher, and were open to learning more. I often heard comments about how my attitude and outlook made them better students. The reason I had such success with my teenage students was because of my “soft skills.”

Soft skills are those characteristics such as hard work, humor, communication, flexibility, time management, positive attitude, and other intangible skills that help a person function effectively in virtually every employment and social settings. They are contrasted with “hard skills” such as adding numbers, conducting scientific experiments, welding, etc.

Since our educational system is geared mainly toward “hard skills,” employers often lament the lack of soft skills among their employees. When was the last time any school offered a class on having the right attitude, flexibility, or any other soft skill? It’s a shame because with the generally lousy job market, soft skills could really make a difference to our students and give them a big edge.

The question of why they aren’t learning soft skills isn’t a hard one. It can be chalked up to the calcified nature of the educational system. We’re so used to teaching certain subjects (and their variants) that we refuse (on an institutional level anyway) to consider teaching other subjects, especially ones considered “fluff.” And, now the state has stepped in and mandated content, effectively leaving no room for the teaching of soft skills even if a school wanted it. Some schools are even starting to focus more on soft skills (often labeled as social skills) since studies are showing their importance in future success.

Fortunately, educators can teach soft skills without having an actual class dedicated to them. How? Through modeling them. By being good communicators, keeping a positive attitude, and showing students how to use soft skills in the real world experience of a classroom, teachers are educating students on how to effectively use soft skills on a regular basis.

After all, when I hear from former students about how my teaching impacted them, they rarely talk about the subject matter I taught them. They talk about how I taught them about life and how to be successful.

Granted, as a religion teacher, I could focus more on modeling these skills, but I still consider myself a huge success in this regard. Even my work on this website and its companions (The Popular Teen and The Popular Man) are dedicated to soft skills.

So, if you are a teacher, try to integrate some soft skills into your lessons. The best way to do it is to model them.

Why Teachers (And Students) Need Coffee – The Health Benefits of Coffee

Maybe you think that this is a slow day here on our site, or that I am mixing business and pleasure. Not so! I plan to regularly talk about health issues here. Nobody can be an effective teacher without being in reasonably good health.

While my title may be a bit of a stretch, the truth is that modern research is showing that coffee is actually good for you in a variety of ways. So, next time you are deciding whether to brew a pot in the teacher’s lounge, think of the health benefits  of coffee.

By containing caffeine, Coffee increases focus. Coffee is a stimulant like the focus drug Ritalin. A cup of coffee will give you some mental and physical focus. I learned this life hack from a Psychology professor when I was a student at Ohio University. This is one reason why I support allowing high school students to drink it in class, if they can do so without being too messy (even then I have spilled more than enough coffee to judge if a student spills it).

In addition to helping with focus, coffee, according to research:

– lowers the risk of Parkinson’s disease
– lowers the risk of asthma
– lowers the risk of getting headaches.

Coffee drinkers are at a 20% lower risk of having a stroke. Drinking that delicious brew also likely helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease and Type-2 Diabetes.

Got Gallstones? Coffee reduces the chance of getting those by 50%. Liver Cirrhosis? Coffee will help with this.

And what about coffee and colon cancer? Coffee drinkers have a 25% reduced risk of developing this deadly form of cancer.

Finally, coffee has been shown to help prevent depression, and regular coffee drinkers such as myself have lower rates of suicide.

However, as my students and co-workers know: just don’t take my coffee, or the homicide rate may rise.

Letter Grades…Time For a Change?

A serif font of the letter AThe other day I was thinking about the drive students have for a letter grade. Students will lie, cheat, steal, complain, whine, cajole, charm, and hack their way to a better letter grade. Yet, rarely will these same students put that level of effort to actually learn something in the same subject. Actually, they would if we expected it, and do, if they are interested in something. But when our expectation is a letter on a piece of paper, then that becomes their all-out goal.

My point is that maybe it is time for letter grades to go. Or at least maybe we should stop caring about them so much. A letter means nothing, except what people give it. A student that received a 4.0 from Harvard through grade inflation and cheating may know a lot less than someone who earned a 3.0 from a state school. As I look back to my classes in college, I always coveted that “A,” yet rarely did my grade reflect what I actually learned. In one Psychology class, I worked my butt off and got a B+. I learned a lot. In other classes, I learned little but still got that “A.” Years later, I don’t care about the letter grades, unless it is when I send my transcripts somewhere, or someone needs to know my GPA. Sure, it was very high, but what have given me success in nearly every environment are things that I didn’t learn in school, and that couldn’t be reasonably graded anyway.

As a teacher, I would rather have a student who is a hard-worker who learns something, than a lazy person, who learns nothing, but cheats his way to an “A.” I would rather a “B” student that gets some life-changing insight from my class than someone who gets an “A” just by memorizing facts. Such is the nature of “learning.” It is really hard to measure actual learning, and even if we were to measure learning, it is even harder to measure any kind of future success based on learning in a classroom.

Maybe I am being unhelpful here, because I am not offering a replacement for letter grades…yet, but I think student learning is much more complex than a letter grade, and the race to get that “A” no matter what is simply crazy.

Teachers and Micromanaging Bosses

woman with headache

Image courtesy of marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One year, at my former school, the administration wanted to focus on teacher leadership. We were put into small groups and told to come up with creative initiatives, which we gladly did. Halfway through the months long exercise, the school’s leaders decided they didn’t like our ideas and shifted the focus to student leadership. Sadly, that was typical of their micromanaging style.

Micromanagement isn’t just an educational phenomenon. However, in the regulation-heavy and rule-loving world of education, it is often a bigger problem than in other institutions. And, it’s horrible for staff morale. Anywhere you find a micromanaging leader (whether a school, business, church, etc.) I promise you will also find stressed out employees not living up to their potential.

Micromanaging teachers is counter productive, but not all administrators realize that. We spend the time in the classroom, have a feel for the kids, and know their needs. We’d be happy to have a conversation about anything, but being told what to do, and constantly monitored, down to the smallest level, is an insult to our competence and intelligence.

It also leads to burnout and frustration. It’s no surprise that over half of my departmental colleagues no longer teach at that school. Oh, and all of that group are out of teaching completely. That’s how bad micromanaging is for teacher morale.

You may not even notice it in the beginning. And, many times micromanaging is veiled through expression of “good motives.” Your principal may offer to “work with you” or “help you.” Where I taught, being offered that kind of help meant you were in for a long ride of misery.

I don’t want to be too negative. In many cases the micromanager in your life may think he or she is genuinely trying to help run the school in the best fashion. That person may not even be aware how destructive he or she is for the school’s morale. However, short of an intervention by a higher authority, the micromanaging behavior isn’t likely to change too much.

It’s really hard to reach your potential as a teacher when everything you attempt to do has to go through a boss or a committee. If you’re teaching at a public school and you have tenure, then you have recourse to the union or arbitration if it becomes too stifling. Don’t put up with it to the point that it affects your mental and physical health (or hurts the quality of your teaching)

If you teach at a private school, then you should likely look for another teaching job. You’ll typically have no protection and standing up to a micromanaging boss frequently will lead to punitive results. Micromanagers like control. They probably aren’t going to put up with your independent ways.

Hopefully you don’t have to put up with a micromanaging boss. But, if you do, then hang in there.

What Is Model-Netics and Why You Should Take It – A Review

Gold FairwayIn late 2010, I was on a local golf course, when a representative from Main Event Management returned my call to discuss the possibility of taking Model-Netics, since a friend suggested I take it. My golf game is almost always bad (but fun), so it wasn’t like I was in any sort of groove. Fortunately, nobody was behind me, because I sat on hole 17 chatting with Randy for about twenty minutes about this great class.

Model-Netics is a management course consisting of 151 “models,” which are grouped into a variety of areas, including change, evaluation, and delegation.

These models explain a reality or issue in management, and provide a way to understand each issue, as well as providing solutions to problems involved. This way of “modeling” problems and solutions, is reminiscent of NLP, “neurolinguistic programming. Each model contains an image that goes along with it, to serve as a visual reminder, to learn it easier, and to recall it later. Thus, there “triangles,” “diamonds” and even a “pentagon” if a particular model has three, four, and five aspects to it, respectively.

One of my favorite models is “slot machine management,” because I see it happen so often in work settings. This model speaks to the trend among some managers to constantly change things when an idea doesn’t immediately work. It creates an inconsistent and ineffective environment.

The Model-Netics course reminds us (referring back to another model, “The Change Curve”) that often it takes time to see results from changes, and sometimes productivity goes down before going up after a change. So, managers that keep changing things up aren’t ever going to see results from their constant changes. “Slot machine” managers keep pulling the lever and nothing seems to work, rendering employees ineffective in the process.

I was one of the first people to take the course online. I took it on Friday afternoons, during my free period and lunchtime at school. As part of the course, I received a binder, a memory jogger (which summarizes the models, with images), and a headset with microphone. Every week, we would meet online, via Cisco’s webex.

The class was archived for later access, to go over the material or make up a missed class. The style was relaxed and engaging, and allowed for interactive discussion even though we were from all over the country. At the end of a few weeks, we would be given an online test. The only drawback was that the microphone headset they sent was pretty cheap. I ended up using my more expensive one.

Some critics have suggested that Model-netics is a way for managers to speak in “code,” and to form a kind of cult that uses language that employees can’t understand. This is not even close to being true.

Model-netics is ultimately about improving communication from “A” (manager) to “B” (employee), and helping each meet the other’s needs. Even though I expected to find some “anti-employee” attitude based on online posts, I didn’t find it at all. One of the principles of this blog (and our others, including The Popular Man) is to be cool to others. I would not be recommending this course if it somehow was uncool to employees (and students).

So why would I, a teacher, need to take this course? What, if anything, is a teacher? We are managers! We are managers of hundreds of clients, many which are not motivated to even be in our classes. We are genuine managers, yet we aren’t trained to manage people the way business majors are.

Model-Netics taught me a lot about how to manage my classroom, and manage the people I deal with. One model that is particularly helpful regarding students is “Define To Delegate.” This means that you must clearly state what you need someone to do when you delegate a task. Often, we tell students to “just do” something, but that student may not be clear on what we actually expect. It opened my eyes to how I assumed most kids just knew what I expected when I was less-than-clear (at least from their perspective).

The course ran a little over $800 in 2010, but I am not sure of the current price (order it here), but I really enjoyed it and benefited from it. This is not a “paid” recommendation in any way. I genuinely benefited from this course and wanted to provide a good review, because information about Model-Netics is sparse online. I am often a critic of continuing education in the field of education. I think a lot of it is too theoretical and glosses over real skills that help teachers and students.

I can safely say that what I learned in Model-Netics was more practically applicable than 80% of what I learned in college and graduate school. Overall, Model-Netics is a great course that has helped me both as a teacher and small business owner.

Reboot For The New School Year

Image of shining sunWe haven’t updated this site much, simply because our other projects (especially The Popular Man) are keeping us busy. Nonetheless, many teachers are entering into the 2013-2014 school year with some trepidation. Some teachers are just starting and wondering how their “styles” will work themselves out in this new school year. Others have already established themselves in student minds. We advocate being a popular teacher, i.e. a teacher that is excellent with high standards, but that also relates to the students using things like rapport-building, humor, etc. Some teachers just haven’t quite established good relationships with students.

This is the year to start becoming the popular teacher.

My first year of teaching I replaced a pretty popular guy. I came in with guns blazing, ready to “show them who was boss.” I pretty much lost every student that year. Sure, they learned things. I tested them, etc. However, I doubt I impacted them. The next year was a little better, but my philosophy centered around the material changing them (which it can – and should) but I forgot a key fact any student knows: the teacher as a person has to impact students.

Before I entered my fourth year of teaching, I decided it was time for a change. I decided to reboot. My real personality – outgoing, funny, confident, etc – was going to be on full display. While I am not going to go into all the changes I made here (read this site, as well as The Popular Man), the result was that students started loving me, and learning more of what I was teaching.

My point is that with a purposeful attitude change (as well as using the tools we provide), rebooting your image as a teacher is possible. Maybe you are too timid. Maybe you have no sense of humor. Maybe they don’t listen to you or respect you. Whatever it is, rebooting is possible. Unfortunately, the things you learned in education school (or got from the recent in-service) probably isn’t too helpful, so you may not really know how to change. Like I said, check out this site.

Teaching can – and should – be worth doing. While the state and other bureaucracies love to drain the life out of teaching, we can still do what we do best: impact students. Here’s to a great 2013-2014 school year.