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!

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.

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.

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.


Questioning Standardized Testing

A mechanical pencil sitting on a piece of paperState and federal governments seem to be focusing on standardized tests. In fact, it has almost become an obsession, and teachers, to keep their jobs, “teach to the test.”

As I was in a meeting about this the other day, a lot of people were asking questions about improving scores, getting into college, etc, but nobody asked the big question: is this the way we should be moving forward at all? Do standardized tests predict any kind of future success after college?

By the way, no standardized test ever taught me to think that critically! At any rate, when I went looking, I found all sorts of data about standardized tests and college performance. But that is not what I am interested in. I want to know this: do kids that do well on standardized tests have more job satisfaction, and do they earn more money than their peers? I am sure the answer may be “yes” simply because the kids that do well on the tests are likely more intelligent and come from “better families,” and they will likely end up with a college degree.

Measuring learning is a tricky thing. We can’t measure it very well, so in an effort to please bureaucrats and number-crunchers we come up with our best options. So, what should be more of a guide becomes a standard we use to evaluate every student, no matter their personalities, interests, or future plans. So, if you are a bad test-taker or were stressed out the day of the test, your entire future could rest on a score that doesn’t even reflect what you know, or your potential for future success. And, schools that try to create well-rounded and successful students are starting to scrap that and focus entirely on getting students to take a two hour test each year.

I have no issue with standardized tests, and I tend to do well on them. My GRE scores were great, as were my ACT scores. While that guaranteed me money for college and graduate school, neither made me a great teacher or an innovative small business owner. I learned those things other ways, and a lot of it was from teachers who took a break from “teaching to the test” and modeled excellence in other ways (by coaching, focusing on running clubs, showing me flexibility, reaching out through humor, etc). It would be a shame if in an effort to bring the average ACT up to 26 we lost out on time to teach and model other things that matter. I doubt Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, MJ DeMarco, and other highly successful people got where they are today by focusing so much on standardized test scores. Heck, who knows what could have been invented had teens not gotten stressed out about a number on a paper. Imagine if Bill Gates spent his waking hours trying to get a 35 on his ACTs. I might be typing this on a typewriter.

A New Year, A New Chance To Gain Control Of Your Life

A brown clock on a mantleEvery so often, you meet someone who has taken some time off to totally reboot himself. It doesn’t happen often, because change is considered difficult, but it still happens. Sometimes, change is more gradual, and people “re-boot” themselves slowly, that people barely notice, except when something happens, and the transformed person responds in a different way, etc.

I spent two years re-booting myself. In 2008, I was pretty directionless. I knew I was in a funk because, outside of books required for some classes, I only bought handful of books that year. That is when a good friend of mine introduced me to some new ways of thinking, that included Neurolinguistic Programming and positive affirmations.  I started practice metacognition, i.e. “thinking about my thinking.” I realized, for the first time, that control my thoughts and actions, and instead of letting the parade pass me by, I started designing and creating the parade (and realized that I could do whatever I wanted – even if it didn’t involve a parade).

This new year is a chance for you to transform yourself. It is the time to “think about thinking.” If things haven’t gone well for you in 2012 (or the years before), consider how your thinking may be leading to this. Do you always overreact? Are you bothered by everything? Are you captive to your emotions? Do you have trouble building rapport? If something is wrong in your life, you can change it (unless of course you are a total victim – a mentality society loves to label people).

This new year is a great chance to make change. You can go from an unpopular and ineffective teacher to a popular and effective one. You can go from resented to admired. The change begins inside of you – in your mind. It starts there.

Happy new year from all of us!

Our New Years Posts

Our companion sites have a lot of New Year related tips and activities. So, instead of reproducing the material here in another form, we thought it would be best to link over to the websites instead.

A teacher should always be attempting to become the most excellent person possible. After all, educating our children to be excellent is only possible if we provide excellent examples. So, without further delay, here are the links:

New Year Resolution Ideas

Tips To Set New Years Goals

A 2012 End of Year Review

Have a safe and enjoyable New Year’s Eve. Enjoy the remainder of your break and return to school happy, refreshed, and a better, more excellent teacher.