Warming up

When you turn on the shower and the water takes a minute to warm up before you can get in, that is a total waste of energy and resources.

When you a walk into a classroom and take a few minutes to warm up your students by greeting them enthusiastically or checking how they are feeling or sharing a short story or laugh, that is not at all a waste of energy and resources. In fact, this type of direct investment in relationships and connection at the start of a lesson is common amongst almost all of the great teachers we see.

Great teachers choose to spend this precious time engaging in this way with their students because they realise that the return on investment, in terms or relational and learning outcomes, far outweighs the few minutes initially spent. The best educators literally care first and teach second.

You can have a cold shower, but you can’t teach cold kids.

Three components of trust

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” 
― George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet

Every educator knows the importance of trust. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built – and relationships are the foundation of teaching and learning.

All good teachers have an intuitive sense of how to develop trust in the classroom, which is great. But the problem is, when we rely only on intuition, there’s a chance that we’re missing opportunities to develop and leverage trust more effectively.

Referencing decades of psychological research,  The Trust Project at Northwestern University, in Illinois has identified three dimensions of trust: competence, honesty, and benevolence.

Competence relates to the perception of a person being able to do a job – to teach the Year 8 Science curriculum, for example. Honesty relates to the perception that the teacher keeps their promises and is authentic. Benevolence relates to the belief that the teacher genuinely has the students’ best interests at heart.

When any one of these components is overemphasised at the expense of another, trust is  harmed. I’m sure we can all think of educators who are so desperate to prove their level of competence that they fail to be fully open and honest about their limitations.

There’s no shortcut to building real trust – it takes time. But it is a simple recipe:

  1. Be competent. Prepare, plan, work harder than your students.
  2. Be honest. Make promises and keep them. Be consistent. Be professional.
  3. Be benevolent. Care. And let students know you care. Keep an open heart.

And listen to your intuition. Not always, but often – it will guide you towards a constructive balance of the three components of trust.

Withitness

Teaching, at its best, is both incredibly uplifting and exhausting. The main cause of this uplift and exhaustion is relationships. Great teaching hinges on ‘real’, meaningful connection with students. But each teacher-student relationship, like all meaningful relationships, requires an ongoing investment of emotional and energetic capital.

One of the unique aspects of teaching is that it is, perhaps, the only profession that requires the sustaining of, typically, up to 20 or 30 real-time, simultaneous relationships for a significant proportion of a working day. When you walk into that classroom on Monday morning, there are 25 children looking at you and looking up to you. All of them are your responsibility. Each of them has a need to be directly engaged by you. And if you’re a quality educator, each of these children matter to you deeply.

And so to inspire and educate them, you give your heart and soul to each of these 25 children at the same time. And you do it all day, every day. It’s no wonder teaching is so tiring.

Jacob Kounin was an influential 1970s educational researcher and theorist who coined the term “withitness” (with-it-ness) to describe the ability of top teachers to know what was going on at all times in their classroom. Through remaining connected to each student, withitness enables a teacher to notice subtle signs of understanding or confusion, to respond personally to each student’s needs, and to make students feel almost as if the teacher has eyes in the back if their head. Withitness is still being researched and evaluated today and it might just be the key defining feature that distinguishes outstanding educators from the rest.

If you’re doing teaching well, there is no way to avoid this level of connectedness. Because great teaching is about great relationships, it will always be uplifting, exhausting, and wonderful.

A wellbeing birthday card

I love birthdays – especially other people’s! But I’ve never been able to get excited or seen much value in birthday cards. I’m pretty good at remembering the birthdays of my friends and family but I tend to just write a mundane card or message along the lines of:

Dear Nicky, Happy Birthday! I’m thinking of you today and hope you are having a lovely day. Best wishes for the year ahead, David.

Now, that’s a nice acknowledgement. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure Nicky appreciated me taking the time and energy to write to her. But it doesn’t at all reflect the fact that Nicky’s actual birth day turned out to be a gift to me. Because she was born, my life, via her friendship, is richer, happier and more meaningful.

And so I’m trying a new character strengths-based messaging strategy. I choose one of the 24 VIA character strengths that most stand out for me when I think about the recipient and write a short message describing how I see this strength actioned by them.

This is the birthday message I actually sent to Nicky this year:

On your birthday, I wanted to say thank you for what you bring to our family as a close, dear and trusted friend. One part of your character that I truly value is your modesty / humility. You are so strong and resilient and so capable but it is very much a quiet strength. I know you have been through a lot in your life and you face every challenge with hope because you know that you will be okay. But you never boast or brag about it. You just quietly and purposefully make things happen. I really admire this in you. Thank you again for making our lives happier and richer for having you in them. Have a great year ahead Nic! 

Sure, it took a few more minutes to write – but it’s a few minutes I spent thinking about the best qualities in a friend. Not so bad! And I suspect this is a message that is a lot more meaningful to Nicky too.

Whose birthday is next in your life? Have a go at writing them a strengths card!

[Note: If you are interested in learning more about the science of character, head over to https://www.viacharacter.org/]

The power of externalities

The primary outcome of beekeeping is the production of delicious honey. One side effect of beekeeping is that surrounding crops get pollinated which increases the yield for crop farmers. The beekeeper receives no direct income from the healthier, higher value crops but the whole community is better off because of the bees.

In economic terms, this phenomenon is referred to as a positive externality.

We see externalities occur in almost all interconnected systems. In schools, a student’s experience in Lesson 1 with Teacher A can have a huge impact on that student’s approach to Lesson 2 with Teacher B. When Lesson 1 is full of positive emotion, engagement, meaningful connection, achievement and purpose, students walk into Lesson 2 with an optimised psychology and a neurology primed for learning.

There are also negative externalities – such as when pollution emitted by a factory spoils the surrounding environment or when Teacher A allows negativity, disengagement, or disempowerment to fester in Lesson 1. In this case, Lesson 2 feels very, very different for Teacher B and the students.

This is a big part of the reason why wellbeing needs to be placed at the heart of a school or organisation for it to really transform a culture. The more of the community that embrace and ‘live’ wellbeing, the more likely we are to experience the dynamic upward spiral of wellbeing that positive externalities can power.

The rock in a VUCA world

In the late 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the US Army War College began using the acronym VUCA to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world’s geopolitical climate. With the emergence if the 4th Industrial Revolution, there is an even greater sense of personal VUCA as we begin to navigate a world in which biological and digital realms are being blurred.

This sense of VUCA is being felt particularly strongly by many of our students.  To some extent, the period of our lives that we call ‘adolescence’ has always been characterised by VUCA. The emotional volatility, biological uncertainty, social complexity and all-round ambiguity of this life stage create challenges for all of us. This is, in part, why 20% of Australian adolescents are currently living with significant mental health issues.

In the midst of all of this chaos, the impact of a trusted teacher is amplified significantly. This is why the best teachers not only know how to educate and inspire but they appreciate the infinite value of simply ‘being there’ – of turning up time and time again for their students.

Learning should be an adventure, classrooms should be exciting. And when we really get it right, great teaching also provides a foundation of calmness, certainty, simplicity and clarity at the core of a child’s educational experience.

Vulnerability first

It can be a weird, sometimes unsettling, sometimes enlightening experience to read or hear something that makes you realise that you’ve been wrong your whole life.

We all know how important relationships are. And we know how dependent relationships are on trust. And we know that a willingness to be open and vulnerable with those we trust helps to build closeness.

But I had always thought that the the process worked like this:

meet someone » get to know them well » earn trust » be vulnerable (knowing that you won’t be hurt) » develop closeness

But then I read Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code and realised that I had been thinking about this incorrectly since I was a child. Coyle’s research into some of the world’s most successful individuals and organisations highlighted that being willing to be vulnerable and take a risk with another person is how you build trust. Deep trust forms when we take a risk, expose ourselves emotionally to someone and they don’t hurt us. So the process of developing trust really looks like this:

meet someone » be vulnerable (even though you might get hurt) » share experience » develop deep trust

It is particularly when two people go through an experience from a state of shared vulnerability, of not knowing, that real trust emerges. It is, obviously, much riskier and takes more courage to be open with people before you know them well. But the upside is the opportunity to accelerate the development of deeper, more trusting and more meaningful relationships.