Randy Pausch wrote that great book called “The Last Lecture”. He was tasked to write a last lecture to his students at Carnegie Mellon, where he was a professor. It is one of my favorite books, for so many reasons. What started out as a last lecture to college students became a last letter, if you will, to his sons and his family, as along the way, Randy was diagnosed with cancer that ultimately took his life. But it couldn’t take his spirit or his extremely thoughtful writings about life, love, dedication, loyalty, and communication. One of my favorite pieces of his book is his take on how we say things. As a lover of communication and how it impacts relationships, I have written two books on this critical subject.
Communicate and Motivate
Building Trust in Teacher Evaluations---It’s Not What You Say But How You Say It
Randy tells the story of how all Disneyworld employees are trained to talk to visitors to the park. While the natural response to the question, “What time do you close?” might be “We close at midnight”, Disney employees are trained to answer differently. When someone comes up to an employee and asks, “When does the park close?” the employee has learned to answer, “The park will remain open until midnight tonight.” Now, let’s face it. No matter what, that amusement park is closing at 12:00. But how does the Disney way change the outlook and attitude? Just by putting a positive spin on the answer.
My first two years of teaching were in an inner-city school in San Antonio, TX. My kids were labeled “Emotionally Disturbed” and they had some serious behavior issues. Richard’s outburst could set off Jesse in a heartbeat and even if Mario was joking, Michael didn’t react well to anything Mario said or did. So, I often joked that I wished I had a double-decker classroom, so I could create more space between these volatile students. In order to motivate them to complete work without hurting each other, particularly when I wanted them to complete tasks in a group, I would often say, “Let’s make sure we get this done so we can go out to recess on time.” How differently would they react when the words were turned around to something like, “You better stop that or you won’t be able to go out to recess today”? I can actually answer that question, as unknowing or untrained substitutes and classroom assistants might say those exact words, to which some of the students might get frustrated, mad or worse.
How we say things makes all the difference in the world.
As I approach the day of some very major surgery on Tuesday, June 30th, I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of my surgeons. I was curious about the recovery period after having the surgery. She answered, “You are in great shape. You should be back up and walking and somewhat normal routine in four weeks, I think.” Another health care professional, when asked the same question, answered, “You won’t be able to drive for two weeks and you definitely are not going to feel like doing anything besides sleeping that first week.” The difference? The first response focuses on the pushing forward of getting better. The second, which contains two “not”s, by the way, is focused on the limitation.
For today, I would like to focus on the propulsion forward to getting well. I welcome positive thoughts and well-wishes and also know that people around the world are going through difficult struggles that are hard to bear. My fervent hope and prayer is that we can make time to lift up those going through tough times and be the spark to help them see words, thoughts, and prayers in the most positive light.
Air travel is always a bit precarious, as you just don’t know what is going to happen, particularly when we are in the midst of storm weather. After presenting for two days at a conference in New Jersey, I was headed home to Tucson via Houston last night. Due to weather, many flights had already been cancelled. But not mine. I was still “on” so I headed to the airport to hop on the plane. Couple this with the fact that I am going to have pretty major surgery a week from now, I was anxious to get home to spend some quality time with Dave and the girls and get ready for some dear friends to come in to keep me company before I go under the knife. The problem is not always the weather where you are but the weather in the place from where the incoming aircraft is arriving. In our case, the plane was late. “That’s okay”, the gate agents assured us. “There are delays all over the country, so those of you trying to catch connecting flights in Houston will likely find your flight will be delayed as well, so you’ll be able to make your connection.” Sure thing. We’ll all be okay.
We finally get on the plane and the pilot says (and, by the way, this is the second time I have heard such a statement in the last few months), “Ok, folks, we’re ready to take off but they are not sure the weather is completely clear yet. They are letting the plane before us go, and if they do okay, we will be next.” Well, doesn’t that beat all? If they are okay?? How about we know whether or not we should send that big monstrosity filled with human lives up in the air before we do it? “But we’ll be okay”, he adds, “because we will be able to make up time in the air.” That was good news, as over half the passengers had connecting flights, including my seatmate who was headed to Nigeria. The pilot said---we will be okay. We sat on the runway, waiting to leave (maybe the guinea pig plane didn’t do okay?) for another 30 minutes, which now meant we were leaving an hour late. Bad news. I only had an hour layover in Houston.
When we arrived in Houston, everyone bolted for the door, trying to jockey for position to run the race of the terminals. I caught the train to the next terminal, ran in my high heeled shoes down the tunnel toward the gates (a bit like Alice in Wonderland’s trip down the rabbit hole), and literally watched the door close as I arrived at the gate. “That is not okay”, I told the gate agent. “I am a loyal customer and I often wait a few minutes or a few hours for a plane or a crew. You knew I had landed. Couldn’t you have waited for me?” I actually said this in a very calm voice, which has come from realizing events such as these might not be as big of a deal compared to life-altering surgery I am about to undergo. It’s all about perspective, right? The gate agent said, “Don’t worry. It is okay. I will take care of you.” Despite the fact that I was watching my plane to Tucson back up from the gate while I was standing right there, I couldn’t be too mad. He was as sweet as could be and quickly got me a hotel voucher for the night and vouchers for meals, as well.
This morning, after getting re-dressed in my presenting attire from yesterday (we think my luggage actually made it on the flight last night---that is not right!) and grateful for the little bag of toiletries they give you when you are displaced, I arrived back at TSA pre-check to go through security. As Ii walked through security, I got buzzed. The agent said, “Ma’am, can you step over here? You alerted the system.” No, I didn’t, I wanted to say. I don’t want to alert anyone. A gentleman came over and had me go through a different screening unit and then he smiled at me and said, “Well, lookie here” as he pointed to his computer screen.” I looked up and the screen had just one word on it. “OK” He said, “how do you feel about that? You are OK.” I smiled at the agent, and said, “Good to know.”
Just for today, I am going to try to remember that wherever I am, whatever I am doing, whatever my circumstance, this is exactly where I am supposed to be. Just for today, I am OK.
We all need just a little bit of help every once in a while. I’m the worst about asking for help. I feel like I’m imposing. When I get on the plane after a long day of training, I often have a tough time lifting my suitcase into the overhead bin. That is, of course, because those bins are about 2 feet too high for those of us who are vertically challenged. Couple that with end-of-day fatigue and I am sure I look pitiful, despite the fact that I try (and try and try) to build up my arm muscles at the gym each week. Inevitably, some gentleman will say, “Here, let me get that for you” and I look at him with a face that says, “Thank you so much for saving me!” I am certain he has an ulterior motive---to not get whacked on the head by my suitcase that just almost could get lifted, but not quite, into that bin above his head. The lesser of two evils, he is likely thinking. So, I let the 6 ft. 10 in. man lift it like it is a bag of jelly beans and toss it into the overhead compartment. But, oh, how I hate to ask for the help.
I’m about to have some pretty major surgery. I won’t be able to drive for several weeks, I’m going to be in a bit of pain the first week or so, and I apparently have to “take it easy” for four to six weeks. Yikes!!! So tough to fathom for someone who hates asking for help. My dear, loving husband just says, in his most loving voice, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”
Some of my favorite verses in the Bible deal with “help”, including:
“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
1 Peter 5:7
“..casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.”
Asking for and needing help is natural, after all. We are not capable of doing everything or being everything. So, why in the world is it so hard for some of us (me!) to ask for that help, even when we are more than willing to give it if anyone asks.
I love the quote by David Allen that says “We can do anything but not everything.” And I just saw this great picture.
I think the point is we need to admit when we need help and in our vulnerability, we might find that we can become stronger, particularly in our relationships with those who want to help us.
One of my very favorite videos shows the power of one helping another---it just happens to be a pup helping another pup get down the stairs for the first time. I show this when I train in districts about communication, trust and motivation. We all deserve people in our lives who will help us in our time of need, but we have to be willing to accept that help. Check out this VIDEO!!
Just for today, maybe we can allow someone to do something for us---something as simple as lifting something above our shorty-short heads or something as involved as helping us through a difficult time.
Timing is everything, right? Sometimes, we have good timing. Sometimes, not so much. While doing observations with administrators in San Antonio a few months ago, we visited a 2nd grade classroom. The students were all working on writing. They were crafting paragraphs and getting feedback from each other and from their teacher. Since there were multiple observers watching this lesson transpire, I’m sure the teacher felt a little bit of pressure, but she sure didn’t show it. All of a sudden, this cute-as-a-button little girl pipes up and asks her teacher, “Can I sit out of recess to re-do this part of my paper? It is messed up and I want to fix it.” The teacher must have been on Cloud 9. What perfect timing! This dedicated student was showing a personal passion for her work that we all strive to instill in every student in every class we teach (even those of us who teach adult learners, as well!).
Timing is especially important when it comes to having conversations. Here are my top three worst places in which people have tried to strike up a conversation with me.
1. On the airplane when I have just taught all day and I am completely exhausted! Please, oh please, take the hint that when I put on my headphones, that is the signal that I would like to go into my own cocoon and just “be”. Nope, it doesn’t always happen that way. As much as I want to isolate, I am sometimes convinced that people board a cross-country jet in anticipation of making a new friend.
2. When we pause in teaching and need a quick restroom break. Not once but two times in the past couple of years, I have had someone initiate conversation as I am headed to the restroom. During one such incident, I laughed and answered the question, “I know you are busy, but can I ask you a couple of questions?” by saying, “Sure thing, but I do need to run to the ladies’ room really quickly.” She said, “No problem. I’ll just come with you.” I clearly was not clear, was I? She continued to ask her question not only when we got into the ladies’ room, but even after I had made my way into the stall. I finally just said, “How about we pick this up when I come back out?” Boundaries!
3. When I am having a mammogram completed. I know this one is not just me, as I have had friends who tell me their similar tales of woe. I suppose some technicians simply want to make us feel at ease during the squishing procedure, but honestly, I don’t want to talk about the latest celebrity gossip right now. Can we just finish this up and we can peruse People magazine together once I am dressed again?
Likewise, having conversations with teachers about teaching is critical enough to warrant a set-aside time. Time is necessary for processing, pondering open-ended questions, and analyzing growth areas. In Building Trust in Teacher Evaluations, I talk about the importance of honoring the time needed to meet about observations and evaluations. If we try to hurry up conversations or catch teachers “on the fly”, nobody will benefit. Instead, we need to show how critical this work is by putting our time where our mouth is. As a principal, I would enlist the help of my administrative assistant (“The Keeper of the Kingdom”, she was) and block out an entire day or two to have conversations with teachers. Yes, it took delegating (if a frustrated parent calls, Maria will handle it; if a bus issue occurs, Lance will take it, etc.) but the conversations with growth-oriented teachers were so much richer when we had set aside the time---so much better, wouldn’t you agree, than while I am in need of a restroom break? Somehow, talking about student engagement while the teacher and I are in neighboring stalls might lose a little in translation.
Perhaps we need to examine how we can set aside the time for what I believe is the most important work we do as administrators, and that is communicating with teachers.