Category Archives: Teaching

Grandma’s Hot Chocolate

There’s something special about grandma’s hot chocolate.

It doesn’t matter that she boils water and pours in the envelope of instant powder like the rest of us.

It’s what she does while the water’s boiling.  The questions she asks while stirring-in the powder.  The way she stops stirring to listen to your answers.

Grandmas have that way of listening, even to the stuff we’re not saying.

It’s the way she adds the right amount of milk to “thicken it up a bit.”  Nobody else gets it exactly right like grandma.  She knows just the way you like it.  In fact, she’s the only one who does.

It’s counting out the right number of baby marshmallows.  Enough to sweeten things, but not so many that they get in the way.

It’s the way she squeezes your shoulder as she places the cup on your placemat.

It’s the way she sits to enjoy it with you.

That first sip is such a treat.  Is it the taste of the chocolate, or seeing grandma’s warm smile across the table that makes it so good?

It doesn’t matter.  Your loving journey to the bottom of this cup of wonder is just beginning.

Funny how the simplest things in life are transformed when they’re mixed with grandma’s love.

A love she teaches us to bring to the simple things in our own lives each and every day.

Photo by Salome Alexa on Unsplash

Did You Add Value Today?

I often ask people this question, and I never define what I mean by the word “value.”  I enjoy hearing the range of responses as the person quickly reviews in their head the times in the day where they added value.

No matter what you do each day, where you work, whether you’re paid for the work you do, whether you interact with lots of people, or toil in solitude.  The question matters.

Did you add value today?

Did you improve something?  Did you add a new idea to the world?  Did you help someone else today?  Did you listen?  Did you motivate?  Did you share?  Did you forgive?

If you manage people, did you help your direct reports add value today?  Did you congratulate them on the value they added?

Did you add value today?

A simple question.  It’s most powerful when you ask yourself this question a couple of times a day.

Photo by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

 

Five Stages of Problem Solving

I could write how problems are opportunities in disguise (many are).

Or, I could describe all the ways we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.

But, I think it’s most useful to describe the five-stage problem-solving model that most of us follow in our day-to-day lives.  It doesn’t matter if these problems are personal or professional…the same stages are usually in play:

1. Ignore the Problem

Ignoring a problem doesn’t mean not knowing about it.  We know it’s there, but we purposely choose to ignore it.  This gives us plausible deniability.  There’s a lot of hope involved in ignoring a problem.  Our hope is that if ignored long enough, the problem will solve itself, or someone else will take ownership and find a solution.

2. Deny the Problem

This is a bit more active than ignoring the problem.  We acknowledge that something is wrong, but it isn’t really a problem.  By consciously changing our perceptions, and the perceptions of those around us, we can plausibly deny (there’s that phrase again) that a problem exists.  And, if it really is a problem, it’s not a problem for “us” to solve.

3. Blame Someone (Else)

When denial stops working, the focus shifts to ensuring we aren’t held responsible for the problem.  We aren’t ignoring or denying the problem.  But, we know we aren’t the cause, for sure. Therefore, we shouldn’t be expected to provide a solution.

The most advanced version of this stage is to not only blame someone else.  But, make sure the world knows we warned everyone that this type of problem could happen…if only someone had listened to us in the first place.  I call this person the omnipotent blame shifter.

4. Accept the Problem

We finally accept that this is a real problem.  It’s our problem, whether we caused it or not.  We own it. We also own the task of finding the best solution.  This is the trickiest stage of all…

If we caused this problem, we must now admit our weakness, our mistake, our error in judgment, our previous lack of attention or understanding.  We may even have to admit that something happened that was out of our control.

If we didn’t cause this problem, our challenge is to put aside blame, and focus on solving the problem.  We don’t have time to teach lessons at this point.  Our focus must be finding solutions to the problem we’ve just accepted.

5. Address (Fix) the Problem

Ah…we finally arrive at the solution stage.  We’ve accepted the problem.  It’s real.  It’s ours.  And, now we (and possibly a large team we’ve assembled) will fix the problem.

Ironically, this may be the easiest stage of all, even if it’s the one we’ve worked so hard to avoid. It sits patiently, waiting for us to arrive.  To focus our attention, our effort and our creativity on delivering ideas and solutions to the problem.

Imagine the energy we’d have available to solve (and prevent) problems if we didn’t waste our time ignoring them, denying them, and finding others to blame.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

 

The Power of Repetition

We’re each born without skills.

We don’t know how to play the piano, hit a tennis ball, type a letter, program a computer, balance a checkbook, climb a mountain, drive a car, wake surf, back up a semi-trailer, finish concrete, ride a bike, race a motorcycle, fix an engine, pilot an airplane, or just about anything else.

Fortunately, humans are learning machines.  Watch a toddler for even a few minutes and you’ll see an aggressive and insatiable quest to imitate, experiment, test limits, check for patterns, see what works, see what parents allow, and see what happens when they push certain buttons (real and metaphorical).  Amazingly, they’re doing these things before they can walk or talk.

Toddlers also have an almost unending desire to “do it again.”  If throwing the ball once is fun, it’s even more fun to go pick it up and throw it again, and again, and again.

I took a typing class in my freshman year of high school.  There were about fifty students in the class.  Half of the typewriters were electric (the new IBM Selectrics) and the other half was manual typewriters.  Yes, I’m that old.

I started my year on a manual typewriter (we swapped to the Selectrics mid-year).  This meant that at the end of each line, after hearing the ding, I had to reach up and manually return the carriage…and place my fingers back on the correct keys to continue typing.  It also meant that my keystrokes had to be smooth, consistent and well-timed.  Otherwise, the keys would jam on top of each other.

We started with the Home row.  I must have typed ASDFJKL; a thousand times!  Then, we added the G and the H to the home row drill.  ASDFGHJKL;  Again.  Again.  Again.  Ding.  Manual carriage return.

Did I mention that all the keys on the typewriters were blank?  We were learning how to be “touch” typists.  Looking at the keys was not an option.  We had diagrams and workbooks that showed us what each key was, but nothing on the typewriter.

After mastering the Home row, we moved up to the QWERTY row.  The row that gives the standard keyboard its name.  QWERTYUIOP  Again.  Again.  Again.  Again.

Next, the drills included the Home row and the QWERTY row at the same time.  We were typing letters in random order from both rows.  QPJHFDRT Again.  Again.  Again.  Ding.  Manual carriage return.

Finally, we moved to the dreaded bottom row.  ZXCVBNM,.  I hated the Z.  The Z is in an awkward spot.  It requires pinky strength and dexterity in the left hand.  A tall order for a right-hander.  A right-hander who had broken his left pinky a few years earlier (another long story).

Now our drills included all three rows, and all in random order.

Oh yeah, every drill was being timed.  We started and stopped each drill as a class and typed the drills until we heard the ringing of the clock.

The drills got harder, included more randomness, and both upper-, and lower-case letters.  Again.  Again.  Again.

I don’t remember how many weeks we spent on all these drills, but one day our teacher told us we’d be typing actual sentences.  One more thing:  our typing speed would be measured in words-per-minute.

Any mistakes would subtract one word from our score, so accuracy mattered.

How could this be?  We’d never typed sentences before.  We weren’t ready to be tested…on real sentences.  We were just getting good at the drills.  We had practiced proper hand position, proper finger curl, proper posture.  But, this was uncharted territory.

“Ready?  Begin.”

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.”

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

Why do I remember these two sentences?  They’re classic typing drill sentences.  They each use almost all the letters in the alphabet and require the typist to jump between all the rows.  I typed these two sentences continuously during the day of our first typing test.

I realized I was actually typing!  Not just a drill, but two real sentences.  I was typing them quickly…even on a manual typewriter.

After that first day of testing, we typed many more sentences.  We learned about the structure of various business letter formats.  We typed information into practice forms.  We keyed numbers into columns.  We centered text.  All before spreadsheets or word processors made these simple tasks.

Our teacher provided the drills, the structure, and the discipline.  We drilled, practiced, and drilled again.  And, again.

We were touch typists, using the skills we learned through repetition.  I was having my own “Wax on…wax off,” moment before Karate Kid was a movie.

Fast forward 35 years.  I’m still learning new skills.  Practicing.  Making mistakes.  Sometimes pushing too hard.  Sometimes jamming my keys in the process.  Always looking to improve.

Only with repetition can I learn, improve, and become.

Again.  And, again.

 

Photo by Jason Yu on Unsplash

 

 

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively

Relax, You’re Doing Fine

I saw this on a license plate frame.  When I first saw it, I didn’t give it much attention.  Then, as I sat at the red light, staring at those four simple words, I realized how freeing they are.

Relax, you’re doing fine.

You aren’t as far behind as you thought in the “race” of life.  In fact, life isn’t a race at all.  There’s no prize at the end for getting to the finish line faster than the other people.

You’re living in a great time.  Why is it so great?  Because it’s your time.  It doesn’t matter what else is happening.  The fact that things are actually happening, and you are here to see, participate, and have an impact is all that matters.  What impact?  That’s up to you.

What you do, how you do it, and the pace you choose are up to you.  I recommend you take advantage of your limited time on the planet.  Start moving, stay moving, always learn, and never stop teaching.  But, that’s just me.  It’s up to you and no one else.

Not as happy as you’d like to be?  Not as fulfilled as you’d like to be?  Worried that life is passing you by?  Worried that you aren’t as rich, pretty, strong, tall, smart, stylish, successful, or any other measure society places on us, as you’d like to be?

We all have the same seconds, minutes, and hours every day.  Our ability to define our time by the people we help, and the smiles we coax into the world are the only things we control.  The rest is going to happen with or without our involvement.

Enjoy your time.  Let someone else worry about all that other comparison stuff.

And, never forget:  Relax, you’re doing fine.

Will This Be On The Test?!?!

SanFelipeSunrise

I’m told that this is one of the top questions students (and parents) ask of teachers.

Test questions in school come in many standard forms:  true or false, multiple choice, essay…just to name a few.  Oh yeah, and word problems!  Decipher the riddle, find all the numbers that fit into formulas, and arrive at an answer (hopefully, the correct one).  And, of course, remember to show your work.

We’re taught in school that there is only one correct answer to most questions.  Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, not 1493.  It takes two hydrogens and one oxygen to make water, not two oxygens and one hydrogen.  The student’s job is to learn (memorize?) the correct answers and then “ace” their test by answering all of the questions correctly.

It’s no wonder students ask what will be on their tests.  After all, their grade is in play.  Who wouldn’t want to know what they should study, and what they can ignore?  So much is riding on the outcome.

Tests outside of school aren’t as easy.  The questions don’t come from our teachers.  Variables are often missing, and formulas rarely provide one definitive answer.  They aren’t always fair.  They don’t come with a study guide.  There’s no advice about what should be studied, or ignored.  Real life tests come from our family, friends, customers, co-workers, managers, elected officials, our children’s teachers, strangers, and ourselves…on a daily basis.  A lot more than a grade is in play with most of these tests.

Attention to detail, listening to what is said and unsaid, curiosity, creativity, openness to risk, connecting with others we trust, and a clear sense of right and wrong are the guides we have in answering the real life test questions we face.

What’ll be on your next test?  Everything you’ve experienced in life up to this point, and probably a few things you haven’t seen before.  Here’s hoping you studied well.

 

Test Question:  What’s the connection between this post and the sunrise photo?

Wanna Learn Something? Think Like a Teacher!

You’re sitting in a training class.  The instructor is describing some new set of management concepts or the latest system enhancements.  You try to listen and stay focused.  Your mind wanders a bit.  You force it back in line.  After all, there may be something useful here that you can apply to your work.

Later, someone asks you how the class went.  You shrug your shoulders, reporting that you learned a couple of new things.  You then have trouble describing what you’ve learned.  Not an inspiring endorsement.

Imagine the same training class.  But, now you’re there to learn the material well enough to present the same class to another group next week.

You don’t get to pick and choose what applies to your work.  You need to learn the subject in its entirety.  Preparing to teach a subject requires active learning.  You’ll watch how the material is presented, the visual aids and examples the presenter uses, and the way the presenter moves around the room.  Nothing less than full mastery of the information will suffice.  Anything less could lead to failure when it’s your turn to teach.

Do yourself a favor.  Prepare like a teacher, learn like a teacher, and think like a teacher.  The truth is, you will be teaching this class next week…to yourself, as you try to remember and apply what you learned in the class.

No One is “Just a…”

“I don’t know the answer, I’m just a temp.”

“I can’t authorize that refund, I’m just a cashier.”

“Clearly, nobody here cares what I think.  I’m just a worker bee.”

“I could probably help those wounded veterans, but I’m just a private citizen.  I’m sure there’s a government agency for that.”

“There’s no way I could ever do that job.  I’m just a high school graduate.”

Listen closely, and you’ll hear the “I’m just a…” phrase applied in many circumstances.  You may even use it yourself.  I’ve inflicted it on myself a time or two (or three).

Ownership is risky.  It requires personal responsibility, a willingness to step up, make hard choices, and be held accountable for your actions.  “I’m just a…” is a ticket to minimizing the expectations we place on ourselves.

The Dark Side

“Just a…” has an even darker side.  It can be used to limit the expectations we place on those around us:

  • “John’s a decent manager, but he’s really just a guy keeping the trains coming in on time.  I doubt he could step into anything new.”
  • “She’s just a summer intern, so I don’t expect her to light the world on fire for us.”
  • “He’s just a beginner, so we need to cut him some slack.”
  • “She’s just a kid.”
  • “He’s just a drug addict, so he will never amount to much.”

When expectations are minimized, minimized outcomes usually follow.

Applying the “just a…” phrase to anyone, including ourselves, ignores potential.  It ignores our ability to grow, change, improve, and amaze.

What Are You Saying?

When talking to your friends, family, employees, or anyone else, do you use encouraging words, or discouraging words?

The words and tone you choose matter.  They reflect, and impact, your attitude.  Your words are the window into your perspective on the world.

Choose discouraging words, and you actively create a discouraging environment for those around you.

Choose encouraging words, use encouraging questions, and guess what…you create an encouraging environment.

The power to create an encouraging environment, an encouraging attitude, is in your hands everyday.

Here’s an exercise for you.  Seek out three people to encourage today.  Encourage them with your words, your questions, and your actions.  Show them that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.  Be appreciative of their unique efforts and skills.  Actively consider how to help them be more successful in achieving their goals.  Repeat this exercise everyday.

Does this exercise make you uncomfortable?  If so, maybe you should be the first person you seek out to encourage.