Connect to Correct!

“To gain respect, you need to give respect” – at least that’s what they say. But how much of this do we see manifest in the school setting? Very rarely; in fact it is easier said than done. In reality, respect is a virtue that is regrettably overshadowed by pre-occupation with habitual duties – teaching, in the case of teachers, learning, in the case of students, managing, in the case of administrators, and providing, in the case of parents. Everyone is so busy doing what they have to do that respect has been given little if not zero importance.

My friend, who is the Regional Education Director in South Africa travels extensively all over the country. He only makes it home once in a while. But he maximizes whatever time he gets with his family. I happen to visit him last December, where I learned a lesson of great significance. Because he is hardly there with his two children, he chooses not to boss around when he gets home. I had to confront and ask him why he lets his wife to be in-charge even when he is back at home. His answer was, “She takes care of the kids, and she is in-charge when I am not here. I cannot just come in and take charge all of a sudden. My kids won’t have the same respect for me as they have for their mother. If I do that, they will start disrespecting me, and maybe even hate me.”

Implied in this response is a remarkable truth about respect in human interactions. I would say that it is a basic principle that if followed carefully, would save us from heartaches. If you want to be listened to, you have to gain the trust and confidence of the person you want to convince. In the same way, if you want to correct someone, you need to first of all connect with that person.

It is only natural for me or anyone to entertain the suggestions and recommendations of someone we know and have a cordial relationship with. We don’t listen to any random stranger and we definitely don’t trust or respect anyone and everyone that come our way. As natural as this sound, it is not applied in the same way at schools. A new principal could be appointed today and he would have the audacity to reprimand students, teachers, and staff right away. He does so by the virtue of authority vested on him by his superiors. While it is his duty to ensure discipline and order, it is equally important that he does it the right way. But what commonly happens is what was narrated earlier.

It is easier for people in authority to expect others to respect them because of who they are and not because of what they do to gain that respect. It is almost taken for granted that people in authority (in the case of the school, the administrator; and in the case of the classroom, the teacher) are respected by default. They are not expected to give respect to gain respect. This is hypocrisy and when students sense this, they lose whatever little respect they have for the school, and the adults who run it.

A friend of mine once complained about a secondary school student who was extremely rude toward a primary school teacher who commented on his failure to speak in English while in the school premise. When he was confronted by the teacher, the student cussed her with all the foul words he knew. The teacher was disappointed with his response. She felt sad and disoriented. She was shocked by his attitude. I thought about the situation for a moment and told my friend, “How do you expect any other response from the teenager when he was confronted by someone he doesn’t have any connection with?” (Note: the teacher was in primary section and he was in high school – their paths never met except for that time). The same student would have responded differently to his own class teacher or a teacher he connects well. Just because we are teachers, we cannot expect our students to fall on their knees and obey us. Respect is something that we earn. And we can only earn respect by giving it first.

As a teacher or an administrator or anyone in authority, it is easier to go around giving commands, passing orders, setting procedures and demanding obedience. But the most effective way to correct anyone is by connecting with that person. Utilizing the authority that is vested on someone is called coercive-power, while utilizing the authority that comes through connection is called people-power. The former takes people far apart, while the latter binds them together.

Research indicates that principals and teachers who connect well with students stand a greater chance of being effective enforcers of discipline and order. These principals and teachers are visible and supportive to students. They take personal interest in the well-being of children and mingle with them; talking informally, expressing interest in their activities, and encouraging them to do well in studies. Those who fail to do so create unhappy children, hence unhappy school environment.

Dr. William Glasser, the father of Choice Theory and proponent of positive approaches to discipline says that no number of behavior management strategies, however good they are, could ever substitute for a teacher’s respect for his students.

So the next time you want to open your mouth to correct someone, ask yourself this question: Am I connected to this person? If you are not, then you might as well keep quiet and go about other business. At least you still have an opportunity to forge a relationship with that person and then address the problem behavior in the future. If you continue with your plan to correct before connecting, the individual is most likely to hate and disrespect you for the rest of his life. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not impossibility. When that happens, you lose the chance of touching someone’s life in a positive way, forever.


Did you say “thank you” today?

When I was in the elementary school, my fifth grade teacher advised us to say “Thank you” to as many people and as many times as possible everyday. He started a trend among the fifth graders to thank others at every opportune occasion. However, being immature and young, we didn’t think much about what we were doing. Without knowing, we were emitting positive energy all around us and making ourselves as well as others feel happier everyday.

Now that I am older, I finally understand what our fifth grade teacher meant. There is physical power and energy in being grateful. There is tremendous healing in the feeling of gratitude. Greatness is achieved when one learns to be grateful and say “thank you” at every step of his walk in life. When one says “thank you,” he focuses on the positive. He shows the feeling of being at ease, communicates satisfaction, and demonstrates acceptance. When one says “thank you,” he is in essence saying that he is happy to have another person’s presence in his life and he is ready for more of such interactions and exchange of goodness. Saying “thank you” neutralizes differences in ego and removes arrogance and pride. It helps people to connect on a mutual ground.

Leaders in corporate sectors testify to this. As long as workers feel unappreciated, they are unproductive, even if they could perform better. The magical ingredient that changes inefficiency to efficiency is gratefulness. While it sounds unreasonable to expect bosses to constantly say “thank you” to workers, the result of this simple act is shocking! The inner transformation experienced by workers who feel appreciated significantly affect how they perceive work and their attitude toward their superiors. They become purpose-driven and feel proud to be part of the growth of the company. Sending workers for more seminars and workshops do not necessarily help improve productivity. This is especially true if employers fail to realize that the feeling of being appreciated is more important than the feeling of achievement. In fact, the more thankful employers are to their workers, the more achievement-driven workers become.

Saying “thank you” works wonders at home too. It is said that wives become more motivated to care for their families when their husbands appreciate them for their efforts. Children become more motivated and committed to do better in studies when their every accomplishment is appreciated. Husbands become excited about spending quality time with their wives and children when he senses gratitude flowing from his family members. In short, a happy family has members who constantly thank each other, on every possible occasion.

Can schools benefit from this? Yes! One of the easiest ways to create a positive environment in a school is by having students, teachers, administrators and staff say, “thank you” to each other as often as possible. If feeling appreciated increases productivity among workers in a company, the same feeling would increase the intellectual productivity of learners. It will also increase quality of teaching, improve administrative operation and relationship, and create nurturing and caring school culture.

Saying “thank you” doesn’t cost anything, yet its effect is more powerful than high voltage electricity.


Cooperative Learning IS NOT Collective Learning

One might be easily lured into believing that if there is any place where students can learn effectively through cooperative teaching strategies, it would be among the students in the collectivist society. The mere fact that people in the collectivist societies like to do things together might delude a teacher into thinking that cooperative teaching would work wonders. This is unfortunately wrong. In fact, a teacher would find using cooperative teaching strategies comparatively more challenging in Asia than, let’s say, the United States. Why is this so?

Though the act of coming together is fairly easy for students in the collectivist societies, the act of thinking independently in a parallel manner (a much required skill in learning cooperatively) once they have come together is rarely seen. Careful examination of the nature of cooperative teaching strategies would reveal that cooperative learning is not the same as collective learning (collective learning is what takes places in a lecture session and could be done with small as well as big groups, like the whole class).

Although students are put into small groups, with group members playing specific roles, cooperative teaching strategies require that students engage in independent thinking, defend individual choices, make sense of each others’ thoughts and ideas, and creatively synthesize differentiated information to create a logically-unified new knowledge (coordinated thinking). Invariably, at the end of a productive cooperative learning session, students would realize that they have dealt with complex concepts and interrelations of the same with the help of each other. They would have engaged in a mental process that Dr. Edward De Bono calls parallel/lateral thinking.

Most often, what happens in a so-called cooperative learning class is that students get together, and they start thinking alike. Their thoughts pre-maturely converge and creative solutions are not encountered. Depending on the acculturation and socialization experiences of students, some may always dominate the whole group while others become followers. And as commonly practiced in any collectivist society, the followers get the impression that they have to think like the leader and agree to all that the leader says. In other words, one person thinks and decides, and the rest of the group members say “Yes” as a mark of conformity and absolute agreement. This exercise is void of the active thinking processes essential for the intellectual development of students.

To enable students to experience maximum benefit from learning in small groups, teachers would have to reiterate and enforce a few universal guidelines. These might sound trivial, but they are extremely crucial for the success of cooperative teaching strategies. These might also be thought of as characteristics or steps of parallel/lateral thinking. They are:

  1. Everyone must engage in the process of thinking.
  2. Initially, accept every idea and consider it as one possible solution to the problem. Listen to every idea without pre-maturely dismissing it.
  3. Encourage as many ideas as possible. Do not limit anyone from being ‘wildly’ imaginative, even when an idea seems ridiculous.
  4. Focus on the issue or matter being studied. Do not focus on the individual from whom the ideas are coming from (this will help students to be objective about the lesson).
  5. Once several solutions are put on the table, students can critically evaluate each. The evaluation must accompany appropriate justification (e.g. if a student says ‘xyz’ may not work, h/she must defend why h/she thinks so and convince the rest of the group).
  6. Disagree to agree. Students are encouraged not to easily accept an idea. However, they are also not permitted to attack each others’ ideas for personal reasons (avoid ego fights at all cost). The disagreement is solely directed at consolidating another’s thinking process, allowing an opportunity for the thinker to be sure of why h/she thinks the way h/she does.
  7. Agree to disagree. Since the ultimate task of the group is to come up with a way to coordinate their thinking to resolve an issue and create new knowledge, certain amount of compromise is expected. However, agreement does not have to mean a change of mind/idea. This is a powerful way to help students develop their perspective-taking skills.
  8. Design or create new knowledge by taking into consideration as many ideas as possible, with all their pros and cons. Synthesize ideas into the form of a new creative knowledge!
  9. Test and retest the new creative knowledge to establish its functionality and sturdiness. This might lead to students discarding the previously accepted solution and think of another one.
  10. Share the new discovery with others, keeping in mind that further changes and refinement of the findings is always normal to the process of learning.

Cooperative teaching strategies are indeed valuable to help students to become independent thinkers, who are at the same considerate of others’ thoughts and mental processes. Since every human being functions within the framework of his/her own logical bubble, it helps for students to learn early in life the skills needed to work well with the complexities of human dynamics. The beauty of experiencing enlightenment lies in the ability of an individual to appreciate others’ ideas without compromising his/her own. Providing students with this understanding is the personal duty of every teacher. Effective use of cooperative teaching strategies makes this a possibility.


The Secret to “Lightheartedness”

Ever since I started deliberately engaging in positive self-talks and visualization, my negative emotion and energy emitted therein have been significantly reduced. I experience the feeling of being “light” inside (I finally understand the meaning of the word, “lightheartedness”).

How can I be sure of this? Provided my current life experiences and professional work load, i.e. lecturing at two universities, thesis advising for students in both universities, planning and strategizing for the upcoming responsibility as one of the leaders of three international schools, being separated from a son whom I miss so much, providing for the welfare of parents in Malaysia, and many more… I realize that I am still able to “empty” my mind of all these and just think of nothing (something required for meditation, isn’t it?) – I could never do this. In fact in the past, no matter where I was and what I was doing, I was constantly thinking about something or the other, and most of my thoughts were coated with hues of negativity, probably because of the overwhelming feeling that accompany the very thought of having to do so much!

I have learned to let go of everything I can’t handle and let them be. Instead, I focus on the images and messages of what I want to see, hear, and experience happen. I totally despise negativity, and shun them completely. I refocus at the first sign of negative thoughts and remind myself that they are not worth investing on. I quickly replace them with something good, hopeful, happy, and meaningful for myself and everyone around me. I do this because I don’t want to emit negative energy force. I have also seen the effects emitting positive energy force and how this energy force transforms the emotional and mental state of the people I work with. I go in to meet with them expecting positive results and that’s what I get.

A new realization dawned on me – I am not alone. Whether I am surrounded by people or not, I am not alone. I am constantly surrounded by a variety of forces – forces that are waiting my summoning to make all my wishes come true – all I need to do is to wish for the right thing at the right time, for the right purpose.

Life is meant to be lived happily. But how do I experience happiness? By letting go and letting it be… by trusting in the power of my mind to handle and deal with the challenges of life, as it moves along the glimpses of enlightenment and wisdom inherent in all of universe.

i WAS my worst enemy… NOT ANYMORE!

When I speak to students on motivational seminars in an attempt to inspire them to be successful students, I often start by asking them, “Who or what is your worst enemy?” Students would give a range of serious to funny answer to this question – but most often, majority of the students in the audience shout out the answer, “Myself!”

I affirm their answers by saying, “Yes! If there is anyone to blame for your success or failure, it is YOU.”

I have been my own worst enemy for most part of my life (it is like an up-and-down line graph – with the down states pre-dominating the data) for a long time. This has changed. I am listening to the audio book, THE SECRET and for the first time in my life, I see the opposite happening – more of the up states pre-dominating my days. I am more deliberate in what I say to myself; my internal dialogues have always been more pessimistic than it is optimistic. But now, I only feed my mind with optimistic internal dialogues. There is this feeling of liberation and satisfaction that I gain by simply being in-charge of my own emotions and thoughts, compared to before, when I tried to experience liberation and satisfaction by doing everything for the outward display alone. Now, I do what I really want to and need.

This comes to me as a surprise because I always thought that my achievements could bring forth happiness – but as it is the experience of Tal Ben Shahar (http://www.talbenshahar.com/) and the host of others, achievements are not the determinant of happiness. I completed my PhD very young, when I was only 26, wrote and published four books in two years, spoke and trained teachers, students, and parents, traveled around, became the one of the youngest research and statistical advisors for the graduate school of psychology in the biggest international university in Thailand, sat in various committees – all these did not give me happiness – I was still engaging in negative internal dialogues. Funny isn’t it?

I did this because while everyone else around me believed in my abilities and intelligence, I did not. I still carried with me the self-image I had formed about myself when I was a child – mostly through limiting self-talks. People saw me in action and they said, “Wow Roy, you have it all – you are so good in what you do!” – While listening to them, I tell myself – “No ways! Are you joking? I don’t know how I could speak/write/teach/etc. that well or do what I did… but I am not good enough!”

It is not until I learned to appreciate who I am and what I bring into this world – accept what I can and cannot give to myself and others around me – that I found the path to living a fulfilling life.

I have grown and matured a lot lately. Partly because of the many humbling experiences life took me through. They were not ‘train smashes’ but they were painful – but more importantly, they were lessons-of-life-and-wisdom-in-disguise; tailor-made especially for me to grow up and become who I am supposed to be.

I believe more strongly than ever that when we look at people, we must remember one thing – this is one thing that doesn’t change:

I must not see what someone has accomplished or is experiencing now (what the person has been and is). While these are important to a certain extent to understand the person, what’s more important is the potential that lies within the person (what the person might become).

This same principle explains why I was trusted with important tasks in my profession – because the leaders who hired me saw the potential and believed in the ‘me’ that I was becoming! That takes a lot of faith doesn’t it? Yes it does. But why is it possible for these leaders to do so? Because they have learned the important lesson that it is not achievements that give one happiness – but a sense of knowing who you are, what you want, and where you are headed.

I believe that it is only a self-actualized person who can help another individual to become self-actualized, and I am happy that I have in my life people who have reached this state and are willing to help me do the same.

What Makes a Person?

When I was a college student in India, I keenly observed everything that went around me. It was a place called Pune, located in the central state of Maharashtra. Coming from Malaysia where I grew up having enough food, good neighborhood, ample space and opportunity for childhood entertainment and fun, I saw a stark difference. For the sake of brevity, let us just say that Malaysia (at least in my mind at that time) was a land of milk and honey… while India was the opposite.

But there was one thing that made India much much more superior than Malaysia – the profoundness that one finds in a simplistic life-style. Yes, though many people that I observed did not have much, they did not seem to be dissatisfied with their lack. They were still happy. Whereas in Malaysia, people could have a lot, and still be dissatisfied and unhappy. In other words, I realized that many people in Malaysia are materialistic and are given to their desires and wants of temporal needs (unreasonably so). They couldn’t see life beyond the externals. They needed to have a house, a car, and more material possessions… because these material possessions defined life and success.

In India – they have this famous saying – “high thinking, simple living” – this is not just a saying… this is what one would see in the people of this country. I was amazed at how an unassuming vegetable vendor in the market could talk to me about the profoundness of life – the essence of existence – the importance of spirituality, etc. – these are philosophers… and you would find philosophers everywhere in India – I even had a conversation with an engineer in a public bus and although engineering is his profession, he talked so beautifully about life and how to make it more meaningful. I would never find things like this in my country… because we don’t even teach subjects like philosophy and psychology in our schools. We only teach subjects that would make people ‘rich’… and do away with subjects that might make people ‘wise’ toward living a meaningful and happy life (sadly).

To cut the story short, I found myself falling in love with India – not because I am of Indian origin, but more so because I found a place where people lived for the right purpose – and the purpose is to ‘live life’ itself and not be bogged down by all that is not really important. These people understand what life is and how it should be lived. And everyday, I learned the beauty and profoundness of life from someone or the other. So in love that I lived there for about 9 years… and became a philosopher myself :p

So, what makes a person? In my opinion, all external factors that surround our lives do not make us who we are. They might affect us. But they do not determine who we are or become. What makes a person? The answer: What’s inside of him – his thoughts, emotion, and intentional behavior that stem out of the first two.

When I know ‘what truly makes me’ (by being completely in touch my internal experiences) – I would know that happiness is within my grasp. But when I focus on the externals to determine ‘what makes me’ – then I am making happiness an impossible experience to have and cherish.

Validating Your Beliefs

Beliefs are important, as important as the air that we breathe. There are people who are willing to die for their beliefs. Others would do anything to preserve their convictions and promote them to their fellow men with fervor and enthusiasm.

I remember a story I heard long ago about a group of villagers performing a ritual handed down to them by their forefathers. A curious passerby stopped and observed the mystical ritual as it got more and more eerie with the priest preparing to slaughter a goat as a sacrifice to the spirits. In the midst of this episode, the passerby’s attention was directed toward something rather unusual. There was a black cat tied to a tree near the place where the ritual was taking place.

Driven to know more, the onlooker asked someone nearby, “Why is the black cat tied to the tree over there?” The man answered, “We have been doing this for years now, from generation to generation… everytime we perform this ritual, we are required to tie a black cat to a tree to appease the spirits.”

The onlooker wasn’t satisfied with the answer given to him. During his further investigation about the matter, he learned that long long ago, when the ritual was in progress, a particular black cat made it a point to stalk and steal the sacrificial chicken and fish pieces that were meant for the spirits. Angry with this particular cat, the priest ordered the villagers to catch it and tie it to a particular tree during whole the time of the ritual, so that the cat wouldn’t be able to interfere in their sacred religious activity. However, during the course of time, the villagers took it for granted that the black cat was an important part of the ritual and that it is a requirement for the same – to the extent that they even started rationalizing why they need a black cat during the ritual.

One can believe in anything – but believing in something without knowing why – and/or believing in something for the wrong reasons – make us spiritual infants. A true believer knows why he believes in what he believes in and the reasons for his beliefs are crystal clear to him… if nothing goes wrong, the reasons are never short of everything beautiful that makes life a journey worth taking.

The Power of Words: Feeding your Brain the Right Thing

I woke up yesterday morning, surprised and awestruck because I dreamed of a debate that was taking place in the ‘malay’ language – and one of the debaters shared the following quote to support her position:

what is said is more important than how it is said

It came as a shock because you usually dream of things that has happened to you in the past (during the day, previous week, or month) – but this was something altogether new. I had never heard this quote anywhere from anyone ever before… and the best part is, it was said in the ‘malay’ language!

Anyway, instead of trying to figure out if this was some kind of a vision or simply a dream, I decided just learn the lesson that was given to me…

Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) followers and positive thinking authors and speakers have all understood and passionately advocate the power of using the right word to condition the mind to harness positive results for one’s life. The brain functions on the instructions we give to it. And these instructions are given in the form of words. Words enter into the brain at both conscious and subconscious levels – and are processed, organized, and retained for future reference and use.

Wheterher or not I am generally positive, hopeful, and happy depends largely on the kinds of words I feed my brain, from the time I was born (fed by my parents, siblings, etc.) until I come to feed my brain by myself (school age – starts when I am able to reason). Words have inherent power in them. This is so because words are the very tool we use to think with. When the words that pre-occupy my mind are nasty, hurtful, and hateful – my brain starts thinking low about itself – and the rest is history – my emotion would be characterized by pain, trauma, agony – and my behavior would be characterized by disorder, guilt, and instability.

You take any successful person in this world; truly successful… if you have to ask him one thing that has brought about his success, he would say – without any doubt – that it is the kind of words he has fed into his brain, eversince he was a child. That explains why some very poor kids turn out to be very rich; that also explains why when the society gives up on someone, that someone can still rise up above the expectation of the norm, and be a great personality despite all odds – because he has harnessed the one free gift available for all, at no cost whatsoever – the gift of feeding our brains with only good words – words that would build, develop, and make us who we want to be.

Positive words – constructive words – happy words – these do not cost a thing… but feeding my brain with these kind of words might make a world of difference – between a happy fulfilling life and a miserable guilt-ridden life.

The Meaning of Existence

Have you ever been asked, “why are you here on earth?” What was your answer? Many of us have a hard time answering this question. Why is that so? The answer lies in the fact that most of us haven’t come in terms with the simple reality of ‘who we are?” in order to answer the former, “why am I here on earth?” It makes sense to know who I am first before I address issues surrounding the larger me; questions that require me to define myself in the context of my existence on earth. Who am I? I am everything I think I am. I am the very essence of what I create in my mind about myself. The thoughts I think, second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year – makes me who I am. Have you ever looked back in your life and realized that nothing much has really changed? I often look back, and what I see does not surprise me, because I see the same me over and over again. Though it does not suprise me, it does however cause great disappointment in my heart toward myself, as to who I really am. I whisper to myself, “Life is meant to be progressive, and yet, here I am, not changing for the better. What has caused my stagnation? Why am I not becoming what I really want to become?” In the midst of all these questions, come an answer… clear, simple, and powerful – “YOU HAVE NOT CHANGED BECAUSE YOU HAVE NOT THOUGHT OTHERWISE.” My thoughts have re-created the same me over and over again. The secret to changing me then, is to changing my thinking about myself. I have to learn to embrace the art of thinking about myself in a different way – I have to re-conceptualize the ideas that I have about myself, about my present, and about where I want to head in life. Hence, the meaning of existence is as unique as myself; as I re-invent and re-define “who I am,” I would find myself gaining a clearer understanding of “why I am here on earth.”

Educational Leadership: Focusing on Teachers!

For the past 5 years, I have been training ‘would-be’ teachers, and as my blog articles clearly reflect, I did much to equip students with knowledge and skills of ‘affective teaching’ practices to help children learn to the maximum. I equally emphasized the need to hold children responsible for their own learning by providing positive and stimulating learning environment (I like to think of teachers as ‘designers’ of learning environments) – most of all, I kept encouraging these would-be teachers to focus on building a community of learners who would love to think (creatively and critically).

Now, as a school administrator, I am required to play a different role. My initial thoughts were that I need to conceptualize and plan out ways to improve students’ learning. In a way I was right to do this. A school is only as good as the performance of its students. To have more students perform well academically would also help the school get more new students interested in joining and eventually increase enrollment. But just when I was pre-occupied with these notions, I realized that I needed to re-focus and channel my energies somewhere else. I had the right intention, but I was going too fast – I was going ahead of everyone else. I needed to get back to the basics and lay a strong foundation, before I could even think about strengthening students’ achievement level.

This realization caught me by surprise, but I also knew that it makes sense to think of the whole situation from a different perspective.

Teachers – Yes! I need to focus on the teachers. If teachers are happy in the school; if they feel good about working in the school; if they feel personally connected to the school, its philosophy and mission, its leaders, colleagues, students, parents – the school would be a much better place – safe, positive, and supportive of excellent learning experiences.

I need to focus on the teachers. I need to make them feel special for being educators. I need to make them feel special being a part of the school and what it believes. I need to make them feel important and realize how their every word, behavior, thought, and feeling affects students for a lifetime. As I focus on the personal and professional development of my teachers, they would go all-out to become better teachers and effective designers of positive learning environments.

I used to encourage my would-be teachers to hold children responsible for their own learning. Now, I am going to hold my teachers responsible for their own excellence in teaching – to become more creative and innovative in their teaching. I will provide them with sufficient support, guidance, and appreciation. I will be there for them and constantly work on designing a positive working environment. When I do this, they will invariably strive to be the best they can be – they would become a great blessing to all the students in the school.

After all these years, I am still a designer – and I will continue to design educational environments that would help both teachers and students to grow as individuals and fulfill their potential.