Choose your stories carefully – inspire or expire!

Teachers who share their own life stories with students find a special way into the hearts and minds of their pupils. Such stories bridge the mental and emotional gaps between the teacher and his/her students, making teaching/learning highly engaging.

However, teachers need to be selective of the kind of stories they share. There are times when teachers spontaneously recollect and share a personal story – this is an exception, and may not happen all the time. Otherwise, teachers need to be deliberate in their choice of stories shared in the classroom, during lessons.

There are two types of stories that teachers usually share with students. One is highly recommended and significantly impact students’ attitude toward learning and consequently, academic achievement. The other, is to be avoided at all costs.

Inspiring stories

The first kind of stories, which I call inspiring personal stories, is deeply appreciated by students. Students don’t get tired listening to them. They feel positively challenged when their teachers share this type of stories. The main feature of these stories is that they do not focus on the teacher per se. Instead, they point toward important life lessons that students could use as their own guide – be it at school, work or home.

Another characteristic of this kind of stories is that they are genuine. The teacher shares them without modifying any element of the story, even if it paints a not-so-rosy picture of him/herself. The teacher is not hesitant to share these stories because of the inherent inspirational value in them. Examples:

  1. How I chose college major?
  2. What did I do to pay for tuition?
  3. My first ‘F’ grade
  4. What my friends taught me about failing in love
  5. Peer pressure and how it affected me
  6. My favorite subject and why
  7. How I found out that looks are indeed deceiving
  8. Wrong choices and their consequences
  9. My favorite teacher and why
  10. My favorite cartoon character and why
  11. My favorite book and why, etc.

While the themes of the above-mentioned stories seem to be pointing to the teacher, in reality, they do not. The stories are only a means to an end – the aim of the stories is not to glorify the teacher and his/her life experiences; rather, they are meant to serve as lessons that would better students’ own choices and consequently, quality of life, even at the cost of admitting that teachers are humans who constantly undergo ups-and-downs.

Look-at-how-good-I-am stories

The second type of stories, which students get bored of hearing, are what I call, Look-at-how-good-I-am stories. These stories are meant to glorify the teacher, with no apparent, values-based lessons for students. They are often told to kill time and to show off, consequently creating a wider rift between the teacher and students.

Some students wonder why their teachers share such stories as they serve neither instructional purpose, nor entertain them. Often, these stories tend to repeat themselves over and over again until students know exactly what the teacher was going to say even before he/she re-tells the whole story. Psychological analysis would reveal that such stories do a good job in covering up for the teacher’s lack of honesty toward him/herself. They paint a good picture of the teacher – however students neither believe in them, nor take them seriously as they are incoherent from what they see in their teacher in reality. Examples:

  1. My pet dog and how nice, expensive and cute it is
  2. How many maids I have at home
  3. I got promotion and increase in salary
  4. My classmates are not doing as well as I am
  5. Why I was liked by my teachers
  6. My family background
  7. I had dinner with a VIP last night
  8. Why the headmaster thinks I am better than other teachers
  9. How I lost weight and am in shape
  10. My niece is Miss World 2010

One common feature among all of the above-mentioned themes is that they have no clear educational value for students – in other words, they are vain. They may be great stories, but they are not going to help bridge the mental and emotional gap between the teacher and students. As a matter of fact, they may do the opposite, very effectively.

Students do not appreciate teachers who hide behind a façade and pretend that they are infallible. Their stories and subsequent behaviors hint that they are the best role models for students. While teachers need to be role models, they should not promote themselves to be one. Students need to decide for themselves whether or not a teacher is worthy to be emulated. Hence, the most a teacher could do is to point out to other role models around them and encourage students to emulate those individual(s). In the process of doing so, many students, out of sincere appreciation for their teacher, would start emulating him/her.

Telling personal stories is important, and has its own value. However, the choice of stories shared determines the outcome. An inspirational story creates a positive classroom climate, motivates students to set greater goals and propels them to move in the direction of active learning.

On the other hand, the Look-at-how-good-I-am story serves no educational purpose and could be deemed as ineffective use of instructional time. While the former set of stories inspires students, the latter inevitably accelerates teachers’ expiry. (Note: teacher’s expiry may connote ‘becoming an unapproachable and ineffective’ teacher.)

Do you listen enough?

One of the key ingredients for success in career during adulthood is the ability to manage relationships. Many adults, while having had the privilege of schooling, pursuing higher education and eventually graduating with flying colors, take a while and encounter a few falls before they accomplish something of significance. There is a definite reason for this.

Taught not to listen

Our current system of education was conceived during the time of industrial revolution. The industrial era required people to focus on production and output-related performance. As such, human relationship and the dynamics therein were not a priority. Consequently, educational institutions in the past and present focus almost exclusively on teaching people academic subjects in an attempt to prepare them for a specific workplace role. There was/is a lack of emphasis on developing students’ people-skills in almost every school and university.

While this trend is slowly changing in response to the new world order (information boom, social networking, tribal leadership, people power, etc.), it is far from gone. One would be shocked to see that many schools continue to operate on the basis of an educational philosophy founded in the 19th century factory-era.

However, since times have changed, societal values have changed as well. The 21st century rewards people who generate ideas and create movements of people around these ideas. The 21st century is an era where the only way to succeed is to effectively harness and manage people via appropriate networking tools, be it virtual or physical. As such, there is no denying or understating the importance of establishing and sustaining meaningful interpersonal and professional relationships if one is to achieve his/her life goals.

Re-visiting Listening

Listening is one the most crucial elements required for relationships to work. Listening facilitates and consolidates understanding of people and their inner workings through messages manifested in behavior, thought patterns and emotional responses. Without fully understanding people, it is difficult to handle the complexities involved in relationships. Unfortunately, most people do not know this, hence hardly practice the same.

In general, people are more comfortable talking than listening. For many, listening is a specialized skill reserved for people in the counseling profession. As a matter of fact, universities with counseling major offer semester-long classes on the subject of Active Listening, as if this is an exclusive skill needed only by counselors or those in the helping profession.

The lack of ability in listening in day-to-day life is also due to parents’ lack of modeling of such a behavior. How many of us can look back and proudly say that “my father and mother actively listened to everything I had to share with them back then” or “I was listened to by my teachers at school”?

Most of us were not listened to at school because teachers modeled talking more than listening (can’t really blame them because they were paid to talk, not listen). The same took place at home. Like teachers, parents told us a great number of things (mostly to do with what they expect from us and how they want us to behave to make them proud), and did very little to model the most important act in the process of relationship building.

In retrospect, it would have been absurd for parents to sit down and take time to listen to their children. The society would have punished them for doing this. Thus, people grew up believing that they need to talk their way through people and situations to succeed.

Listening: Success factor!

Contrary to this notion, tones of recent research indicate that a successful person is an emotionally intelligent individual, who’s got a realistic grasp of the fact that listening is the key to uncovering the secrets of understanding others and engaging in healthy relationships. An emotionally intelligent individual actively listens to gain deep, comprehensive understanding of people. He is effective in managing relationships because he truly understands people, instead of dealing with them at superficial, mechanical level.

Implications

All these have practical implications for teachers and parents living today! Without doubt, many of us still struggle to turn the table around and do what our teachers and parents did not do, i.e., LISTEN. I personally believe that children/students are the most misunderstood people on earth because they are simply not listened to. But by not listening to them, we are not being effective role models.

Emotional intelligence could be inculcated early in life, starting from home, continuing at school and maturing at workplace. All of relationships are founded on one’s willingness and ability to understand others. As such, there is no better way to mastering the art of forging and managing relationships than to learn how to engage in active listening through real-life examples set by teachers and parents on a daily basis.

How to?

While it may not come automatically, effective listening could be learned and utilized in a progressive manner. Some of the points to consider while listening to children/students are:

  • Pay attention by looking at the person you are listening to (maintain eye-contact)
  • Leave/drop everything else and focus on listening to the person talking to you
  • Listen to the feelings that accompany the words (message)
  • Show sincere involvement and interest in what the other person is talking about
  • From time to time, restate (in a summary form) what the other person just shared with you; e.g., “you are saying that you are angry at him because he didn’t show up for the meeting.” (note: here, the listener is restating both the message and the feeling without passing any judgmental comment)
  • If needed, ask clarification questions; e.g., “let me check if I understand you correctly…”
  • Be constantly aware and in control of your own feelings and opinions – listening is about understanding the other person, not advocating for your own ideals and feelings!
  • If you have to share your input or views, say them only after you have listened to everything that the person had to say
  • Most importantly, constantly remember that listening increases understanding of the other person’s thoughts, feelings and rationale for behaving in a certain manner – hence the time spent in listening strengthens relationships in the long-run