The Most Valuable Things For Real-Life I Learned From Teaching


Part 1: The Importance of Framing

It seems unfair, especially for laconic introverted people (my favorite kind), but the attitude you use to present / convince / ask things is extremely important to how people respond to it. Even if you have the best, most brilliant – or necessary – ideas and plans, if you don’t use a little people-person enthusiasm, then nobody is going to listen to you or follow you. I know. People are stupid. But you’ve got to work with that.

For months, my students were convinced that I loved things like diagramming sentences and discussing the meter scheme of Shakespeare. I hate doing those things. But teenagers have a natural apathy and hatred of even the most interesting work, so if you don’t put on an Enthusiastic Persona, you have no chance in hell of getting them to do anything. Well, guess what? Grown-ups in the social and professional sphere are almost the same way.

If you walk up to someone and say (in a depressing monotone), “Well, bad news, Bill. Looks like auto emissions are gonna kill us all unless we switch to lamer, weaker-powered cars. May as well do it now before we destroy the whole environment,” Bill is not going to be motivated to follow your suggestion. You could just as easily say, “Great news, Bill! Auto companies are finally joining the wave of the future, making exciting electric and hybrid powered new cars! Personally, I really like the technology on these things – for example…” Et cetera, et cetera.

You’ve got to sell your shit. Yes, even in situations where you aren’t even really that excited, and people should be willing to put in hard work because it’s for their own good in the first place! (That’s what being a teacher is). Of course we wish the general public was knowledgeable and rational enough to act for what’s right and productive no matter how you framed it, but hell no, man, people are morons.

For example, I had a conversation with a friend months ago about how profit-motivated science-deniers like the groups that argue against the fact of global climate change have these great P.R. departments that use showmanship, politics, psychological incentives, and straight-out boldfaced lies to convince people. Yes, it’s awful, and people shouldn’t fall for it. But as a soldier for the side of right, you can either sit there sour-faced and complain ruefully while the world burns up into dust around us, or you can fight fire with fire! If the bad guys have convincing presentations and positive framing on their side, then so should we.

Positivity is the most important part of framing, along with momentum. Compliment people! Smile! Use humor, use energy. Of course, you should try to stay somewhere that’s still genuine to your personality – if you’re acting fake even to yourself, no one is going to buy it either. But even just being conscious about the language you’re using, to keep things positive, can make a big difference.

Sandwich negative comments you have to make to others. For example, I had to make a lot of phone calls home to failing students. But it’s depressing and not motivating to just say, “Hey, Ms. So-and-so, your son currently has an 18% grade average in the class, and he set his desk on fire yesterday.”

I always tried to find something good to say first (the top of the sandwich), then the negative, then an optimistic action plan at the end (bottom of the sandwich). So it became: “Ms. So-and-so, I really appreciate your son’s high energy level in class (some students I really had to think hard to find a positive). Unfortunately, he’s not been reaching his potential with quality of work – his percentage is only 18%, and I know he can do better! We also need to work on avoiding arson. Something I think we can do in the future is see me after class for missing work every day, and leave the matches at home! Ha ha! Great talking to you!”

Appear confident too. People can smell uncertainty and fear, and not only does it make them less likely to believe what you’re saying, it makes them less likely to trust you in general. The New Yorker had an article this week on research that shows people are more likely to believe TV pundits who sound really sure and bold, no matter how ridiculous and inaccurate they are. Sure, the ones that express uncertainty are smarter and more reliable and more right, but no one listens to them. People are idiots. You must work with this.

If you’re on the side of smart and good, speak with confidence. Logistically, this means short, direct statements at good volume. Avoid rambling. Avoid ums and uhs and tangents. Do not claim to know things you don’t know or are unsure about – that makes you one of the bad guys – but do focus on the things you are sure about.

You’ve got to sell your shit. Now let’s go do some good out there.


9 thoughts on “The Most Valuable Things For Real-Life I Learned From Teaching

  1. I agree with your idea of the importance of presentation (use positive language, avoid negativity when possible, display confidence in your message). However, I’ve always found it easiest to “sell my shit” when I believe in what I’m selling. Realizing the importance of your lessons, whether it’s diagramming sentences or poetic meter, is an important asset of the educator. Believe in your discipline. Otherwise, it contributes to the ineffectiveness of the lessons, and all of this advice becomes so much window dressing. A teacher should realize that students, whether you believe they are all morons, are capable of elevating themselves to a point where they are no longer moronic. A lesson has little validity if the facilitator doesn’t believe in the lesson or the recipient.

    • Haha, you’re right, scottguffey, but you missed a major element of this blog post: it’s not about teaching students but about transferring teacher skills to other situations, such as social and professional speaking and writing with other adults in the public at large. It isn’t students I’m calling stypid (they’re just kids), but the theoretical general population you would be trying to convince of something important (like the validity of global warming).

      As an additional note, I love and have always loved literature, which is why I became a teacher (and am a Master’s student in literature now). Stories and language change our lives, touch our souls, and make us feel the fabric of what connects us. That does not mean you love every individual detail of the discipline’s work. Diagramming sentences is really fucking boring, and Shakespeare was a dickweed.

  2. Totally agree about how important it is to have people skills! I work with elementary school students, and they are just like tiny adults — or is it that adults are giant children? Anyway, I have really been able to develop my ability to sell ideas this past year and convince children to try positive framing when they approach new or distasteful tasks. Sometimes for them it just comes down to being flexible, but they sometimes need a trusted authority figure to encourage the process. I also couldn’t agree more with your statement about being confident, especially around kids. They can definitely smell fear and uncertainty. It really makes a difference to put a positive spin on your teaching persona, and it demonstrates to your students that optimism is an active choice. Have you been teaching long, and do you plan to make a career of it?

    • Thanks for your feedback, Georgann! I was a teacher for 3 years, but I’m not anymore. Nevertheless, I think these skills apply to all kinds of interactions and businesses and goals, and they can make all the difference. I hope your elementary kids appreciate your hard work and effort!

  3. Makes me think about Alec Baldwin’s “Always be closing” speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. Well put. This is something I struggled with in my internship and ultimately why I chose another career path-I found that I didn’t have enough passion for the material, not to mention enough patience with my students, to be the kind of teacher I needed to be.

Holla back, girl

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