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5 Things I've Learned about People from Teaching Them

Updated: Aug 11, 2019

Every profession provides a unique point of view into the human experience. My mother, who spent her career as a business owner in the food service industry, will tell you that people are at their most critical, and least polite, when food is involved. My dad, who spent his career curing animals, will tell you the anxieties of the owners are often more threatening than the disease of the pet.

My profession gives me a front row seat to adult learners. This is different than just being around people in the wild--like at Sunday brunch or the Genius Bar. When adults are engaged in learning they are more vulnerable, more emotionally charged, and often, more honest. In the last decade of teaching, I've come to recognize some characteristics in people that have brought me closer to understanding human nature.

Specifically, here are 5 things I've learned:

1) It's not you.

One night, a usually engaged student was quieter than normal. The next week she wouldn't speak up during a class discussion. By the third week, she didn't even open her book. She just sat with her arms crossed, glaring at me.

Had I done something to offend her? Was she upset about the topics we were discussing? Was she not feeling challenged enough? On it went for a few weeks, her seemingly upset and me feeling the only possible reason was because of something I did in class. By the fourth week, she hung back after class to talk to me. She wanted to tell me the specifics of some personal concerns she was facing. Said she could hardly focus at work or at school and wanted to apologize to me for being so distracted in class.

I think it's easy to interpret people's actions as a reflection of us. Maybe a friend's text was short, so you wonder if she is pissed at you, only to later find out she dropped her phone in the toilet mid-response. Or sometimes when my husband is really quiet over dinner and I ask: "Are you mad at me?" And his response is: "Why would I be? I just have a headache."

The lesson I keep learning over and over is: It's not me. I mean, sometimes it is, of course. But I've come to learn none of us have that much power in anyone's life.

2) You shouldn't work harder than them.

A common--and perhaps the best--piece of advice college instructors are given is that you shouldn't work harder than your students. In my first year of teaching, I threw that advice out the window because, well, screw you! I can and will work harder than anyone!

But really, I've calmed down. And I'm here to tell you: you shouldn't work harder than your students. I had pushed back on this advice because it sounded like it was asking me to slack off. But it's not. It's simply an excellent point about how work must be divided. And how you can't expect someone to rise up if you're doing everything for them.

And that's true in nearly every type of relationship. You can't be working harder than your partner or things get out of balance and then someone yells something nasty like, "Do you even know where we keep the vacuum?!" The goal is to find balance between you and the other person--whether it's a student, a spouse, or a friend. Only put effort in where you can get effort out.

3) Where you sit matters.

Some students want to be on the front row; some prefer to be in the back. But wherever they choose to sit, they often stay in that spot the entire semester. Beyond that, who people sit by will almost always stay the same, too; even if the classroom changes, people like to sit by the same people. Instructors will tell you that if you sit on the front row, our eyes will never meet yours because we naturally look further out into the room. My habit is to also look down the center of the room, often neglecting to look at students on the far left and right. I'll warn them of this on the first night of class, perhaps that's even why they choose to sit there. But on the instances when a student comes in late, and his chair on the far side is taken and he has to take a center seat, there's a shift in the dynamics between us. I'm suddenly looking at him and he's feeling pressure to be more engaged than usual.

This may seem small, but the point is, we become products of our routines. We reflect off those around us. Our opinions and points of view take on the lens of where--and with whom--we sit. If you aren't getting noticed, or you're feeling a bit stuck in the same thoughts, or those around you aren't helping to challenge you, consider a different seat.

4) People want to do well--but you have to show them how.

One thing that has become painfully obvious to me is that people like tight boundaries. They don't think they do--they will argue they don't--but they want them as tight and clear as you can get them.

In my first few years of teaching I would keep the assignments pretty vague. The parameters were pretty much: your paper must have pages, be about a topic, and contain words! Students would squirm--half of them wondering what my expectations were, the other half overwhelmed by the broadness of the assignment.

What I came to understand is that, without exception, every single student--whether creative types or strict rule followers--loves very explicit parameters. When I started to give much more detailed descriptions of the assignments--twenty pages, use 10 outside sources, 7 must be from peer-reviewed journals; choose a local example to highlight; don't even think about Comic Sans--that's when everyone really thrived. Everyone finds a way to put their own spin on it. Some students will use super creative titles. Others write with a humorous tone. Still others search for the most obscure references for an interesting perspective.

I think about this a lot with relationships. One of the reasons my marriage to Jim has been a satisfying one is because we are incredibly clear about what we need from each other. There are very strong guidelines--not just the usual relationship stuff, but the specific things I need from him and he needs from me. For example, I need constant back rubs. He, in turn, needs periodic breaks from giving back rubs. The clearer we are to our partners, kids, friends, and dry cleaners about what we expect and need, the more likely those people are to meet--and often exceed--our expectations.

5) People will take everything you give, but they rarely ask for what you don't offer.

In my early years I would always check in on the students' progress toward an assignment. I'd ask, "Are you feeling you have enough time to complete it, or do we need to revisit the due date?" I'm not kidding. I said those words out loud. Guess what? We were always revisiting the due date. Then I would get so frustrated and complain to my husband after class: "I can't get over how much they beg for a different due date." To which he would innocently respond, "Sure, but did you offer it to them?"

People will take every inch of what you give them. Your time, your energy, your Halloween candy. But rare is the case that people ask of you what you don't offer.

So I changed my policy and I no longer offer wiggle room on due dates. I post the assignment, give students a hard deadline, and I make it very clear that the date is non-negotiable. (Yes, my upcoming book is called Everything Is Negotiable--available for pre-order now!--but that's beside the point.) In the last six years of doing that, nary a student has asked for the due date to be pushed back.

Being at the front of the classroom doesn't mean I'm done being a student. I still have more to learn about the academic field, the art of teaching, and human nature.

But for me, people are worth understanding, and teaching is worth perfecting.

Even if neither is possible, it's worth continuing my studies.


Everything Is Negotiable drops December 4. Pre-order now!

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