Empowering or Stifling Voice?

I woke up one morning not feeling the best, after receiving a message about something that needed to be dealt with for work that was a bad surprise.  After that, I had some more bad news, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. Everyone has complications from work.

Then I finished off a blog post I had been working on and posted it.  Within a few minutes, I had received a private message from someone criticizing my use of a wrong word.  To the point where they said they could go no further on my post regarding discussing the “basics” of education. It was pointing out a mistake that had stopped them from reading any more of what I had to share.

But this is not what I want to focus on.  I want to focus on the second message that I had received that was also telling me about an error that I had made in my post.

Another educator reached out to me, shared how powerful the post was and the following comment:

After reading your article, I have a greater understanding about the importance of change and how we, as educators must adapt our teaching curriculum and strategies to this rapidly changing society.

They then went on to mention that I had mixed up “our” with “are” in the post.  In both cases, I went to fix my error, but which one do you think inspired me to continue writing?  This is not the first time I have received these types of messages, and I know it will not be the last.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate feedback; I do tremendously.  I don’t mind people criticizing my work, especially my ideas.  It pushes me to get better. It is the tone and delivery of feedback that means more to me though.  I have people that are always there to support me who literally go onto my blog and fix errors of mine. Not because I pay them or I compelled them to do so, but because they want to help.

When I posted about this on Facebook, a former student of mine (who was probably smarter than me when he was a student and is still showing brilliance to this day) posted this comment:

I often wonder how much of the spelling errors actually bother the person reading them, and how often they are using it as an excuse to “look smarter” than someone else. Quite the ego boost to criticize someone publicly (For someone who doesn’t understand how they are affecting someone else’s eagerness to speak up).
Your purpose might be to help someone to get better, but if they don’t know that intent, does it matter? Are you doing it from a place of helping me get better, or from a place of showing superiority? If your delivery makes me tune out, does your message matter?

The amount of spelling and grammatical mistakes I make in this blog are probably astronomical, or at least more than I am comfortable with. But here is the thing; I actually like writing. I also like writing for an audience. If I go a few days without writing. I feel like my brain is going to explode and it is a good way for me to release my thoughts in the world.  Some people go to the beach to relax, but I blog. This love of writing is something that no teacher could get me to feel. I hated the process of writing in school and it wasn’t until I was in my mid 30’s that I actually started to enjoy the practice. When I think about my own education as a student, the same amount of criticism on things that seemed to be simply nitpicking, kind of killed my love of writing, and sometimes even learning in general.

All this being said, I still do not see myself as a “writer”. I see myself an educator that writes.  I do not see myself an expert in anything, but a learner.  I think that is one of the powerful things about blogging in the first place.  People that were not writers were able to share their ideas with others in their respective professions, as well as give a glimpse to outsiders as well.  Many “non-educator” friends of mine have shared their appreciation for my work, and in turn, have taken some of my ideas and applied it to their own context.  You now have insights from people that before blogging existed, you didn’t receive.  Their writing may not have been perfect, but the ideas were out there.

And what does writing for an audience do? According to Clive Thompson, it can make you smarter:

You can see this audience effect even in small children. In one of my favorite experiments, a group of Vanderbilt University researchers in 2008 published a study in which several dozen 4- and 5-year-olds were shown patterns of colored bugs and asked to predict which would be next in the sequence. In one group, the children simply repeated the puzzle answers into a tape recorder. In a second group, they were asked to record an explanation of how they were solving each puzzle. And in the third group, the kids had an audience: They had to explain their reasoning to their mothers, who sat near them, listening but not offering any help. Then each group was given patterns that were more complicated and harder to predict.

The results? The children who didn’t explain their thinking performed worst. The ones who recorded their explanations did better—the mere act of articulating their thinking process aloud seemed to help them identify the patterns more clearly. But the ones who were talking to a meaningful audience—Mom—did best of all. When presented with the more complicated puzzles, on average they solved more than the kids who’d explained to themselves and about twice as many as the ones who’d simply repeated their answers.

Personally, I think a lot more about what I write when it is public than I did before.  In the same article, Thompson states the following:

Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face areal audience, you have to be truly convincing.

The process of writing has proven to me over and over again that it helps me truly think about why I do what I do, along with the how and the what.  The process is vulnerable, yet deep.  It is why I am a firm believer as this space as one of reflection; a place to look back so that I can move forward.

After completing my first book, “The Innovator’s Mindset“, people were saying very kind words about the book, but also challenging or asking me about the ideas shared.  I wanted the book to be a conversation, not a “formula” so I was grateful for the conversations that still continue from the book. Yet one comment within the first few weeks of its release from an educator was this; “You spelled Carly Rae Jepsen wrong.”  That was it. No congratulations, no challenging of ideas, just a pointing out of an error. I asked, “Is that all you got out of the book?”, and I am not sure that I ever received an answer. To be honest, I didn’t care much after what they had to say.  Did their comment help or hurt? Maybe both? I fixed the error in the book, but it felt more like a “gotcha” moment than anything.  This was not out of a lack of trying to make the book as perfect as possible.  With a couple of editors reading it over a few times, as well as myself, we missed it over and over again.  I think there are some great ideas in the book that could tremendously help schools, but if that one thing held you back from learning from the book, who lost out in the end and for what reason?

Here is something I think about often…my parents, both immigrants to Canada, are two of the best learners that I have ever met in my life.  My mom went to school until grade six, and my dad until grade two. I often think if they were such amazing learners because it wasn’t schooled out of them. They didn’t spend so many of their developmental years being told where they were constantly wrong and weren’t scared of making mistakes through the process the way a lot of adults are to this day.  Again, feedback is helpful, but delivery is crucial.

Recently I started to read, “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie (I would suggest that every educator and administrator read this book), where he states the following:

By criticizing, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment.

Is this to help me get better, or to show you are better?  Again, perception is crucial.

In Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor“, she shares how “guidance” is crucial to helping people grow, but there are two elements that are crucial;

There are two dimensions to good guidance: care personally and challenge directly.

It is also important to note that I have been guilty of criticizing without showing caring.  People that I work with on an ongoing basis know that I can be direct and harsh at some points, but they also know that it is from a place of getting them better.  Yet sometimes, they need the reminder and I cross a line where they believe it is criticism for the sake of criticism.  I am trying to get better in so many facets of my life but I fail often.

One person that has become one of my closest colleagues is someone that I criticized sharply on social media, only to have dinner with them that evening.  It was embarrassing to myself as I know that my words hurt the person, although my belief was it would help them.  Sure they might have learned from it, but when I saw them for dinner that night and met them for the first time and I could tell I had a negative impact on their day, I forever changed how I used social media.  It was a nice little reminder that there is always a person on the other side of the screen, and I now do everything I can to ask questions first, and challenge later.

#seekfirsttounderstand

A few months ago, I had noticed that an awesome educator who I have known for awhile, was criticizing the grammar of a “well-known blogger” and I challenged them saying something to the effect of, “When you say this, so many people reading your comment do not want to share their ideas because they watch how easy it is to get criticized for something so little. You do not want to shut down their voice.” After our conversation, she totally got my point and eventually wrote a post about it.

I am by no means perfect and certainly make mistakes from time to time like everyone else. But in this particular blog post the error, to me, was so obvious that I couldn’t help myself.  I have been a teacher of literacy for 24 years.  The last 15 of them have been as an English teacher in a middle school.  With that being said, there are certain things that drive me crazy.  Grammar is one of them. To be clear, I did not call that blogger out by name nor did I post my comment directly on the blogger’s social media feed. Trust me, in retrospect, if I could do it all over I would have kept my mouth shut.  I took some serious heat for my sarcasm albeit my comment opened the door to a healthy discussion about how being critical stifles others from having a voice.

She then saw how this came back around to her when she had felt her voice was being shut down at an EdCamp:

Every time I opened my mouth to say something it was met with a snarky comment, laughter, or simply dismissed.  I have to be honest, after the first two times, I didn’t think much of it.  I just attributed it to a tight-knit group of people and I wasn’t part of their crew.  But as it happened two more times I began to wonder that something was really going on here.  In the end, I still don’t really know what that was all about or where the motivation came from to treat a fellow EdCamper in that manner.  But what I can say with certainty is that I did not like how that experience made me feel.

But it did also occur to me that I may just be on the receiving end of what I put out into the universe a few months back. I was attempting to share my thoughts and ideas and they were met with sarcasm and snickering. The more I thought about it the more I just couldn’t help but see the parallel between what I said about that blogger and what happened to me yesterday in that session.  By commenting on that blogger’s grammatical error instead of focusing on the content of the post it was no different than what these guys did to me.  I clearly began to shut down in the session, thought twice before sharing anything, and took the first opportunity I could to leave and move on to a different room.

I commended her for her humanness and vulnerability in the post, and sharing her learning and growth. Isn’t this why so many educators are blogging? To share their own development, growth, ideas, and to share their own thoughts?

This post was so powerful to me because we are all on a journey. As soon as you think you know it all is the second you are falling behind.

We are in a time where education is seeming to be under continuous attack.  We need educators to feel empowered to share their voice, not stifled.

To be honest, a spelling error here and a grammatical issue are not things that will hold me back from continuing to blog, but if I would have been crapped on for little mistakes when I first started writing, I don’t know if I would have continued.  As somewhat of an established blogger, I actually sometimes like if I have the occasional error because it models to others that no matter the size of your audience, continue to share your message and your ideas, even if you make mistakes.  I read blogs so that I can find inspiration from others, not to see if you have correctly used “their, there, or they’re”.

William Chamberlain wrote this comment on my Facebook post; “It’s easier to correct others’ writing than it is to write.”  Faige Mueller, an awesome educator wrote this on my Facebook post:

I keep coming back to read comments made here. I’ve connected to some of these “bloggers” on Twitter. Hitting that publish button on my blog doesn’t come easy. Unkind, critical individuals would make it so much harder, when there are so many better ways to make a comment

The thought of an educator with so many stories to share, and who is so positive to so many others, being nervous to hit “publish”, made my heart sink.

Bill Simmons, a very popular sports analyst, writer, and media personality, shared this comment in a podcast and it has always stuck out to me:

The biggest muscles in the world are Internet muscles.

You never know what is going on the other side of the screen so always remember that your comment could either lift someone up or tear someone down.  Lifting someone up doesn’t mean “don’t criticize”; it means help them get better from a place of caring, not superiority.  We can all get better on how we interact with one another (myself included) and we can all help each other get better as well.

“Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof when your own doorstep is unclean.” Confucius

This post is not meant to criticize anyone other than myself.  I have been guilty of what I write about more than I am comfortable with.  It is to offer a different perspective and hopefully help people think about what they share with others, and how they share it.  We are all learning together, but one of the hardest things to learn in this space is that what might be a five-second comment to one person, might destroy someone’s day (or longer).  I always try my best to err on the side of the positive, but I fail often and want to get better.  I am writing this as a reminder to myself more than anything.

I truly believe education as a whole is better off when we seek to learn from others and realize that the best people educators can learn from are other educators. When I am done with my career, I hope that I have done more to inspire educators and students alike to share their voice, not stifle it.  There is not one educator I know that wouldn’t want the same.

Feedback so that we can grow is important but always remember that delivery matters.

Please excuse any errors or typos in this post :) 

Source: George Couros

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