Bring Your Whole Self

Tonya Henderson

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For Educators

This one is for anyone who has multiple jobs— the adjunct faculty member who rushes from a day job to teach night school, the corporate trainer who helps big ideas jump out of the pages of books and onto the factory floor, the guy who spends his days in the company of 5th graders, and for the mom or dad who finds himself or herself faced with a room full of six year olds eager to learn a skill.

I have spent the last few years doing an eclectic mixture of teaching, corporate training, speaking, and consulting. I’ve given technical briefings, taught yoga, and wrestled with MBA students doing challenging simulations. Each time I take on something that seems new and different as an educator/speaker/leader/writer, I am struck by the ways that the lines blur between contexts. The Den Mother’s ability to shift gears and keep kids interested, the yogi’s composure while talking people through challenging postures, the professor’s detailed preparation… these things build upon one another to create a unique experience for our students. Yet the most important part, what makes you stand out in the memory of your students (or not) is how you personally tie your life experiences and learning together to create an impactful learning experience.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Charlie Seashore’s discussions of what he called “self-as-instrument” (Seashore, Shawver et al. 2004). When we step to the front of the classroom, a boardroom, or a gymnasium, we are creating an experience for everyone in the room.

If I give a lecture and the only thing my students get is a great napping opportunity, I have missed the mark. At the other end of the spectrum, we love that feeling of “getting through to someone,” filling up that person’s tool box with ideas, inspiration, and skills that benefit them and ultimately everyone on their path. How do we do that? How do we, as educators of all kinds, leverage our own unique selves to create meaningful student experiences? Here are three simple tips, tiny seeds of impact that can grow into mighty oaks with practice.

1) OVER-Preparation: There is little worse than stepping to the front of the room unprepared. Doing so cheats our students out of a meaningful experience and destroys our credibility. If it’s a topic that is new to you or if your knowledge is dated, be sure to do your homework. This includes knowing your audience too. Otherwise you risk telling people what they already know, or worse, communicate in terms that are meaningless to the audience. Try to know a whole lot more than what you present on every topic. That way you will be great at fielding questions and have chosen the very most important parts of the topic to talk about. There is no such thing as overkill when it comes to preparation!

2) Self-awareness: Take a little time to get to know yourself and check in before you enter the classroom. This is where Dr. Seashore’s wisdom kicks in. Know your strengths and weaknesses and work to improve all the time. Be authentic. Admit to having limitations when it is appropriate without being overly apologetic. Make time to notice your own physical and emotional state before the students arrive.

3) Fun: Have an ice-breaker. Crack a joke. Turn that lecture you had planned into a conversation about the topic. Students learn best when they are awake, engaged, and involved in the process.

So how about you? What unique strengths and experiences do YOU bring to the classroom? Are your students getting the very best you have to offer them?

References: Seashore, C., et al. (2004). “Doing good by knowing who you are: the instrumental self as an agent of change.” OD Practitioner 36(3): 42-46.

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