Speak Truth to Bullshit; Be Civil

In the last post, we discussed the fact that an imbalance in the approaches used by the three adult connections in a student’s life can cause difficulties including student anxiety and fear of failure, entitlement, or other issues. For example, permissive parents and coaches can make a student feel entitled, making learning from an authoritative teacher difficult; on the contrary, the opposite scenario can result in a crippling fear of failure on the part of the student.

Obviously getting the three adult connections in a student’s life to be on the same page is a positive step in creating a strong educative approach; however, it is only half of the story! What is the approach itself, and how does that affect the educative outcome?

The old, authoritative approach of yesteryear, which caused many modern parents to take the permissive approach seen commonly in contemporary parenting, was effective in certain respects but apparently left permanent damage on the psyche of many people (as evidenced by the modern trend toward permissiveness). On the flip side, the permissive approach, exemplified by so many parents wanting ‘to be friends’ with their kids now is clearly not working (I have written about this extensively, and Leonard Sax’s work referenced below certainly catalogs more evidence).

The obvious answer, then, is that the right mix of parental authority is somewhere in-between the two extremes – an Assertive approach. However, I think the reality of the world presents far too many situations in which this ‘answer’ leaves us befuddled as to the most effective path forward in teaching and parenting – there are just SO MANY nuances and exceptions that we must wade through, confused and stumbling along the way.

“It’s like there’s no good way to win,” my wife said one night, deep into a discussion of my struggles with the poor choices and actions of some students. And the truth is: it can certainly feel that way sometimes. However, as parents and teachers, the job we signed up for is inherently one of nuance, subtlety, and route-finding; the joy of the pursuit is in the pursuit itself! So I’d like to at once celebrate the messiness of the whole thing, and provide examples of successes from my team that will highlight a few techniques (other than being actively invested in the route-finding process) that have helped us navigate these muddy waters.

Let’s start with an example. A student of mine that I’ve developed a good relationship over the years came in the other day and was acting (get ready for a subjective statement) like a little brat. I called her out on it, and she told me that I didn’t know what it was that she had been going through. At that moment I could have been totally authoritarian and told her that I didn’t care what she was going through, she would straighten up or be disciplined.

‘True!,’ I told her instead, and gave her permission to lay it on me. She said she had broken up with her boyfriend who was terrible for x, y, and z reasons and it was affecting her. That momentary chance for me to listen to her and do my best to empathize combined with our pre-existing mutual understanding probably would have been enough already for me to launch into my analysis, but I went an extra step. I responded “can I take a moment to make fun of you?” She looked annoyed, but also cracked a smile, and gave me permission. I proceeded to point out how funny the adolescent condition is: three weeks ago she had been telling me about how amazing this boyfriend was, and how he had changed her worldview. Now, she hated him. And that wasn’t to just make fun of her (although that was quite fun, I said), but also to celebrate that growing up is a beautiful process of messing stuff up and learning from it. With every failed relationship, we learn more about what it is that we’re actually looking for, and it’s funny that despite that fact, we don’t stop and laugh at ourselves for taking those mistakes so seriously!

The point is that I’ve had this same interaction go a very different way (because of my actions and responses) with different students: I’ve tried just listening to them and empathizing and demonizing the ex, and I’ve tried telling them they are being a stupid adolescent (in nicer terms) and to get over it. The approach described above feels better than both of those options, and for a while it was hard for me to draw out the key features of it.

The first feature, of course, is to develop some sort of a working relationship with kids to begin with – to earn their respect and trust. The second feature is to spend some time listening. I’m not saying you have to only listen – just that it helps with trust as well as an emotional calming if you do listen for at least a little while. Thirdly, ask for permission to – fourth – speak truth to bullshit while staying civil. Asking permission should be done with total acceptance of the fact that the answer might be ‘no.’ You may also ask permission (as I did) to ‘make fun,’ or it may be simply to ‘give advice.’ Speaking truth to bullshit while staying civil is a gem from the fabulous mind of Brene Brown. The final step is to be consistent with this practice – kids adapt to what adults teach them, and as discussed in the last post, kids haven’t changed over the years… it’s the adults and environment that have changed. Kids are just adapting to the way we interact with them, and this takes time and consistency.

Speaking truth to bullshit while staying civil is inherently not an authoritative approach, so perhaps the ‘three authorities’ metaphor can now be discarded. However, it is also important in this approach to recognize and verbalize that our kids and students are not our friends; we are not seeking their momentary approval, we are seeking their long-term perspective expansion. Because they are kids, they haven’t learned the difference between pleasure and enjoyment, the benefits of delayed gratification, or the transience of emotions; so they will get mad at us, or pouty, or anxious or depressed. That’s OK. The consequence (if there is one in this case) still stands.

The first key feature of the approach is to not try to avoid uncomfortable moments. You also aren’t seeking them out, but you are just being real with them when they come up. Quick disclaimer: being a meditator can really help you to stay calm in some of the especially tough situations. Secondly, because we are trying to speak truth to bullshit, we really have to do our best to be educating ourselves to the truth of human psychology and emotions – you no longer get a free pass to be ‘just a math teacher,’ or ‘just a parent’ – you need to be a psychologist, with your ‘antennae’ always out, searching for the previously unseen component of a student’s inner life. Finally, and this is key, you need to be civil. As Brene puts it, this is the part that makes her want to scream, because it’s a paradox; but that “only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life,” as Carl Jung said. Because we are consciously telling ourselves to call out actions or behaviors that are BS rather than avoiding them because it’s uncomfortable, it feels sometimes as if we are on the offensive, trying to make sure our point is heard and correct. In our current political atmosphere, the model for this type of action is to yell louder; whether you submit to that line of logic or not, it can influence our subconscious. So being civil means staying calm and appealing to reason. The reason, as educators and parents, we are calling out BS is because we love a student and want them to continue to push themselves to be better people. The reason the student is spewing BS is because of a misguided belief that it will get them something they want easier. When we think in these terms, we can start to be civil by celebrating our common humanity – “I’m calling you out on this because I’ve been there, and even though it seems like a strategy that will get you what you want more easily, it turns out to not do so. It’s easier to put in the hard work now and reap the well-earned benefits later. I know this because I am a lazy person by nature, and it’s really screwed me a lot of times. I love you and don’t want you to go through the same things I’ve gone through. I know, however, that me just saying that doesn’t mean much… and that’s why you’re getting [x, y, and z consequence].”

The thing that’s cool about this approach is that most rationally-thinking individuals will ‘get it’ and recognize that the consequence is fair and needed for them to overcome their brain’s learned habit toward this unproductive tendency to bullshit themselves. Those who don’t (typically students who have been allowed to manipulate adults to get their way their whole lives), you don’t need to sermonize to… you just need to be consistent with the consequence. With time, they will adapt, begin to understand, and become better people for it.

The other cool thing about this approach is that we no longer need to be ‘spin-artists’ as teachers when talking to parents. We can use this approach with parents to begin to unite The Three Adults. I mean, let’s be real: How many of us go into parent-teacher conferences and know exactly how to spin a topic so that we can avoid uncomfortable conversations? How many of us take the tactic “if your student just does [x, y, and z] and finishes all their missing work, they will be back on track!” when the truth of the problem is that the student needs once-a-week drug testing, because his outside-the-classroom habits are interfering with his in-school productivity? Or, on a less dire note, they just need to understand that yes, they can actually learn from a textbook or instructional website (like Khan) and don’t exclusively need one-on-one tutoring to have success.

Speaking of that, let me share just a few examples of (hopefully) speaking truth to bullshit while staying civil.

The first one is long. The other day, I gave my juniors a quiz (I call them Check-Ins) that – per usual – contained only questions that came directly from the homework or classwork. No surprises on this one! The scores followed the same pattern that they have followed for the last couple of weeks; rather than exhibiting a Normal Distribution of scores, they looked like a camel’s back. Either students scored in the range of 90-100%, or they scored very low (10-50%). Having had all of the resources they could have possibly needed to study for the quiz, I decided (the next class) to give a blank copy of the quiz as an open-note, open-resource (book), open-internet quiz – they were simply not allowed to work with a friend. Then, I said I would not regulate the classroom like I would normally do with a quiz, instead I would take the students who got 90-100% and begin to teach them the next topic. Of course, most of the student’s re-taking both wanted their previous quizzes back so that they could only have to do the ones they got wrong, and secondly began working with a friend anyway, copying answers over so that they could turn in what they believed to be a chance to make-up credit. I asked them to answer in short response format this question for homework:

I am hoping for an honest reflection here. The reason I wanted to give you a chance to look again at your Check-In’s from Friday was NOT to just ‘give you a chance to get your grade up’ by talking with a neighbor and writing down the right answer. It was to give you a chance to practice Tenacity in Pursuit. WHY did I not know how to do that problem, WHERE could I find an example problem like it, HOW could I understand an example problem from the book (because it certainly won’t be from just reading it over), etc.
So, if you didn’t do very well on the first time taking the check-in, I think it is safe to say objectively that you are struggling with getting good practice out of the resources you have around you. I consider this to be an important skill – use this as an example: seniors are taking financial literacy right now. They are struggling with online quizzes where they are supposed to find out the answers before submitting by Googling them, reading a book, etc. These are real-world decisions, and the answers ARE online, but you do have to do some digging! The digging seems to be the challenge.
So the question is this: did you gain skills in ‘digging’ by reviewing your quiz and going through your resources, or did you use the time in another way (whether by spending some portion of it messing around or by asking your friends for help rather than seeking the answers from your resources and your own brain)?

One student wrote a response (quoted below) that I had to speak truth to, and I felt that I was able to do it both assertively, while remaining civil:

Hey Jack,

I just wanted to check in with you about your response to my question about the check-in review: “I find it very challenging by learning from book examples and notes. It doesn’t work for me. I need one on one help where some one can give me a visual lesson of a step by step process of what needs to be done.”

We can certainly discuss more in person, but I wanted to write immediately because this sort of a mindset will most certainly limit you both academically, and in life. To put it totally bluntly, this line of thinking is just plain wrong. I’m not saying it’s easy to learn from a text or your notes or Khan Academy; quite the opposite! It takes work! A lot of work! However, I can say that in my own life, many miserable hours spent deciphering cryptic visual, step-by-step examples given in texts have allowed me to very quickly and efficiently find the information I want to research in my current life. On the contrary, Seniors are currently getting terrible scores on financial literacy quizzes for which I tell them to look up the answers on Google because – I realize – I’ve never asked them to go through the challenging process of learning how to learn from text-based resources!

Take, for example, what one classmate wrote: “The reason I decided not to simply get help from peers (or copy off of them) was specifically to follow a philosophy I recently read about in a book I bought a few days ago called, “The 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos,” by Psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson. The rule I was deliberately pursuing was rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful, (not what is expedient) which, to summarize, is setting your future self up for an easier time by managing your current responsibilities and desires effectively.
This means (in the given context) that researching the problems in the check-in and their respective topics is much more difficult to the expedient-minded person than just getting the answers, but will ultimately benefit oneself more greatly through the experience not only in the mathematical subjects, but in more general-use skills like problem solving and focused researching.”
In your case, the same is true – I know it feels good to work with a tutor one-on-one, getting all of the answers right on the first try and getting stopped if you go down a wrong path. But the brain learns from mistakes as much as it does from repetition of the correct process. It learns from putting effort into things, not time. By the brain’s way of thinking, it goes “Oh, I’m putting a lot of energy into this thing, it must be important.” It doesn’t do that simply with time spent on a subject, working with someone.

The point is that it takes work; it takes commitment and frustration, and that I wouldn’t be spending my personal time writing this email right now if I didn’t think that you, specifically, weren’t beyond capable of rising to any challenge presented to you. You can do this. To do so, you will need to commit to the process and recognize where the buck stops: here. Should you choose to take it, you have the world at your fingertips.

See you tomorrow,
mmm

As a second example, it’s important to keep in mind that the bullshit doesn’t just spring from nowhere: it gets developed as a mechanism early on. Last week, I was standing in the hall talking to our Art Teacher, Michelle, after school when an adorable 2nd- or 3rd-grade girl walked up to Michelle and showed her a mask. She said “Michelle! This is the mask I wanted to show you!” The girl’s mother trailed behind and smiled. Michelle said the mask was super cool, but what none of us said was that it was clearly not finished – there were blotches of paint that looked like they might – with a few more hours of work – exhibit a cool pattern. The girl – perhaps sensing this – said “I would have finished it – I really wanted to – but we ran out of paint.” The girl’s mother said “Oh, honey, if you want to finish it we’ll stop at Michael’s on the way home and get more paint!”

“Oh, well, no that’s fine, I don’t really want to work on it any more,” replied the girl. I’m SO SO sorry to say this, but that’s bullshit, and one of us should have called it out right there. If she didn’t want to actually put the work in to finish it, then don’t walk around bullshitting yourself that you do want to finish it! I know this is just a little girl, but this is where it starts, and translates to my high school classes! It’s not like kids have always grown up in a protective bubble with no consequences for not finishing work – a young girl in 1800 being raised on a farm sure as heck didn’t leave the barn half-cleaned! But our bullshitting of ourselves into thinking that just because the task doesn’t have a real consequence, there will not be a real effect later in life if we allow tasks to go unfinished, or purpose to be missing from work, or if we don’t speak truth to bullshit is hurting our kids, disabling them from becoming fulfilled adults. And I will end there – the first bullshitter that we need to speak truth to is ourselves.

PS – here is an actual email that a parent of mine sent to her daughter. How truthful and awesome!

Allison,

Would you like to answer Lindsay’s question regarding how you studied? I did not see ANY evidence of studying for that quiz happening at home…did I miss something? Here’s the deal Allison, the ball is in your court. We have offered support, brought in resources and offered to help in any and every way under the sun.

We believe that you are better than this. We believe that you are an incredibly smart young woman who is capable of far more than what you are showing us with low grades and low effort.

At this point we all need to see you “show up” for your classes, assignments, quizzes and tests. Showing up means far more than simply being physically present and going through the motions. Dad and I need to see action and not words and that is on you. We are exhausted and disappointed by your choice to only do the bare minimum with studying and turning in assignments.

Let me be clear, you have a family who loves you, a solid support system, and resources at your fingertips…more if you can articulate specific additional areas in which you need help. It is your choice whether to take this seriously, whether to make the most of these resources, or not.

Advice from Dad and I, even if you listen to nothing else we ever say….PLEASE don’t do something (or not do something) that will limit your choices in the future.

Mom and Dad

Resources:
Brown, Brene. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups : the three things you must do to help your child or teen become a fulfilled adult. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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