Authenticity: Opening Your Heart
Your life experiences may well be your greatest asset in teaching character. Go ahead, wow them with an excellent presentation of "Dealing With Temptation." But until they sense that you are in the middle of this battle with them, don’t expect them to take it too seriously.
In getting anonymous evaluation from students, some say that they like my personal illustrations best. They don't want me to just teach an impersonal curriculum. They want to see my heart - to share the thrill of my victories and the agony of my defeats. Here are some ways I do it:
Distinguish Appropriate From Inappropriate Sharing
Authenticity doesn’t mean my life is an open book. Some chapters shouldn't be read by others. Total openness could harm anyone’s reputation. A good rule of thumb: don’t share anything you’d be uncomfortable with all the parents and staff knowing.
Other chapters are between you and your wife. Don’t share that family argument without the permission of your family. And don’t constantly tell funny stories that involve your kids if they would not appreciate it.
Share Your Weaknesses
When we begin teaching, we instinctively want to impress our students. "If they think I’m a sharp person, they will follow me." True, but only to a certain extent. No one wants to follow a total nerd. But many in your group will never acquire the body of a Greek god, the James Bond way with women, or a perfect SAT score. And many feel they are losers because of it. Even that successful athlete agonizes because he never meets his father’s expectations. Your popular cheerleader may privately agonize over her weight, dangerously teetering on the edge of anorexia nervosa.
Since most youth live in painful awareness of their shortcomings, they delight in knowing that you share some of their shortcomings, yet are still able to succeed in life. I often share my real and perceived shortcomings from my teen years, like that fateful day in 7th grade P.E. when we were instructed to see how many pull-ups we could do. With all eyes upon me, giving it my all, I managed to hang onto the bar without falling. Little, chubby Stevie gutted out exactly zero pull-ups. Most kids know how I felt. The vast majority are not the top athletes. Once they know I can identify, they want to listen to how I learned to handle my self-esteem, and how this experience led me to better diet and exercise. My struggles with academics (my poor memory made some classes very difficult), relationships (stood up the night of my first prom for another guy), and feelings of inadequacy are some of the most powerful tools I have for identifying with my students. In a very real sense, students find strength through our weaknesses. Relish in them. Don’t hide them. With my strengths I command their respect. With my weakness I win their hearts.
Have you heard any speakers who were transparent? How did their openness affect their impact? I recently heard a man speaking on contentment. It was a good message, but I felt a little detached. After all, here was a handsome, great communicator with the audience paying rapt attention. What did he know about real problems? But then he answered my unvoiced question by sharing about he and his wife’s unsuccessful struggle to have children. I agonized with him as he related their love for children, and commitment to family. Yet, they fought bitterness when they saw God giving children freely to undeserving, negligent parents, while passing them by.
His vulnerability reached out to me, gripped my throat, and sat me on the edge of my seat. I stayed on the edge the rest of his speech. National speaker David Ring challenges us to quit "belly-aching" by revealing the crippling effects of his childhood polio, and the emotional impact of his mother's death. A comedian relates by sharing his struggles with dyslexia and obesity. What weaknesses can you appropriately share with your youth?
Share Your Strengths
On the backdrop of our weaknesses, sharing strengths will less likely come across as arrogance. Against the background of our weaknesses, it’s not prideful to tell students how I disciplined myself to complete college and graduate school, overcame temptations that could have set me back, and made a good choice of friends. Is there a strength you could share in this week’s lesson?
Share Your Defeats and Victories
Don’t believe everything you read in current success literature: "Apply these six principles, and you will acquire abundant wealth, health, and friendships." Right. I often wonder what results that orphan growing up on the streets of Calcutta could expect by applying those principles. Real life consists of both successes and failures. As we know, the road to success is usually paved with failures. Let students know how you are learning to get up from a fall, dust yourself off, and keep plugging away.
One of my greatest compliments comes from those who tell me after a talk, "Thanks for showing me how to live it out." I think what they mean is that by sharing both my personal struggles and victories, they understood that life change was possible for ordinary people.
Copyright February, 2004, Legacy Educational Resources, All Rights Reserved.