You’re Fired!
Week Six: The Other Right Questions

Oh, the humanity! Up until the point she took on the role of leader, Tara was such a great leader. “Tara had been a great team player. She was respectful of her teammates and willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.” said Tim Knapp, CEO of Nextant Systems. “Then, she made a 180o shift. It became all about her.” What happened? Why did she go down in flames?

Tara was a victim of her perceptions. Many of us believe that a leader is a boss. It is our perception that if we’re put in charge we’re expected to have all the answers, all the talents and all the vision. The non-boss exists to do what they’re told by the boss. Sound familiar? While most of us know that we aren’t omnipotent, when put in charge, we tend to panic and act the part while hoping that no one sees through us.

Who’s Telling Stories About You?

Are you sitting there comfortably now, laughing at those who think they’re “large and in charge”? Are you ready to share your stories of the boss, parent, spouse, project leader or teacher? Oops! You’ve been in one or more of those roles before haven’t you? Could it be that someone’s telling stories about you?

Whether it’s refusing to ask for directions in a strange town or pretending you’re familiar with the music of that new band named after a dead donut, we’ve all been uncomfortable admitting our lack of knowledge at some point. Our perception of what’s expected of us in various roles is created early in life. The role of leader is first played by parents and teachers. Their comfort with asking questions and their response to being asked questions, colors our perceptions. They are our role models.

The Best Teachers CUSS

Marc Changnon, Education to Careers Coordinator for Champaign Unit 4 High Schools regularly asks his students what the difference is between teachers we remember and ones we totally forget. The answer is always the same. They follow the CUSS principle. Changnon defines CUSS as Care, UnderStand and Serve. Changnon says it’s important to “Care about students. Listen to them. Try to understand them and always be there to help them find their way.”

Changnon identifies Ann Webbink, a Math teacher at Centennial High School, as one of those teachers. “She takes the time to show the students each new skill. She lets them practice it and corrects them where necessary. They don’t move on until the students understand the new skill.”

Learning is about the students and not the teacher. In a traditional class you might hear a discussion of how much material has to be covered in a certain time. While it’s true that teachers are regularly handed schedules that are unrealistic, it’s also true that administrators and parents would prefer that students learn the material rather than simply be shown the material.

One of the ways to help students learn is to make the tasks relevant. This means moving from “Why do we have to learn this?” to “I want to learn this so that I can accomplish a goal.” In his project-based internship class, Changnon introduces students to professionals in the careers in which they students are interested. “Sure the counselors and teachers may have told a student they need calculus if they want to be an electrician or psychology if they want to be an emergency room doctor. It’s not until they hear it from an electrician or emergency room doctor that they believe it. Then they want the knowledge and that’s when learning happens.”

Consider the experience of Alex and Team Magna. They had absolutely no experience with “the mean streets of New York” which should have put them at a tremendous disadvantage. However, Alex used this to his benefit. With no expectation that Team Magna should have the pulse of the neighborhood and with an intense interest in learning, Alex was comfortable asking questions. Without a bit of ego, Alex asked the target audience what his team should include in their graffiti.

Keep Asking

Tara was the opposite. She was certain she alone knew what was best. It didn’t occur to her to question her assumptions. In fact she began to create her graffiti even before she met with the client. “It’s all about the client” says Knapp. “Interview them; don’t lecture.” The same advice applies to teachers. The best consider the needs and interests of students when creating their lessons. Simply knowing what skills and information you want to convey is not enough. You also have to choose the teaching technique that will do the job most effectively. Changnon points to Centennial teachers Jason Franklin and Jill McLean as great examples. “They use project-based learning to really bring the information home to the students. McLean’s physics lessons include making a car out of a soda can and learning to float cardboard boats.” Students have the opportunity to work and learn together. They ask questions of each other, build on each other’s knowledge and are comfortable experimenting until they get the result they’re after.

Tara’s biggest mistake was failing to use all her resources to look for the other right answers. Tara, we’re sorry to see you go, but, “You’re fired.”

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