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Teachers tend to be both helpers and problem solvers. In fact, if a random group of teachers were polled, my guess is that those might be the two most common traits found, as to be called to the classroom generally means you like to both help others and tackle major problems.

And being helpful and a problem-solver are generally positive traits for educators to have, but there is one moment where these mostly positive traits can become liabilities: when we sit down with students to give them feedback, either in person or on the page.

As I’ve discussed before, I’ve observed that when teachers give students feedback, they almost instantly enter let’s-fix-it! mode. Considering the sheer number of students we often have, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, but as Daniel Coyle shares in his book The Culture Code, there is a simple experiment out of the Harvard Business School that shows that maybe there is a slightly better mode to enter first, if only for four or five seconds, before entering fix-it mode. Here is how he introduces it:


SCENARIO 1: You are standing in the rain at a train station. A stranger approaches and and politely says, “Can I borrow your cell phone?”

SCENARIO 2: You are standing in the rain at a train station. A stranger approaches and and politely says, “I’m so sorry about the rain. Can I borrow your cell phone?”

QUESTION: To which stranger are you more likely to respond?

THE RESULT: The second scenario caused the response rate to jump 422%.


I’m so sorry about the rain–six words and a time investment of a few seconds–completely reshaped the result because, according to Dr. Gregory Walton of Stanford, little comments like that “signal a relationship,” which changes everything about how our brain responds to the request. Our amygdala–which houses both the machinery for risk detection and social connection–goes from fear (What if the stranger steals the phone?) to friend mode (she must really need the phone; I need to help!) and our behavior follows suit.

As teachers we know this already. We know that relationships matter and can completely reshape student behavior and mitigate the fear they often bring to our classrooms. Yet we have so many students and so often get caught up in fixing issues that we can easily forget for weeks or months to give the little signals and cues that are a huge part of building a relationship.

There are some interesting methods out there for ensuring that we don’t forget these little points of connection (see Dave Stuart Jr.’s Moments of Genuine Connection), but if Coyle shows us anything, it is that we need to prioritize these little signs. They are the small bricks that add up to build a much larger relationship, and having these relationships is incredibly important to our teaching.

In the same way that one does not need to let a stranger borrow his/her/their phone, students don’t need to closely listen to and internalize our feedback. It may have an impact on their grades if they disregard our responses too much, but much like it is easy to say no to a stranger, it is pretty easy to blow off teacher responses in the margins of a paper.

Relationships change this though. It grows very hard to ignore that teacher who you care about and who cares about you. That is why I always start every reading and writing conference and a huge number of written responses to writing with a purposeful, simple, and fast signal in the mode of I’m so sorry about the rain. Generally, I just go with what comes to me organically in the moment in the same way I would with a friend of family member. A smiling emoji on a paper, a compliment of a t-shirt with a band I like, or a question about the upcoming school play–these aren’t fancy, but that is all it often takes to cue the connection. And much like the phoneless people in the rain, I have found that after those small signals, the results tend to be far larger and more favorable for what I’m hoping to accomplish!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

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