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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Shear Professionalism

I missed writing and posting my usual Monday Morning article. Yesterday was shearing day on our ranch. We sheared our ten alpacas. I would like to introduce you to our terrific shearing lady and her team: Gabrielle Seilier and http://Sheardiligence.com. I first met Gabrielle in 2012, when I called in a panic to have my animals sheared. As many of you recall, spring 2012 was a very hectic time for me, with the Artisan Quartet's travel to NYC and performance in Carnegie Hall and my end-of-semester recital and activities at the university. I have often sheared my animals in early June, as my school schedule finally permitted me some free time. Last year, however, when I called my former shearer, I found out that she had moved to another city. She referred me to Gabrielle, and when I called Gabrielle, I was told that the season had already ended. Yikes! Because, as my Texan friends know, it gets very, very hot here from about June onwards, and my animals were wearing their full fleece coats. Alpaca fleece is much warmer than wool, so I was in deep doo-doo at that point.

Gabrielle managed to galvanize her team into action, and they came out within the week. Accustomed to helping my previous shearer with animal restraint, general health duties (toenail and teeth trimming), and bagging the shorn fleece, I was surprised when I was rendered unnecessary. Gabrielle had a team that performed all these functions and then some. I watched in great satisfaction as Gabrielle and her personable crew members handled each animal carefully and kindly, minimizing the stress to each animal. The crew provided a complete setup; they provided all the necessary supplies to get the job done. They performed all the functions involved in shearing: the animal restraint, the shearing, the bagging, the toenails, the teeth trimming, and even the cleanup. They did not need any help from me! They even provided their own drinks. They cleaned up after themselves with brooms and soapy water.

While the crew cleaned up their "footprint," Gabrielle wrote out an itemized invoice. I signed the appropriate disclaimers. Everything was as Gabrielle had previously represented to me over the phone. I tipped the group handsomely because I was very grateful for their willingness to work in one more ranch in the "off season" and because I was quite impressed with their work with my animals. Before they departed, Gabrielle asked me if I wanted to be included in their usual roster of regular clients when she began scheduling the 2013 shearing calendar. I quickly agreed to be added to Gabrielle's client list.

And so ends my story from 2012. This year, Gabrielle contacted me in mid-February to confirm that I still wanted to be included on her shearing schedule. After I confirmed, Gabi promised to give me a shearing date in four days. On the fourth day, she wrote to tell me that she was unable to give me a firm date yet because she was waiting for others to respond to her. I asked her for a general time frame, and I added some input about the dates she was considering (some days are better for me with a teaching schedule than other days). From that list, we were able to settle on a good day for both of us.

Shearing day was yesterday, April 29, and all went smoothly. As my husband and I watched Gabi and her crew working, we were again amazed at the professionalism that Gabi and her crew brought to the job. And that is what I would like to discuss today -- how to bring professionalism to the job.

When my stepson first began saxophone lessons while he was in middle school, my husband, the retired band director, researched teachers. We followed through on a strong recommendation and found a good teacher for my stepson. At the first meeting, the sax teacher provided us with a folder of information about him and the studio. I was so impressed with the effort put into this initial first impression. The folder included a biography of the teacher, written studio policies, and other helpful information for students who were beginning lessons with this teacher. I walked away from that first meeting with a strong, favorable impression of this teacher.

Both my shearing lady and my stepson's saxophone teacher shared something in common. They both brought a strong professional attitude to their jobs. Not only did I walk away with a good first impression of them as people and professionals, I also walked away from our first encounters with an assurance in my mind that both would do good quality work.

What is "professionalism"? Professionalism is a positive attitude towards the profession. Professionalism is approaching the job (and the profession) with the kind of attitude that promotes the individual as a professional and honors the profession itself. Professionalism can be said to be an attitude of service then, as the individual approaches work with the attitude of serving others and the profession.

In the case of the saxophone teacher, his professional attitude meant that he promoted himself as someone who was organized, prepared, and mindful of the needs of the parents who would be bringing their children to his studio. He prepared written materials that would answer most of the questions that parents would have about music lessons for their children. His written materials also gave parents the reassurance that their children's teacher would be prepared for lessons and would do a good job.

In the case of my shearing lady, Gabrielle, and her crew, we can take away many lessons about professionalism. Here are a few general lessons that I learned about professionalism:

  • Be willing to do what it takes to help. Do not be so quick to say "sorry, I can't help you. You should have called sooner." Keep an attitude of "can-do" rather than "won't-do."
  • Be prepared with the supplies that you need.
  • Be friendly and personable. Show that you care about the people you interact with. Each person has something important to share with you, so be open to that exchange. Be pleasant and kind in your conversation. Answer questions and address concerns.
  • Clean up after yourself. As hikers to National Forests recite, "pack in, pack out," which refers to the need to clean up after yourself. If you make trash, take it with you. Cleaning up after yourself not only refers to physical things. Cleaning up after yourself can also refer to relationships and apologizing for problems or conflict that you caused.
  • Be positive about your job. Avoid complaints. Despite the obvious hard work of shearing, the crew never complained about the weather, the heat, the inconvenient location on my ranch for shearing, the difficult access to my ranch, or my inability to have everything perfectly ready for the shearing crew's arrival (alpacas can be finicky about being penned up; one of my girls actually pushed a gate off its hinges!).
  • Offer more service and information than the client expects. Sometimes clients do not even know what they need. Be sure to provide information about services. This type of information will reassure a client that you care and are interested in providing for the client's needs. I did not realize that my shearing lady would be able to trim teeth or toenails until she told me. I was used to a former shearer who relied on me to perform those functions. I also did not realize that my shearing lady could help me to give vaccination shots to my animals. I am so thankful that Gabi took the time to talk to me and inform me about their services.
  • Be organized. Maintain the paperwork that you need to run a business well. Set up a record-keeping system that will keep track of payments and scheduling. A good system will reassure clients that you are in command of the details about the business.
  • Treat others with respect and kindness. More than any other quality, I want to stress this last one as the most important. As I watched Gabi and her crew work, I recognized that they treated my animals carefully and with respect. They minimized the stress to the animals with gentle and safe handling. Gabi also treated my husband and me with respect when she addressed our questions and concerns. I highly respected Gabi and her wonderful crew. They were polite and pleasant to us.

Professionalism as an attitude is not a difficult thing to cultivate. As you can see from the short list above, there are merely a few ingredients that go into being professional. As teachers, we interact daily with parents and students, and sometimes even with other professionals. How we present ourselves as teachers and our business as teaching professionals depends on our attitude about ourselves and our profession and business as well as our attitude toward the people who come to us for our service. Let us be careful to present the kind of attitude that will promote ourselves, our business, and our profession. Let us strive to be good examples of our profession.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday morning Check In

It is spring, and that means that it is time to shear the alpacas! We have ten: 5 girls and 5 boys, I am at the mercy of the shearing lady's schedule, and this Monday morning was the date she selected. I will not be posting an article today, so I apologize. Maybe the shearing activities will prompt me to write about an idea that relates shearing to teaching?


Shearing: culling out the driftwood.

How alpacas relate to teaching.

Lighten up!

I'll keep my mind open to the possibilities.

Write to you soon,


Paula Bird

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Show Some Respect

Today I want to talk about respect. This is such a difficult concept for many people to understand, perhaps because we do not respect ourselves.

What is respect anyway? Respect is generally defined as a deep admiration for someone because of the person's achievements, abilities, or qualities. Merriam-Webster offers "high or special regard." Respect is then something that we feel for another. However, I believe that nowadays we think of respect as something that we offer toward another. There are several different kinds of respect that I believe we should come to expect in certain situations because of the situation itself and the type of authority that is being used.

Situational Authority. This type of authority is when someone is in charge and the others are expected to listen to instructions and directions. This type of authority occurs in a hierarchical organization, such as our country's government. It also occurs with police officers, teachers, doctors, and parents. This is the authority that comes to someone who is rightfully higher up the "chain of command."  In these types of situations, the person who is in the "lower" position is expected to obey any directions or instructions that the person in charge gives. The person in the "lower" position is expected to show respect to the person with the situational authority by following the given instructions, directions, or orders.

Assumed authority. This is the type of authority that someone takes on because there is no clear delineation of who has the authority. This type of authority occurs when a group of folks get together as a committee or other organization for a purpose, and then someone steps forward to offer direction and the others follow willingly. We also see this type of authority when children are playing together. When one child tries to assume authority over another in a playtime situation, we might hear the other child say something like, "You're not the boss of me" or "You're not my mother." Stepmothers may also hear similar comments from their stepchildren. In assumed authority situations, we may or may not show respect to the person who has assumed the authority position, and so we may encounter problems in these situations.

Delegated Authority. This is the type of authority that the person who genuinely has the authority then delegates to another to act in his or her stead. For example, if a university gave orders to evacuate a building, the people who are ultimately in charge might delegate the authority to order people from the building to individuals who are much lower in the usual chain of command for that organization, e.g., secretaries, for the purpose of the emergency. Mothers may also understand this type authority as that which is given to babysitters. Parents delegate their authority to their children's school system.

The above definitions are my own based on my years of experience in the work place. I do not mean for these definitions to be comprehensive in any way or the definitive end to a discussion about other possible types of authority. My purpose in bringing up these three types of authority is to discuss what is appropriate respectful behavior in these types of situations.

I am a teacher first and foremost, and so much of what I do and think about is how to teach. As I am working to teach young people to grow into fine human beings, I think about concepts such as respect and authority a great deal. I observe our culture through social media, television, and movies, and generally when I am out and about in public in stores and church. I watch how others behave toward each other. I listen to how people treat each other, how parents and children interact with each other, and how people in general respond to the thoughts and actions of others.

Recently I taught a young student who was not having his best day. He walked into the studio with way too much excited energy. I had to spend several minutes calming him down to a place where we could have an effective learning situation. I cannot fault the parent for this, because this little boy is a little boy and that is a little boy tendency. Channeling all of the energy of little boys, especially during growth spurt periods, is quite a feat for parents, and this mom does a great job of finding outlets for the child's energy.

However, once we got going in the lesson, this little boy then behaved in very disrespectful ways toward me. He rolled his eyes when I asked him to do certain things. He crossed his eyes when he looked at me. He even went so far as to make a twirling hand gesture around his ear, which looked like someone saying blah-blah-blah or someone telling me to hurry-up-and-get-it-over-with-because-I'm-not-really-listening sort of gesture. I was stunned to see this child display such blatant, disrespectful behavior. His mother certainly never behaved that way toward me.

What I did next was crucial. I stopped teaching. I may have had my mouth open in surprise as well, because this was a pretty shocking behavior in my opinion. I could have limped along in the lesson and ignored the behavior, but what would I have been teaching the child? That it was okay to behave that way to a teacher or to me?

Sometimes I think that parents and teachers try to avoid negativity at all costs in order to keep the learning situation on a positive note. This could become a problem though in situations like this when the child is behaving completely inappropriately. There is another lesson to be taught here, and that lesson is that certain behaviors will not be ignored or rewarded. They will be addressed.

This little boy should have shown his teacher (who had the situational authority) respect by listening to instructions and then trying out those directions. He did not show me respect. I, however, have enough respect for myself, my expertise, and my experience to refuse to be treated in a disrespectful manner. Therefore, I stopped teaching. If the boy was not listening, then I was not going to continue.

My teaching situation is an example of situational authority. As the teacher, I am the person in charge of the learning situation. I give my students opportunities to be in control of some decisions so that I can help guide students' decision-making skills. This, however, was not an example of such a situation.

There are several paths to follow from this point forward. Which path would you have followed next? Please comment below about your personal experience and what you would have done.

I opted to turn to the mother and ask her whether her son treated her with that kind of disrespect. She answered yes. I then asked her what privileges her child would lose that day (hint, hint). In other words, what fun thing was he going to do that day that would not occur now? You see, this is where parents can get into trouble. If they continue with the day's activities as if nothing monumental had occurred, they are sending the message that the child can behave inappropriately with no consequences. The little boy's eyes got really wide at that point as he realized what was going on. We resumed the lesson shortly after my open discussion with the mother, and the rest of the lesson went really well.

I am of the school that believes that it is a privilege to take lessons. If a student abuses the privilege of being a student, then we should remove that privilege. I also think that the child is blessed with many other privileges, such as going to other activities, playing with friends, and going to parties. If a child abuses the privileges by showing disrespect to the adults who are providing those privileges, then I think that the privileges should be removed.

I recall one incident as a child when my mother took my sister and me to a restaurant. We were excited about going, because restaurants are fun -- lots of food choices and people to watch. We were so excited though that my sister and I misbehaved in the car. Mom made one attempt to settle us down. We made it as far as the restaurant parking lot. Still, my sister and I persisted in our behavior. So, my mom started the car back up and left the restaurant. I remember my sister and I looking at each other with shock. Of course we pleaded with her to change her mind. We promise we will be good, we told her. My mother, a teacher herself, did not buy into our promises and instead opted to reinforce the lesson that privileges would not be given when children behaved with disrespect. This was a powerful lesson at the time, as you can see, because this lesson still remains with me almost half a century later.

That lesson still remains with my sister as well. I recall calling her on the phone when her child was about age 9. I asked what my sister was doing at the time, and my sister said that she was pulled over to the side of the road and was balancing her checkbook. Huh? It seems that my sister's child had thrown a temper tantrum in the car, so my sister handled it by stopping and pulling over to the side of the road. My sister would not progress until her daughter stopped caterwauling. My sister and I then reminded each other of the restaurant incident of our own childhood.

In this current culture, children are exposed to examples of many disrespectful behaviors. Television shows typically portray extremely disrespectful behaviors between friends, family members, and co-workers as well as in many different situations, such as school, work, and home. Most of us adults probably understand the humor of such shows because we know better. However, I wonder sometimes whether children have the same understanding.

Just the other day I overheard a university student order a university professor to return a music stand to a particular room when the professor was done with the stand. At first I assumed that the student did not recognize the teacher as a professor (which would not have excused the inappropriate address but might explain the student's behavior), so I asked the student about this. I learned that the student did know that he was addressing a professor. This was an example of how a student did not understand what the appropriate behavior was. The student and I had a discussion about that. I walked away from the conversation wondering how the student came to believe that it was alright to address a professor in such an inappropriate manner.

Please give this subject some consideration and leave a comment about your own experience. Do your children or students show you respect? If they do not show the appropriate respect, how do you handle it? How would you have handled the teaching situation I described earlier with the young boy?

As we travel through this week, let us notice our own behavior towards others. Do we show the appropriate respect to the other people in our lives? Do we treat our spouses, our children, our students, our co-workers, our employers, our friends, and even strangers with respect? I submit that we should be mindful of the way that we behave toward others. Think how lovely the world would be if we all treated each other with respect.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Quick Practicing Tip: "Third Part" Day

I hereby declare today to be "Third Part" Day. For today's practice, focus on shoring up the third parts in the songs.

As a teacher, I am aware that the form of many of our songs is A-B-A, such as the theme of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. This means that the first part, the A part, is repeated again at the end of the song. In other words, A-B-A means that there are two distinct parts of the song. In most of the earlier songs in the Suzuki literature, the songs have four parts, and the parts generally follow a form of A-A1-B-A1 or, as in the case of Allegro, A-A-B-A.

Notice that the third part is the part that is least repeated when playing the song. In the case of Allegro, the A part is repeated three times and the B part merely once every time the student plays the song. This is also true in the songs Lightly Row or Long, Long Ago. Even if a song has three parts, the middle part is often the "third part" -- the part that is repeated the least often.

I frequently remind my students' home practice partners of the need to work on and repeat the "third part" of the songs because these are the parts that the students know the least well. During group class review, I frequently focus on these third parts.

So today I hereby declare to be "Third Part" Day. Look through the list of repertoire to be learned, practiced, or polished, and focus on those "Third Parts." Let the other parts go for today. Spend some time really kneading and massaging those third parts until they are as strongly learned as the other parts of the song.

Happy Practicing!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Hardening Off Process

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

When we first grow plants for our outdoor garden, there is a point when we need to prepare the plants for the conditions that the plants will face outside: wind, sun, rain, and temperature. In the beginning, we baby our plants to get them growing. Then we begin to expose the plants to outdoor conditions a little bit at a time. This exposure period will toughen the plants up so that they can better withstand the outdoor conditions that the plants will later face.

When raising baby chicks, there is a similar process. In the first week, chicks cannot regulate their body temperature because they do not have feathers at this point. We provide a heat source, such as a heat lamp or other light bulb, hanging over the brooder to provide warmth as the chicks grow. In weeks two and three, the feathers begin to grow in, and the chicks can regulate their own body temperature. At this point, we raise the heat lamp a few inches to lower the temperature in the brooder a few degrees, and the chicks learn to adjust to the slightly chillier space. This slight change of temperature will help the pin-feathers to form and the little chick bodies to grow healthier.

So too, there is a hardening process that a student needs to experience with a teacher. In the university setting, my applied violin students experience this hardening off period in the fourth semester, when a student prepares for the upper level review. The upper level exam at my university is a juried performance at the end of the sophomore year, when the string area faculty will determine whether the student has attained the level necessary to handle upper level courses. The upper level review also includes a look at the student's course work to determine whether the student is still on track to graduate on time. If a student is repeatedly flunking the first theory course, for example, then a student is not likely to pass the upper level review process. We cannot have seniors still working on freshman level coursework.

The upper level review is the first big hurdle that a music student faces, and there will be other hurdles that the student will encounter before finally completing the requirements for a university degree. At this point, I have worked with my student through four semesters. If all goes according to plan, I have corrected any technical issues: bow holds, left hand posture, intonation, and vibrato. If there are other important issues to address, such as rhythmic challenges or musicality, then I address those as well. Along with these corrections, I have added progressively more difficult challenges to grow the student's technical and musical ability.

I find that I need to work closely with my freshman and sophomore students to teach them how to be musicians. I address issues of how to practice productively and adequately. Some students need help getting up to an alarm clock or managing time for studying. Some students need stronger boots to the posterior to turn in homework on time or to show up to class. Each student presents a different set of challenges, and I look at my job as the teacher to come alongside the student and guide them through the minefield that is the university educational system.

In the fourth semester, however, it is time to harden off my students. At this point, the student needs to learn how to handle things without my close, personal involvement. I have led my student to this point, and now the student must show that the student has reached the level of maturity to handle the next step. I cannot do this step for them.

This is a difficult process for students. I have taken a few steps back in order to let the student experience the process without me. I am there, of course, to give advice and to make corrections, but mostly I am reflecting questions and discussions back to the student so that they learn how to make decisions and judgments without me.

This can be a difficult process for many students. Many students experience a sense of being abandoned, although that is far from the truth. I simply cannot offer those close, mothering type of platitudes any longer. I still offer words of wisdom, positive suggestions, new options or avenues of thought, and always questions and more questions. My students have reached the point of needing to reflect for themselves, consider the options and answers before them, and then to factor in the consequences of decisions. All of this takes place before making a decision.

Some students have a difficult time making decisions. These students wallow in the twilight zone that exists between posing the question "What do I want to do with my life?" and the answer "I want to be a teacher/performer/artist." When the sophomore year begins to be a bit difficult, compounded by the fact that the student is still on the uphill side of the degree path (there are at least 2 or more years left to go before graduation), these students find it difficult to complete the first step of setting a goal and then mapping out the steps to reach it. These students tend to escape the necessary lesson that comes from making decisions and following through on plans by flirting with a change in majors. Some of these students will change majors more than once in an effort to find that one career path where things will remain fun and easy to do. I try to advise these students to merely make a decision and stick with it. Sometimes the act of making a decision will reveal the students' real desire. I find that it is the fact that a decision needs to be made and is not being made that is most of the unsettling feeling that students experience. Just make a decision, and the real decision will usually reveal itself rather quickly.

Some students experience fear about the future. These students look ahead to the end of their university stint and wonder at how they will ever be able to actually go out in the world. These students cannot wrap their minds around the fact that they will be on their own, teaching in a public school, playing in a symphony orchestra, or performing whatever career path these students have chosen. I remind them that at this point they are not ready for that, but when they reach their senior year, they will be chomping at the bit to get out there and begin their lives.

Some students despair of ever reaching the end of the road and graduating. The road stretches so far. I recall this experience myself. As I looked ahead at where I was headed, the road seemed so long and tedious. I found it difficult to imagine myself ever reaching the end of it. This is a time when students may stop working hard. Practice routines suffer, other activities or interests attract students' attention, and perhaps a romance or two interferes with the students' work ethic. I monitor my students closely for signs of these problems, but I also recognize that sometimes students get pulled in these many directions as a means to escape the tedium of buckling down to finish the task at hand.

Mostly, the students are tired. The sophomore year is a hard one, when the students experience some of their busiest semesters of coursework. I seem to have more trouble finding lesson times for my sophomore students than for any other level of student. When students are tired, they tend to make poor decisions. They make poor choices.

This is a difficult process for students, but it is a necessary step toward maturity and adulthood. These same situations will occur when these students are part of the adult world. Students will feel alone at times in their adult lives. They will have difficulty making decisions. They will fear what the future might bring. Reaching some goals will take a long time (raising children, buying a house, paying off the credit card debt or house mortgage). And students will experience the exhaustion that comes from a busy, demanding adult life.

The time to learn how to dig deep and handle these lessons is best done during the pre-adult years, such as those in the university setting. I steer my students through this tough time with a hardening process. Similar to what my mama dogs did when raising their little pups, I wean my students from their dependence on me and teach them the life skills to be independent (or interdependent) and to make fruitful decisions.

As teachers, our role in our students' lives can be so much more than teaching our students how to play a musical instrument. We have opportunities to teach life skills that will serve our students for their entire lives. I urge teachers and parents to consider the value of the hardening off process.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Noisemakers and Upgrades

We have been having fun at my teaching studio this week. First, let me show you the tools we used:

The buzzer is from the game "Taboo." My family has never used the buzzer for the game because of its annoying sound. However, the buzzer is my students' most often requested noisemaker tool. I found the hotel-front-desk bell in an office supply store. The dog clicker is a training tool for dogs, and I purchased a lot of them from pet stores.

I have a young student with a sister who also takes lessons. During the young girl's lesson, I involved her mother and her sister in the fun of teaching. The young student was being inattentive and lax in her playing. Her bow kept bumping other strings, slipping off the bow highway, and generally making squeaky sounds. I wanted the student to be more careful about how she played and to become more aware of what she sounded like, so I devised a fun game. I pulled out the three tools you saw in the movie above. The sister took the buzzer (naturally, since this is the most fun tool!), the mother took the bell, and I took the dog clicker. Every time we heard the young girl make an inappropriate sound with her bow, we would buzz/ring/click. At first we did a lot of laughing when all three of the noisemakers happened at the same time. Other times, one of us would be more vigilant than the others. After about a minute though, there was no need to make any more noise, because the young student became more vigilant about the sounds she created with her violin and bow. She paid better attention to how she played, and she stopped squeaking, bumping, and sliding off the road. As a reward, the young student got to buzz/ring/click the tools. What a fun lesson that was!

In another recent lesson, I had a conversation between a father and his young boy, who is 10 years old going on 11. The father and I talked about how we might help the young boy to remember to take care of his violin and bow better so that the boy would not risk damaging either violin or bow. The boy has the habit of twirling his bow around his index finger. When the boy twirled his bow around his finger at the tip of the bow, I explained the danger of pulling out the plug that held the bow hair in place at the tip. When the boy twirled his bow around his finger at the frog, I related the story of one of my students whose twirling had gotten out of control and whose bow had gone sailing through the air and broken on landing. When the young boy touched his bow tip to the ground, I told him the story of another student who had done the same thing, lost his balance, and landed on the bow like a cane and snapped the bow in half. In other words, for each of the young boy's attempts at misusing the bow, I had a story to relate to show why the boy's actions were not a good idea. The boy persisted in misusing his bow and violin throughout his lesson.

At this point, if our efforts to discourage this behavior are unsuccessful, the parent and I begin charging the child a fine. Usually the fine is 10 cents; in some cases the child may need to work off the fine by doing chores. The purpose of charging the fine is to begin building up a savings account to replace the bow when it needs to be repaired or replaced due to the child's improper handling.

The parent of this young boy thought that the fine should be 25 cents since the boy was about to turn 11. The parent explained to me that he and the boy's mother had been discussing how the boy's chore responsibilities might change now that the child was older. Here is how the conversation then continued between the boy and his father:

Boy: "If you're going to upgrade my chores, then you need to upgrade my pay for the chores."

There were a few beats of silence.

Father: "Do you get good food at home?"
Boy: "Yes."
Father: "Do you have a nice home to live in?"
Boy: "Yes."
Father: "Is the house an upgrade from the house we lived in last year?"
Boy: "Yes."
Father: "Do you have a bigger yard to play in?"
Boy: "Yes."
Father: "Do you have a nice creek to play in?"
Boy: "Yes."
Father: "Do you have a little forest area to roam in?"
Boy: "Yes."
Father: "That's your upgrade in pay."

Beautiful! I almost fell out of my chair with laughter. This is a parent that I admire!

Happy Practicing!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Do Your Best

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

Recently I found myself listening to someone tell me why he had failed to meet a particular set of requirements to finish his degree program. During our conversation, the young man said something like, "I didn't realize that everything would just depend on this one thing." My response at the time was, "Really? You didn't realize that this was a possibility that you might have to meet this requirement?"

My next thought was to assume that what the person said to me was true, that he had not realized that everything would hinge on meeting one requirement. So my next question was, "Would you have done anything differently if you had known?" I actually did not want the person to answer that question, because if he were to come up with something that he could have done, then that meant that the he was not doing the best work that he could do.

When I was a fledgling teacher, I observed a difficult group class that was led by the fine teacher, Vicki Vorreiter. I say that the class was difficult because there was one child in the group who displayed many inappropriate behaviors. As I watched this child in action, I noticed how infectious the child's disruptive behavior was to the rest of the group class members. I could almost see the energy of disruption spread outward from the source point of this one child.

Vicki found casual ways to be close to the child during the course of her class activities. Every time she was working with this child, she would follow up their encounter with, "Do your best." At some point, her suggestion to "do your best" became the question, "is this the best that you can do?" I saw the child respond each time in a positive way to these reminders, even if the change lasted for just a few minutes. It struck me that this seemingly little expectation was important as it reminded the child to rise to the occasion.

"Do your best" does not mean that we will be perfect in everything that we do. The phrase instead suggests that wherever we are at the moment, we should do the best that we are capable of doing. We should not be turning in less than what we are capable of doing. We should not settle for mediocrity, a C+, or just getting by. We should strive to give the utmost that we are able to give.

What keeps us from doing our best? I suggest the following things will interfere with our ability to turn in our best work, and therefore, I believe we should diligently keep a lookout for these interferences. Many of these things are related to each other, so by addressing one item, we may have a positive effect on other areas as well.

Sleep Deprivation. We do not perform well when we are physically or mentally tired. The human body needs adequate rest in order to function optimally. Although sleep needs vary across the populations, the research definitely supports the fact that we all need sleep in order to be alert and healthy.

Stress. We do not perform well on a long term basis if we perform continually under stressful conditions. Although we may need to function on occasion under pressure-cooker circumstances, if we have a steady diet of stress and problems, our work product will ultimately suffer. Stress is also related to health problems, so it is important to structure our lifestyles in ways that will minimize the amount of stress that we encounter. For more information about stress and handling it, read some of these previous articles:

Time. Many of us set ourselves the task of doing more than our time will allow us to adequately handle. Closely related to stress, our time or lack of it will cause us to feel pressure to perform under less than optimum conditions. I find that regularly reviewing my calendar and my priorities will help to eliminate overscheduling problems and the stress that comes from taking on too many activities and responsibilities for the amount of time that I actually have.

Poor Health Habits. By now, we are all aware that obesity is one of biggest problems that face us in the world. I struggle with these issues too, as I am sure most of us do. Many of our problems stem from our making poor health habit decisions or from our creating obesogenic environments, in which poor health habit decisions are easy to make. Adequate nutrition will give us energy to sustain physical and mental effort. We will look and feel better. Regular exercise will keep our heart and lungs healthy, aid our efforts to maintain optimum weight, reduce our stress, and enhance our moods. Getting adequate rest would also fall into this category.

Attitude. Overall, I think that our attitude and approach to life have the biggest impact on our ability to do our best. Attitude also colors our thinking about each of the areas discussed above. Probably the most important thing that we can focus on in order to build our ability to do our best would be to address our attitude. Here are some examples of attitudes that would adversely impact our ability and desire to do our best.

  • Mediocrity. Let us revisit the discussion I had with the young man. He revealed his attitude to be that he would not have to give his best, and that he would be passed along with his giving less effort. I find this attitude to be prevalent in many folks, that somehow it is alright to give less than the most that we can and that others will or should cut us some slack or give us some leeway. This attitude expects others to be gracious and allow us the freedom to be less than we are capable of being.
  • Entitlement. This attitude reveals that the person expects others to provide, and in fact  that the person is entitled to receive something, whether the person has done the work to deserve it or not. When folks complain about the need for welfare reform, I believe that they may be complaining about this type of attitude. I bump into this attitude in the university classroom on occasion when a student expects a certain grade just for showing up to the class without anything more.
  • Negativity. A negative attitude includes complaining, whining, and being inappropriately critical. We have all had our share of complaints, but there may be some who have practiced the ability to complain to a high degree of skill. If you complain to the person who has the ability to address the complaint, then your complaint may be warranted. If you complain to someone who does not have the ability to address the problem, then you are suffering from a negative attitude problem. Whining is another form of making noise with no expectation of resolving the problem. Criticism is not necessarily a bad thing, if it is given for the purpose of improving a situation. I have met people who are highly skilled in the art of finding something wrong about everything, and many of these people begin a conversation with criticism. Criticism ultimately builds distance in a relationship, so being highly skilled in the ability of distancing oneself from others is a negative attitude. For another look at negative attitudes, visit this previous article: Are You a C, W, or E?
  • Excuses. Excuses seem alright at the time, and most of us have had to make them at some point. However, making excuses can become a habit, and excuses keep us from dealing with the underlying issues that cause us to make excuses in the first place. Excuses remove the responsibility from us and place it on someone else. Because excuses sound plausible, they are easy to make. The habit of making excuses though will encourage the lack of personal responsibility. For more discussion about this area, visit this previous article: Excuses, Excuses!

I think that it is important that we do the best that we can do at all times. As teachers and parents, we have a very important purpose and responsibility. We are responsible to raise and influence future generations. We impact the lives of our most important treasure -- children. I believe it is imperative that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of what we are capable of doing, especially if we wish to raise a future generation of highly functioning adults.

In order to do your best, start by focusing on the changes that you need to make to improve the areas I have discussed above. This week, let us all look closely at whether we are doing our best and at how we can tweak our lifestyles in order to raise our level to be the best that we are capable of doing. Let us be firm in our purpose in life, which is to do the best that we can to raise children to be the best that they can.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Practice Praising People

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

This week, I learned the difference between laudable and laudatory. When something is laudable, it deserves praise. When something is laudatory, it expresses praise. Praise is defined as warm approval or admiration. As I pondered the subject of praise, I stumbled over other references to the topic.

As I read in my The Magic of Thinking Big book by David J. Schwartz, which you can find in my Teach Suzuki Resource store, today's reading was about praising people. I thought about using my two new words in a sentence, and I came up with this: Learning how to praise people is a laudable ability. People should practice the ability of being laudatory. Does that work?

As I read and reread Dr. Suzuki's writings and I teach young student teachers about the Suzuki philosophy, I am reminded frequently that ability is something that we develop. If I sum up all the philosophical points that Dr. Suzuki raised and distill them into three sentences, I would suggest these three:
  • Talent is not inborn.
  • All children have talent.
  • Man is the son of his environment.
That sums up the Suzuki method, because each one of the above sentences represents a large body of philosophical discussion. I could spend the next month discussing the wealth of material that each of these statements represents, but, that is not where I wanted to go today.

I started this essay with a brief look at two words that were related to praise. Dr. Suzuki wrote about a great number of things, and his writings focused on the little abilities that we could develop in our lives and our personalities. I thought about how difficult it is to find the good in people. As teachers we are quite skillful at finding fault. That is the nature of our work. We analyze things that do not work and make corrections so that the student can stay on course for achieving mastery and developing a fine ability. Most of us are really good at our job.

Maybe we are too good at this part of the job. Maybe we need to balance this analytical ability with praise. Maybe we need to direct our focus and attention to those points that deserve praise. Maybe we need to practice praising people, so that we develop a fine ability to commend others and to look for and find laudable things.

This week, I intend to focus my teaching efforts on praising people. This means that I will need to alter my focus so that I look for things to commend. I hope you will join me in practicing this skill and developing this ability.

Today is the 13th Monday of 2013. Take out penny 13.