I was young, just out of college, and the proud owner of my first teaching contract. But I soon found out that educational strategies didn’t mean squat in a classroom of thirty short, noisy people. I would first have to figure out how to get them to listen to me.
Six-year-olds take the world in through all their senses and stop to ponder every little thing. The ripping sound of the the velcro ties on their sneakers. The feel of the texture of my sock as I read Green Eggs and Ham (it freaked me out the first time one of them did this). The waxy smell of Crayola crayons.
The taste of Crayola crayons. (Yes, each year, someone would try this.) One kid even got a bean stuck in his nose during a hands-on math lesson on place value. You might say they were easily distracted.
I was a newbie, an infant in the trenches of education. I had no battle scars, no perspective of what works and what doesn’t because I hadn’t tried anything yet. I wished I could be as smug and self-confident as my teaching colleagues, who always knew what they were doing—and why.
I learned by copying
Now, if you have never been in a first grade classroom, let me just say, it’s a challenge to channel all that unbridled enthusiasm, kind of like trying to grab a comet’s tail. The teacher across the hall gave me an excellent piece of advice on the first day of school: “First graders are like the ocean,” she said. “Never turn your back on them because you may get swept away.”
I didn’t exactly know how to keep their attention. So I used the only thing I could think of. In my student teaching days, when the class got out of control, my master teacher turned the overhead lights out. Magically, each student put their head down on their desk. And there was sweet silence.
It sounded like a good idea to me because, well, it worked for her, didn’t it?
I told my students about the new rule, what lights out meant. We practiced it a few times. And it worked like a charm. It was like Pavlov’s dogs, except instead of the bell, it was a room going dark and instead of salivating, it was heads down and eyes closed.
Hey, this teaching thing wasn’t so hard after all.
Until, one day, a car outside the school hit a utility pole. As coincidence would have it, we just happened to be in the middle of the best math lesson I had ever taught. My students were engaged, hard at work at finding solutions to the problems.
The car hit the pole, the electricity went out and bam, like clockwork, thirty little heads hit their desks.
It worked. Until it didn’t.
In creating online content—as in life—’yes’ works better than ‘no’
In that first year, I tried other strategies, like a blind woman making my way along an explosive-riddled path. I knew what I wanted them not to do (don’t hit, don’t talk out of turn, don’t leave the classroom without permission), but hadn’t thought so much about what I wanted them to do.
So, I was constantly saying things like, “Jenny, don’t rock back in your chair. It’s dangerous,” and “Chris, don’t push in line.”
Nothing much changed.
Then one day it hit me. Six-year-olds are literal. They are visual. They want to do things right but they just don’t know how to.
They need to know what to do.
When I started saying, “We keep our hands to ourselves” instead of, “Don’t hit,” I began to see them change. This, they could understand.
They could picture what keeping their hands to themselves looked like. I had given them something to replace the negative with.
Positive content beats out the negative anytime
I am seeing an epidemic in social media: people promoting content that warns us about making mistakes, about doing things the wrong way.
Content that tells us what not to do.
But in perusing social media, a random glance this morning, showed these blog post promos:
“A Quick Guide to Avoiding Common Writing Mistakes”
“10 Ways Marketing Can Suck the Life Out of You”
“The Most Common Mistakes Companies make with Global Marketing”
“The Biggest Mistake Brands Make When Trying to Tell Stories”
(“Mistake” seems to be a popular word in negative marketing these days.)
I don’t know about you, but I make enough mistakes as it is. I don’t have time to learn about what to avoid. I’m too busy trying to figure out what to do to make my business successful.
Now, I’m not saying that I never write negative posts. But I don’t do a lot of them. And, when I do, I usually follow each negative with a positive, so readers know what I am advising them to do instead. You may consider doing the same.
An audio version of this post: