Just One Thing

“Your students won’t always remember what you've taught them, but they’ll always remember how you've treated them.”

Earlier this week, I was commiserating with a principal friend about our respective writing projects. Having just submitted my newest book to the publisher, I lamented that I was so deep into it that I could no longer discern if it was even any good. My colleague expressed a similar sentiment and then suggested something that gave me pause. In essence, he suggested that if we in education simply did just "one thing," we would have it all solved. This "one thing" reference reminded me of a key moment in the film City Slickers. Check out this clip:

My colleague's "one thing"? If we all followed the golden rule of treating others the way we want to be treated, that would take care of pretty much all the challenges we face in education and we would not need any books at all. Oversimplified stance? Perhaps. But, let’s consider. 

Four Seasons is noted for its fanatical adherence to their philosophy of doing everything in their power to provide first class treatment to their guests--and each other. In fact, under the “How We Behave” umbrella of their Service Culture framework, they commit to the following: We demonstrate our beliefs most meaningfully in the way we treat each other and by the example we set for one another. In all our interactions with our guests, customers, business associates, and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us. Presumably, most everyone reading this post would concur with this ancient philosophy, but how often do our actions truly align with our beliefs when it comes to this “one thing”? Recently, I was treated horribly by someone I know. I recall thinking, “I can’t imagine how this person could possibly have treated me like this. I would never want to treat someone like this.” A few days later, I had the conversation with my colleague and started to reflect on my own treatment of others. Upon reflection, although I am still confident I would never have done what was done to me, I was equally confident that I do not always treat everyone with whom I come in contact precisely the way I would want to be treated. But what if I did? And what if we all did--especially in our schools?

In what ways would our schools be different if every educator in every school dealt with every student, every colleague, and every parent as we would have them deal with us? For instance, if that “one thing” was the standard for treating others, how would we respond when:

  • A student misbehaves consistently?
  • A colleague asks us to cover their class?
  • A working parent asks if they could meet for a conference before or after “normal” working hours?
  • A student fails to turn in an assignment?
  • A student, parent, or colleague lashes out at us angrily about something?
  • A student misses two weeks of school for being ill?
  • A colleague falls short of our expectations in some area?
If, in each of these instances, we responded according to this “one thing,” I suspect our schools would be better places in which to teach, learn, and lead. If someone disappoints us--be that person a student, parent, or colleague--and we respond with respect, empathy, and honesty, chances are we are responding in a way we would want that person to deal with us. Here’s the kicker, though--(well, three actually):
  1. It Starts with Me: First, like all good ideas for making our world a better place, it starts with me (or, in your case, you). If we are not modeling this behavior ourselves, it is unlikely to spread and become embedded in the culture of the organization. 
  2. Easier Said than Done: Second, this sounds a whole lot easier in theory than it actually is in practice. I mean, there are some really annoying things occurring in our schools each day! Not only that, but at times people with whom we interact disappoint us, treat us poorly, and even do things that hurt us. When these things happen, it is never fun and often tempting to respond in kind. When thusly tempted, it behooves us to keep in mind the following powerful axiom: “We are defined by our actions toward others, not others’ actions toward us.” 
  3. We are All Different: Third, I have learned that not everyone wants to be treated the way I want to be treated. Although there are certainly differences among people in how they prefer to be treated, in our schools I suspect there are some ways of dealing with others that work for nearly everyone. Behaving toward others with dignity, respect, patience, calmness, and empathy while actively listening and seeking to honestly know the other person are behaviors that will sit well with virtually all students, parents, and colleagues in our schools. In fact, the more we get to know our kids, parents, and colleagues, the more equipped we are to twist the Golden Rule just a bit, moving from treating others as we would want to be treated to treating others as they would want to be treated.
We may never get the entire school community consistently behaving to the Four Seasons standard of dealing with others, but the more often each of us models this “one thing,” the more likely it is we will get others to follow suit. Eventually, if we stay the course, it may even become embedded into the culture as simply, “The way we do things around here.” This “one thing” may not be the answer to every challenge facing those of us serving in schools, but I honestly suspect it would eliminate many of the negative incidents that occur therein. Moreover, intentionally and consistently seeking to deal with others as we would have them deal with us is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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