We each “know” many things superficially, but from time to time, we have a powerful personal experience that deepens our knowledge and makes an indelible mark in our memory. How do those lessons impact our daily lives? Following is the first in a series of articles about deep lessons I learned in school.
“If you don’t know what to do, watch others.”
Third grade found me in an old-fashioned public elementary school building in Middleton, Wisconsin: creaky wooden floor boards, narrow and pale; heavy metal desks whose lids lifted up to make a cave where you could hide your head and whose attached chairs squealed when dragged across the floor; and tall windows whose many panes framed a patchwork view of the metal monkey bars and tall swings on the empty playground. Like all the other children in the class, at the beginning of the year I was placed in a reading group. We were each given a textbook containing stories and articles, with a set of multiple choice comprehension questions at the end of each passage. The second time my group met, I was horrified to discover that everyone else had read the assigned passage and answered the questions, while I had not. The teacher called on me to answer a question, and I had to guess. I had no idea what the answer might be. I hadn’t done the assignment. I remember curling forward into my chair, trying to cover my face with the page before me.
When had everyone else done the work? How did they know when they were supposed to do it? As far as I could remember, the teacher had never told me when to do the assignment, and I was in a panic. I didn’t like being unprepared. After we finished our group meeting, I sat gazing out that big window, still feeling embarrassed and shocked. Then I noticed the other children. The teacher had gone to meet with another group, and each of the others in my group was reading the next passage and answering the questions. Ah, ha! I now knew when to complete the assignment before the next group meeting! What a revelation! I had learned the power of imitation. The fact that my embarrassment fueled my discovery is a topic for another article.
We know that humans learn by imitation. My third-grade lesson would not surprise any student of human behavior. However, the moment I realized, for myself, that I could figure out how to do something by watching others was a moment of great power for me. From that day forward, as a student, as a teacher, and eventually as a school administrator, I never forgot that I might be able to learn what I didn’t know by watching others. Whenever I met someone who elicited my admiration, I tried to watch that person closely, so I could learn whatever skill or attitude they demonstrated. I discovered that, on the whole, simple physical and intellectual tasks are easier to imitate and learn than interpersonal skills and psychological attitudes, but a careful observer can build an understanding of even complex skills or attitudes over time.
When I started teaching, I recognized that if I wanted to ask my students to be kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful, and optimistic, I would need to model that behavior. The alternative – demanding compliance through fear and coercion – was not attractive to me. When I started working as a school administrator, I recognized that I needed to be a role model for teachers, as well. I created what I called my “Mrs. Riser disguise,” a role that I played to demonstrate for those around me the attitudes and behaviors I valued. Ironically, I discovered that it can be easier to be a role model while playing a part. The disguise I created was actually MORE kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful and optimistic than my authentic self. I built the disguise to ensure that those around me would have an appropriate model, no matter how I actually felt. I made it my responsibility to play the role well, because I believed it was necessary to being a good leader.
I retired from being the Head of a small K-8 school in the spring of 2017, and during the final year I played the role of Mrs. Riser, and especially after the November 2016 election, I fretted on a daily basis about the example political leaders set for our children. I had spent 30 years in teaching, telling children never to bully or tease others in a mean way and seeking to demonstrate consistent kindness and respect for others in my own behavior, but now it seemed that every day the news showed a leader who bullied people, mocking them with unkind nicknames. The new President’s behavior would be cause for disciplinary action, were he a student in my school. I worried that his bullying behavior was offering a role model in direct opposition to the one I tried to portray.
Since my retirement, I have watched American politics with increasing dismay. How will America ever extinguish racism, bigotry and misogyny if political leaders participate in it or encourage it in public? I am heartened, however, to see that citizens everywhere in America are taking a deeper interest in the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Having the right to vote in order to choose the people who take leadership roles in our government is a significant right – something not to be taken for granted. Young people are setting the example of political activism for all who care to see!
I am no longer in a work position where my actions are widely observed. Nevertheless, I remain committed to living as if I were, to cultivating behaviors that do not harm others. On line I do not resort to name-calling. I seek to understand those whose views seem wrong to me, rather than vilifying them. I watch my authentic self in action to see what I might learn.