A quick story: last week I was speaking with a former student named Dylan. At one point, he asked me a question.
“So, Mr. Stuart, will you be teaching students or usernames this fall?”
What he meant with his wry smile was clear — at the time, our district hadn't released its finalized back-to-school plan — but I marveled at the weight-bearing potential of his choice of words. I want to teach students, not usernames; humans, not users; people, not passwords. There's a ring to these pairings, a quickness off the tongue.
It took me a couple of days to figure out why Dylan's efficiency of language mattered.
As I've been writing, a key aim for distance learning this fall has to be the humanization of online learning spaces, especially through the efficient development of earnest, amicable, and productive teacher-student relationships. This aim especially daunts those of us with no training or experience in distance teaching beyond the crisis teaching of Spring 2020. But as I've been saying, every educator brings knowledge and expertise to the humanizing and relationship-building aspects of the work. The key, then, is focusing on what we know, making smart transfers of that knowledge to the distance learning scenario.
- The bad news: Humanizing from a distance is hard.
- The good news: We bring expertise from our in-person experience.
- Our strategy: Build from our strength, see what can transfer, and gain new expertise as we go down the distance learning path.
But look how long that explanation was! It might be important to understand all those things, but it's also pretty difficult to say them all in passing. People over passwords, on the other hand, is easy.
Why great work cultures use catchphrases
Several years ago, author Dan Coyle did his thing visiting world-class cultures all over the world: Navy SEALS, Pixar, IDEO, schools, top-notch restaurants, successful jewel thieves… you know, standard stuff. He was after a basic question: Why are these groups so successful?
The result was his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (paperback | Kindle | audio). I don't have time to unpack all that he found (it is excellent, though, so I'll throw a few of my favorite quotes at the end of this article just for fun). Let me jump straight to my point.
One commonality amongst the groups Coyle visited is that they used all kinds of catchphrases — the short, slogany kinds of things that often make us cringe.
So what gives? Why do catchphrases produce results rather than cringes in the high-performing cultures?
Coyle's insight is that catchphrases work when they are navigational — when they form a shorthand way of speaking to a group's central aims (Coyle calls these “North Star” phrases), central strategies, or central values. Coyle writes that such well-crafted catchphrases act “as cognitive scripts to define the specific challenges” that a group faces.
Sound good? Here's how to get started
So… are you facing any specific challenges this fall?
Ha! Yes. A few.
So let's turn one into a shorthand and tip our hats to Dylan for pointing us in the right direction.
- Humans, not users.
- Students, not usernames.
- People, not passwords.
I'm picking the last one because c'mon, alliteration.
But it doesn't stop at picking — that's just the easy part. The hard part is making sure to fill the catchphrase up with lots of meaning. What I mean is that when you use the phrase, you have to use it in the context of specific strategies or specific facets of the challenge.
- “A lot of our students are going to initially feel like the online learning space is cold or daunting or detached from their life. Here's what we're going to do to humanize our online learning spaces from Day 1. Why? Because people, not passwords.”
- “Listen, before we get too far into this school year we need to talk about teacher work-life balance. I know that distance teaching feels like you've got to always be on. But we can't be. There is such a thing as too much pressure, and I'm sensing that a lot of us are on the wrong side of Yerkes-Dodson. People over passwords — we're people too!”
- “All right, how are MGCs going on our team? Let's get out our clipboards and have a look — not to shame anyone, not to show off. Just data. How are we doing with keeping MGCs efficient and leveraging them toward academic growth for all students? I know we're pressed for time, so real specifically right now let's just share how many MGCs we've had in the past week and what we're learning. And we're doing this because… you know, don't you? You know. People over passwords, baby!”
See? It's fun, and it works. Teaching is great. We got this.
Walkaway action step: Pick a catchphrase, and start using it with intensity, filling it with all the weight of meaning and strategy that you can.
Bonus: other quotes from Coyle's book
- “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they’ll find a way to screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding.”
- “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust — it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.”
- “The road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled.”