Build Them Up!
After many years as a FedEx driver, I am shifting to a second career, to become a high school teacher. Like most teachers, my decision springs from a deep desire to help young people grow and mature, and become the person they wish to become. To that end, I have spent time talking to teachers, observing and interacting with students in classrooms, trying to learn as much as possible—as fast as I can—about the craft of teaching.
One veteran teacher mentioned something that I have come to believe is the essential truth of human interactions. He told me, “In every interaction you have with your students, you are doing one of two things. Either you are building them up or you are tearing them down.” I jotted it down, and though it didn’t seem that significant at the time, I now see profound wisdom in those words.
I believe there is no middle ground; no action is truly neutral. Every action and every word either encourages or it disheartens. This doesn’t mean that every word must be glowing praise, or that we should spew such praise when it is unwarranted. The first rule of applying this principle is that all praise must be honest, and it must be earned. It mustn’t condescend or be obsequious. Phony praise can be seen a mile away. We should be judicious with our words, making sure that they work to strengthen people as individuals and not weaken them. Honestly and discreetly complimenting students who make especially good points during a class discussion helps them realize that others do notice. That doesn’t mean we can’t critique their work, it simply means we have to make sure that when we do so, we never attack the person. I believe that someone who takes the time to look for positive qualities within another person will be appreciated for that effort, and rewarded by the confidence and effort it inspires in that person.
I believe this principle is the key to fostering mutual respect. Applying it in my personal life illustrates its value beyond the classroom. I try not to let a day pass without noticing something my wife has done or said, and telling her how much it means to me. My 9-year-old son hears praise when he does the right thing, not just criticism when he makes mistakes. When I find myself in appreciation of something about a friend, I tell them. If it’s not immediately apparent, I look deeper. It’s always there, if I take the time to find it. That time is one of the most important investments we can make in others and in ourselves. Everybody likes hearing honest praise, and I have more friends now than before. Coincidence? I doubt it.
When I hear someone say something negative about somebody else, I wonder: How might they behave if everyone in their orbit sought to build them up instead of tear them down? We encounter dozens of people every day that try to tear us down; I try to be the person that builds them up. I believe that is the most important thing I can do every day.
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