Rita Pierson has been a teacher for 40 years, and comes from a family of educators, so she knows a thing or two about helping kids learn. Her TED talk is rhetoric as it should be: the kind of speech that has you jumping out of your chair saying, Yeah! I can make a difference! And considering she’s talking to other teachers (of which I’m not one), that’s saying a lot.
As well as getting you fired up about helping kids, Rita tells some short, funny stories about her teaching experiences that illustrate how it’s possible to put a positive spin on almost any situation.
And while her focus is on helping kids, we can apply her lessons to any position of leadership where we want to get the best from our people.
A quick warning: I won’t do any of these stories the justice they deserve. You really should watch the video below for the full effect.
1. Admit when you’re wrong (and apologize)
Rita tells a great story about teaching a lesson in ratios to her class one day. She readily admits that math wasn’t her strong point, but she did her best. The lesson seemed to go fine, but when she looked at her Teacher’s Guide later, she realized she’d taught the lesson all wrong.
Not a great position for a leader to be in, but she handled it with humility: she started the class the next day by admitting her mistake and apologizing. As she tells it, her kids replied, “That’s okay Miss Pierson, you were so excited we just let you go.”
We all make mistakes—everyone knows that. It takes guts to own your mistakes and to apologize when they affect others, but you’ll earn respect by doing so.
2. Find the positives—they’re in there, somewhere
Rita has taught some really low-performing kids. So low, she says, that sometimes it made her cry. Her job, as she saw it, was to improve the performance of her students over the course of a school year.
One year she recalls giving her class a quiz in which one student only got two of the twenty questions right.
Wanting to encourage her student by focusing on the positives, Rita wrote +2 on his paper and added a big smiley face. When he asked why she’d give him a smiley face for such a low score, she told him, “You’re on the road. You got two right—you didn’t miss them all. And when we review this, won’t you do better?”
Of course, he agreed, he would do better. And just like that, Rita turned a dismal result into an opportunity to inspire that student. It seems like a small adjustment in her approach, but it made a huge difference, she says:
You see, minus 18 sucks all the life out of you. Plus two said: I ain’t all bad.
If I’d been in Rita’s shoes, I probably would have had a hard time finding a positive spin for the situation but she proved that it’s possible. And finding a positive spin for even a terrible situation is a great way to build up the people you’re leading and encourage them to do better.
3. Be a champion
Rita’s talk revolves around the idea of being a champion for her students, but again—all leaders should understand and apply this concept.
She describes a child’s champion as “an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”
She doesn’t pretend this is an easy task, though. Rita likes to tell the truth about how hard her job is:
Will you like all your children? Of course not. And you know your toughest kids are never absent.
And while you won’t like them all, the key is they can never, ever know it.
Rita tells the audience about how her mom, also a teacher, would keep snacks in her desk for the kids who came to school hungry and washcloths for the kids who came to school dirty because “it’s hard to teach kids who stink.”
Her mom spent breaks during the day reviewing lessons and afternoons going on home visits. For many of those students, she was their champion. Years later, those students visited Rita’s mom to show her the people they’d grown into, thanks to her help.
That’s the kind of effect you can have on someone’s life when you become their champion. And as a leader, that’s who you should be.
Don’t give up on the people you’re leading. Connect with them. Insist that they become the best that they can possibly be.
Rita’s final observation about teaching is as applicable to leadership as anything else in her talk:
Is this job tough? You betcha. … but it is not impossible.