Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri 6/27/2003 5:50 AM
Random Thought: Contagion: Another word for My Dictionary of Good Teaching

No walking this morning. I haven't walked since we returned from two weeks of grandbaby spoiling in three days ago. A wrenched knee and a stern order from my angelic boss will do that. I may have strained the knee playing frisbee with my son and daughter-in-law or walking the wind-swept, fog-shrouded, snow-capped steep peaks they call streets in San Mateo. You know in that area I think they measure their walks by height rather than by distance.

So, I was stranded in the morning heat and humidity by the fish pond. As I sipped a hot cup of coffee in the hot air, listened to the soothing sounds of the pond's waterfalls, and watched the graceful koi, three things slowly came together. First, yesterday I had one of those chance conversations with a student that you dream about and which ended with a mutual "thank you" hug and has since kept me soaring. Second, there has been a discussion on a faculty development list about the impact of enthusiasm on teaching and learning. And finally, Kenny has been bugging me again for another word.

Putting all this together, if I was to write another word for Kenny in "My Dictionary of Good Teaching," it would be "Contagion." When I use this word, I'm not thinking abut small pox or the flu or SARS, although with some teachers you couldn't tell. No, when I talk about contagion, I'm thinking about a yawn. Have you ever been around someone who yawned and you defensively drawled, "Don't do that" as you involuntarily and reluctantly started your yawn? There are lots of things that are contagious besides diseases; and some things, like feelings and behavior that are contagious that have nothing to do with disease. And yet, these contagious things are influenced by their environmental circumstance no less than by a virus or bacteria. Students are a lot more sensitive and susceptible, no less than are we academics, administrators, staff personel, whomever, to their environment than they or we know or let on.

Sometimes I think teaching has all the characteristics of an epidemic. There's the carrier, the teacher; there's the disease, education; and there's the infected, the student.

Now, what makes someone influential or persuasive? I'm not sure it is as obvious, simple or straightforward as it seems. I think it is more a matter of who you are rather than what you do. If you want to enthuse, be enthusiastic about each student and the subject. If you want to excite, be excited and exciting about each student and the subject. I say this because researchers say that when a non-verbal message is sent, people either dig in their heels or click their heels. But, the small gesture, a nod of the head, a quick thumbs up, a sublte smile, or a slight touch makes much more difference than a demonstrative lecture or detailed lesson plan. It's the incredibly subtlte, hidden, unspoken that is most influencial because most people, conscously or otherwise, feel it is the most sincere and authentic. That is to say, do you immediately stop what you are doing when someone asks for your help or appears to simply want to talk about "nothing?" Does your face and body look relaxed and focused when you are listening? Are you listening? Do you see? Are you mindful? Do you send out a deafening silent "I wish I was somewhere else" or "I wish I was doing something else" signal? Do you go that proverbial extra mile? If you are talking by phone, do your tones, words, and conversational pace encourage others to feel heard and important?

I was thinking about a book I just finished. It's called EMOTIONAL CONTAGION by Elaine Hatfield et al. It's not particularly an easy read, but it is an interesting one. The authors talk about how we each are an emotional Typhoid Mary, how we each infect each other with our emotions. I smile, you smile. I yawn, you yawn. It's not just mimicry; it's that somehow and for some reason I'm passing on my happiness or sleepiness to you, even for a millisecond. It's an interesting idea. A mood is not just an expression of an inner mood--I feel happy, so I smile. It's direction is not just inside-out. It's can also move in the opposite direction. If I smile, I can help you smile; if I am happy, I can help you be happy. The direction is outside-in as well.

I suppose I could use Daniel Goleman's concept of a tuning fork-like "resonance" that he discusses in his PRIMAL LEADERSHIP. But, Hatfield's concept of an infecting-like "contagion" is more of an eye-catching word. Aferall, we sometimes say "his enthusiasm is contagious" or "his pessimism is contagious." If we think about emotions this way, contagion or resonance, as outside going in and inside going out, we teachers may have an enormous impact and influence on students. We're "carriers." We sort of dance in a harmonized gestures and conversational rhythms. We forge a bond with our gestures and movements long before we utter a word. It's not something deliberate, to ape moving and talking styles. It's a reflex. It's like knowing when you're on, when those around are with you, when everyone is in sync.

That is true for each of us. It is no different with students. When students feel good, when they feel respected and noticed, when they are valued, when they're loved, they have a better chance of performing at their best. That good feeling is an oil that lubricates the spirit, the intellect, as well as the joints. People move spryly, think clearly and focused. They're nimble and flexible. Then we're feeling upbeat, we more positively view ourselves and students. It's no different with students. As important as intellect and subject may be, said Einstein, they should not be worshipped. They are lead by emotions. Emotions are the glue that creates community, that commits us to teaching, that commits students to learning. Emotions affect how people will lead and be led, and therefore perform. And while "climate" in itself isn't a guarnatee in itself. It is a powerful influence. Anyone in the heavy, hot summer of South Georgia or the light, coolness of San Francisco knows that. Good mode, good work; bad mood, bad work. Moods impact results. What Goleman calls "disonance," an out-of-tune resonance, dispirits, depresses, caps. Excitement and enthusiasm elevates, opens, promotes.

A while back, I shared what I thought were the three basic "laws of teaching": the "Law of Sales, the "Law of Surroundings," and the "Law of Glue." I've got another one. I call it the "Law of Influence." It says that we are the true pollinators--or polluters--of each student. We are dealers in hope or hopelessness. We can arouse or suppress. We can be respectful or disrespectful. We all influence one another whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we want to or not. We are a part of each others reality, like it or not. And, of that we must be constantly mindful.

Resonance or contagion, however, is not about something you do. It is about something you are. Therein is the rub. As I wrote to faculty developers about enthusiasm:

	So, we know that enthusiasm has a positive impact
	on instructors, that is, ourselves.  Didn't take
	a rocket scientist to figure this out. The big
	question is:  so what?

        What do we do now?  Do we think that a faculty
	development course called Enthuse 101 is going
	to be effective?  Do we gear up the quick-in-quick-out
	"let's be happy" workshop cottage industry?  Can
	do you do something to someone else to instil that
	special kind of energy, that wholeheartedness,
	that warmth and feeling to relationships with each
	student, that freshness to the class, that
	enlivening spring-like climate, that shouting "yes?"

        Do we really think that enthusiasm is a learned,
	pedagogical skill?  Do we really think that it is
	simply a matter of being "Bob Fossi-esque:" looking
	into a mirror, putting on a smile, and procaliming,
	"It's showtime?"  Or, is it a deeply rooted attitude,
	an outlook, a way of living?

        No, the issue is not merely to proclaim, "Be enthused!"
	It's more complicated than that.  The issue is how to
	overcome and/or help others help themselves overcome
	disinterest, sameness, sluggishness, and dreariness to
	become enthused, excited; to see an interesting and
	exciting newness in everything and every person--
	including ourselves--each moment.  You can't change
	what you do unless you change who you are.  And, I
	assure you that it is a long, hard, scary, challenging,
	and sustained small step by small step daily process
	that takes perseverance, endurance, persistance, and
	lots of patience.

At the end of this day, and everyday, things will be different because of what we have done. We will have an impact. There is no way to avoid it. The question, then, is simply what kind of impact will it be? How will we make use of this power to influence? Once again, the thoughts we think, the words we speak, the actions we take make a difference. We are contagious! Our choice is whether or not that difference will be a positive or negative one; whether we are willing and able to fight what I call "the three 'lazies'" of convenience, resignation, and resentfulness.

It is an awesome responsibility and a trememdous opportunity.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
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