Image: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Teaching requires endless patience. We walk into the classroom knowing our students will fail before they succeed. We understand that we’ll need to teach the same lesson again, that our instructions will play on student ears like a broken record, and that mastery requires practice and repetition. Patience is part of the job, andit’s nearly impossible to be a good teacher without it.
Not that we ever fully master that skill. When I taught writing, I had my own strategy for how to keep my cup of patience overflowing. At the start of every semester, before I entered a classroom, I would set my expectations such that I couldn’t get discouraged when students missed the mark. I walked into the job expecting repetition, and I accepted upfront that setbacks were routine rather than anomalous. That way, when things didn’t go as planned, there was no reason to be upset. I never had any pretense that we would stick to a strict lesson plan. The only question was when we would deviate from that plan.
Adopting a flexible mentality helped me to focus attention on trouble spots and go with the flow. I will be the first to admit: That wasn’t always easy for me, given that — according to the Myers-Briggs personality test I took in college — I am an INTJ, which means I’m prone to impatience. Being patient with others has been a struggle all my life. But I’ve learned (and continue to learn) some methods of coping with my tendency to demand perfection. And I was never more patient than when I was in the classroom.
I am no longer in the classroom. Instead, I’m pursuing a different track as a campus administrator. These days, I spend most of my time working in front of a computer, and my proclivity toward impatience is creeping back. I find myself unfairly expecting people to behave like the machine on my desk that does exactly what I tell it to every time. I forget the lessons I learned as a teacher, and I feel frustration rising when I’m forced to repeat myself.
So as I struggle against my impatient nature and strive to be more forgiving of others, I’ve begun to wonder: How did I achieve equanimity back when I was a faculty member, and how can I continue to cultivate it in my new career? What are the qualities that make up a teacher’s patience and how can they be put to work effectively outside of the classroom? Here are some of the answers I’ve come up with:
- Anchoring. As I mentioned, in the classroom I would set my expectations to accommodate a margin of deviation. Before I had a chance to get upset by change, I shifted the bar of frustration. In negotiation strategy, that’s called anchoring. From the outset, you assign a target higher than the anticipated outcome in order to ensure the negotiation doesn’t fall below your goal. In other words, you prepare for the inevitable uncertainty introduced by other parties. If you enter a project expecting to make sacrifices, you won’t be thrown off your game when it happens. Set the expectation that your meeting will not go exactly as planned. Understand from the beginning there will be disagreements and challenges. That way, potential frustrations become merely part of the process rather than inciting incidents.
- Empathy. In the classroom, empathizing when students are struggling or when they complain about a heavy load of homework can help you reach them effectively and help them succeed. The same goes for your colleagues and staff members in an administrative post. Stop for a minute and really imagine you are the person with whom you are frustrated. Picture that person’s life and thoughts: What did he do this morning? How is her family? What has brought him to the belief he currently holds? If you were in that person’s shoes, how would you feel right now, what would be the best way to influence your perspective, and how would you want to be treated? The good old Golden Rule is often the most important part of sustaining patience with others. Treat people how you would want to be treated in their situation. It’s as simple as that.
- Humility. The good news is academe is known for its humility. Oh wait, nevermind. We all know that a college campus is a place full of big egos. After all, most of us hold advanced degrees and have earned some level of pride with regard to our knowledge and achievements. That makes humility all the more important when dealing with our co-workers. It’s easy to have our egos bruised when someone disagrees with the plan we’ve laid out, and the natural inclination is to lash out when our intellect is challenged. We automatically feel the need to defend our ideas. Resist that urge. Droning on about why you are right won’t get you anywhere. When you hit a roadblock, stop and listen. Even if you completely disagree with the other person, a display of humility can go a long way. Show that you respect your adversary’s thoughts, and make it clear you understand the world doesn’t revolve around your personal plan. Cultivating an attitude of humility is an important part of developing patience because we start to recognize that other people have as much right to an opinion as we do.
As I read back over this post, I feel a bit hypocritical as I rarely succeed at those three concepts — even though I’m reminded daily of the need to try. I guess, through this process, I’m learning also to be patient with myself.