Becoming More Human Through One to One Conversations

I wasn’t a very good student when I was in high school.  Rightly or wrongly, I saw many school rules as unnecessary power trips, only in place to keep me in place. I did my best to fight those rules at every turn.

But I did worse things than fight the rules. One of the worst was treating teachers cruelly, especially when I was part of a group.   Cruelty is easier when you do it with others.

One teacher I treated very poorly was Miss Stumpf, a newly minted English teacher.  In Miss Stumpf’s class I took every opportunity to communicate that I didn’t care. I went into her class an alienated teenager, looking for ways to sabotage whatever learning experience she had planned.

One day I was walking home tired after a tough football practice (we always had tough practices after we lost, and we always lost) and Miss Stumpf drove by, stopped, and asked me if I wanted a ride. (This was back in the early 70s when teachers still felt safe making such simple offers.)  I was very happy to not have to walk, and I accepted the ride.

Something amazing happened when we talked. I found myself speaking with her in the same way I would talk to my friends or family.  In a matter of seconds, literally, my understanding of her was transformed. In the midst of our friendly interaction I realized that she really cared about my success.  I realized too, that the teacher that I had treated so terribly was just as real a person as I was and certainly a lot nicer.

From that day forward I had a different relationship with Miss Stumpf. The reason why was simple: I now saw her as a real person.

My experience with Miss Stumpf exemplifies something Martin Buber talks about in I and Thou.  When we see others as objects, we can do terrible things to them simply because we don’t recognize that they are real.  Of course we know that they literally are just as human as we are, but we don’t see them having the same feelings as we do.  When we see people as real, however, as subjects, we see them as fellow human beings. Seeing through empathetic eyes rather than cold dehumanizing eyes transforms our relationships with others.

One of the simplest ways to move from being an object to a subject is to do what Miss Stumpf did, to have one to one conversations.  I’ve written about one to one conversations as an important part of instructional coaching, but I see them as important relationship-builders in all settings, and especially in the classroom.

We can (and I think should) make one to one conversations a ritual of our classrooms. They can be scheduled through out the school year. They might be scheduled informally outside of class, or formally, in class while all other students are engaged in an activity that doesn’t require teacher direction.

One to one conversations could focus on student progress, but they can also focus on our progress. We can ask children for feedback on what is and isn’t working for their learning. What matters in these simple exchanges is that we try to connect with our students and reveal ourselves as real.

Organizational theorist Peter Senge has written a comment that I love: “the way forward is about becoming more human, not just more clever.” Senge’s words are just as meaningful in the classroom as they are in the boardroom.  And one way we can become more human is through more one-to-one conversations.

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  • Jenny

    Ah, the herd mentality and the ease of cruelty within it. I like your Mrs. Stumpf story.

    My friends at AERO have written extensively about how a truly democratic schooling environment creates human interactions between student and instructor in amazing ways every day. The strict authoritarianism is removed, kids are treated as thoughtful people who have some sense about themselves and how they learn, and they are encouraged to speak openly and have conversations with the instructor about how their education work will proceed. Choice is always humanizing, and the system right now gives kids a mockery of choice. When kids are treated in such a truly democratic way, a natural by-product is that they see their instructors less as bosses and more as real people with real interests who are interesting themselves, who are helpful coaches to the student. Of course, most adults are terrified of not being seen as the boss.

    I think you were right to fight the rules, quite frankly. The rules are there to keep kids in their places, teachers in theirs, and much of it is simply ridiculous. I love it that you wouldn’t just do it the institution’s way!! I love that fire in your heart, and I love that it’s tempered with kindness : ) Don’t ever change that!

  • Jim Knight

    Thanks Jen! What is a link for learning more about AERO?

  • Jenny
  • Mia

    I have had to learn to practice and master more empowered ways of relating to other people, refusing to bully and manipulate others and now insisting on being open, generous, straightforward and clear in all my dealings with all people, ALL OF THE TIME.
    With each encounter in my life, whether large or small I refuse to treat anyone as an adversary. I go into any potential meeting or conflict with an open heart, determined to meet others as human beings, to learn about them and to bring interest and a spirit of collaboration to our meeting. My life is the richer for it. It has been important to precede each encounter with people by listening to other’s needs, wants, and yearnings to develop cohesiveness within the team. It is a continual process but my motto has become “in spite of what anyone else does, I am going to treat them right!” Because of great blogs like this I am challenged to continually grow as a leader! Thanks

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Mia, I like any motto that begins with “in spite of what anyone else does…” :)

  • Laska

    What a moving piece, Jim. Thanks so much for reminding us all that it can be quite powerful and quite simple…relate to others. Developing relationships is key to any impact. As instructional coaches, the investment in relationship is paramount. Thank you for this.

  • Greg Schnagl

    I am teaching at a new school this year. I made a conscious choice to discover the “why” behind the “what” before casting my vote in judgement of my new coleagues’ opinions, actions and desires. The key, I have found, is to ask for the backstory. Help them to reveal their reasons and experiences that have led to their current decision or position. I forget who I paraphrase, but their message was impactful. In dealing with others, do not see through them, see them through.
    I’ve been applying this prescription to my students, colleagues, spouse and children with efective results.
    It is the quality of the one on one that carries the relationship.

  • Jennifer Sikes

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece. I’ve been missing you–I’m glad you’re back! Each conversation is an opportunity to create a new or build upon an existing relationship. We all have to converse with groups throughout our days, but it is the moments when I can talk to individuals… students, teachers, administrators, parents, that I feel my best each day. We work in a very human business, close conversations keep the humanity at the forefront.

    P.S. I too was a very bad student. I treated by grade 4 teacher the worst. I feel shame about that now!

  • Christian

    An couple of excellent follow-up reads to “I and Thou” are “Bonds That Make Us Free” by C. Terry Warner and “The Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute. I am listening to the audio version of one book and reading the text version of the other. They have really helped me see how I have been seeing those that I work with as objects and more importantly they are helping me see how to see those that I work with as people. Check them out.

    Thanks to Jim for this post.

    • Jim Knight

      Thanks Christian. I’m order the books right after I send this note.

      • Christian

        No worries. Thank you for your blog.

  • M Brevard

    Thank you for posting this. I am thinking about relationship at work and how to get others to have more face to face contact. I believe it will change how we feel and treat others.

  • Nea

    This story reveals one of the most magical aspects of really successful teaching that I just only recently discovered; many of our students feel lost, and unimportant — specifically those ones that are struggling. By forming a personal connection with my at-risk students, and letting them know that they truly matter to me, I have been able to watch them push themselves to new academic heights. I now build a bi-weekly lesson plan that allows me to have conversations with my students and just have a social dialogue. Thank you for this story!