One of the special opportunities that accompanies being an educator is that every day presents openings to make a difference in the lives of those we teach and touch. A causal greeting, attentive observation, or supportive question can send a signal of interest and caring beyond what we might imagine. Our connection can make someone’s day. Of course, we may not always recognize the opportunities presented to us. We can be distracted by responsibilities, events of the moment, and other competitors for our attention.
Whether student, colleague, or another person whose daily path we cross, what we say and do and where we give our attention matters. These are not opportunities to ignore or take lightly. Each of us can recall times when someone important to us noticed our need for encouragement, recognized our desire for attention, or reached out with an understanding and supportive question. It mattered.
Recognizing occasions when we can lift the spirits of others is part skill and part habit. An axiom of life is that we tend to find the things for which we are looking. Developing the habit of looking for signs and signals that a student or colleague needs our attention is not especially difficult, but we must make it a priority.
Of course, we may not always say exactly the right thing. But our good intentions can often be as important as our words and actions. It is also true that missteps can be the source of new learning and skill development. What is most important is that we notice and respond.
So, how can we develop our sensitivity to what others may need from us and fine-tune our attention “radar?” We can start by noticing five common areas of need and responding to them.
First is the need to be noticed. There are likely people around us who often feel invisible. We can look for those who seem not to have close connections with others. Often, others seem not to recognize their presence. It can be easy for us to overlook them too. Taking time for casual greetings, friendly comments, or inviting questions can send a message that we notice them and they are worthy of attention.
Second is the need to be encouraged. Some people in our orbit may be struggling with life challenges or are feeling discouraged. They may be at a point where they are deciding whether to give up. Our recognizing their struggle and encouraging comments can be exactly what they need to continue to struggle and ultimately prevail. Interestingly, a single comment from us can often be repeated in self-talk to sustain their commitment and lead them to continue to move forward.
Third is the need to be heard. We can become impatient with people in our lives that seem to always have an opinion to offer or story to tell. Yet, we may be the one person in their lives who is willing to hear their thoughts and consider what they have to say. Our willingness to give our time and attention can validate their identity and their worthiness.
Fourth is the need to be included. This need resembles the need to be noticed but goes further. Some people around us may feel they are purposefully excluded because of their social status, cultural background, or some other factor. Our recognition and intervention to facilitate inclusion and confront bias and other perceptions can offer important opportunities to build bridges and counter false assumptions. We can also model the importance of being inclusive and respectful of diversity.
Fifth is the need to be “nudged.” Inclusion of this need may seem surprising as people who may need a nudge can seem to be doing well. Yet, they may not be giving their best effort, taking advantage of their talents, or pushing themselves beyond what is comfortable. Our recognition and willingness to gently push can be the nudge they need to increase their commitment and expand their understanding of who they are and what they can accomplish.
We should not be surprised by the positive difference even small gestures and mild attention can make in the lives of the students we teach and the colleagues with whom we work. However, we also need to remember that as powerful as our positive influence can be, negative comments and discounting of others can be equally powerful in a destructive direction.