What Culture Are You Building for Your Students?

By Tim Elmore


Sometimes when I reflect on a meeting I’ve had with a high school or college student, I recognize how inadequate my approach to our discussion was. While my words may have been accurate and honest, my tone was not hopeful. It wasn’t filled with belief, but suspicion that they might not be getting it. Reflect on the last time this happened to you. 


Every one of us influences the culture on our campus in big or small ways. Often our impact is subtle and inconspicuous. Evaluate your response to the following questions:


When you see three teens down by a lake, as I did the other day, what do you question first?

  1. Are they OK?
  2. Are they causing trouble? 


When a student makes an unexplainable decision, what do you think first?

  1. I wonder what thoughts led them to that choice. 
  2. I need to show them a better solution–they have no idea what they’re doing.


When something doesn’t go as planned, what do you find yourself concluding?

  1. Wow. We’re about to learn something new.
  2. Wow. I don’t like interruptions and setbacks. 


Review your responses. Did you circle more “As” than “Bs”? As we age, we tend to move from the first response to the second. We want to correct. We get more suspicious of kids. We start to assume the worst. It can lead to instant judgments. After all, we’re older and wiser. Our responses, however, often reveal where our heart is. Are we suspicious or caring first? Our questions may all be legitimate, but what comes to mind first shows what kids feel from us. 


Just before the pandemic, our team partnered with Harris Poll Interactive and surveyed more than 2,000 adults across the country. Our questions surrounded how they felt about kids today, ages 12-18 years old. The results were enlightening. Sixty-six percent of respondents expressed a negative emotion rather than a positive one when thinking about kids today. In other words, instead of hopeful or excited, they used words like concerned or fearful. Additionally, sixty-five percent (or almost two in three) said they do not believe kids will be ready when they enter adulthood. Consider how it feels to be a teen led by parents, teachers and coaches who convey such negative emotions. Kids can tell when they’re being led by someone who doesn’t believe they’re going to be ready for whatever challenges they face ahead. Regardless of what we say, they’re digesting not only our words but our nonverbal (our body language) and our paraverbal (our tone) as well.



Three Kinds of Conversations

In Charles Duhigg’s latest book, Supercommunicators, he reminds us that we need to size up the kind of conversation the people in front of us need or want. This goes for students as well. He describes three types of interactions based on what the person needs most:


1. Practical—This conversation is about facts, sizing up what the topic is really about. In practical conversations, the person actually wants to be helped or advised by you. You must ask yourself: What’s this really about, and how can I share something valuable?


2. Emotional—This conversation is about feelings, evaluating how they feel and want to feel. In these interactions, the person wants to be verbally hugged by you. You must ask yourself: How do they feel and what kind of verbal “hug” or affirmation can I add?


3. Social—This conversation answers the question: Who are we? It’s not about informing the other person but about hearing the person. You must ask yourself what you can do to connect with them and make them feel heard and understood. No advice is needed. 


Bottom line? Do they need to be helped, hugged or heard? I have entered so many interactions from a factual standpoint and completely missed the needs of the student. They were in a social or emotional frame of mind and I was in a cognitive frame of mind. And I didn’t connect. I’ve done this with students, with my wife and with my own kids. If you’re not having the same conversation, you’ll not connect and, perhaps, even create tension. When we learn to have the same conversation, we match each other and it is absolutely powerful. 


Don taught chemistry for decades and worked hard to express belief and positivity to students, especially when the subject didn’t come naturally. Deanna was such a student. She was kind, respectful and generous with her classmates but didn’t get chemistry. Don tried encouraging her but knew he had to be honest about her poor test scores. Deanna failed her final exam. Toiling over what to write next to her “F,” he found a way to be both accurate and hopeful. He wrote: “We cannot all be chemists, but oh, how we would all love to be Deanna’s.” 


I continue to believe the deepest way we can impact culture is to express belief in our students.


What Culture Are You Building for Your Students?