It was a brilliant September day—what most people would call Indian summer.
It was the very first day of my first year as a teacher and I was tied up in knots. I hadn’t slept much, with all the wondering. What exactly would I do all day with 29 short, noisy six-year-olds?
I had made copious notes and detailed lesson plans. Still, I didn’t have a clue.
Teaching pigs to swim
I had a dream the night before. My principal, Mr. Buri, stood at the side of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. He swung his head in the direction of the water.
“If you want to work at this school, you have to know how to teach pigs to swim,” he said.
In the shallow end of the pool were four brown pigs with bristly hair and the biggest snouts I had ever seen.
“Well?” Mr. Buri barked. “Can you do that?”
That was when I sat up straight in bed, sweat pouring down my face, my heart knocking.
A first day story
The next morning, I walked along rows of tidy desks, dropping a box of oversized Crayola crayons on each one.
To this day, all I need is a whiff of that heady wax scent and it takes me right back to the classroom. That, and the rectangular pieces of modeling clay that reeked of oil and stained your hands in one of three hideous colors: Army green, chocolate brown or steel gray.
The teacher in the classroom next to me, with wise eyes and gray hair pulled up into a bun, gave me my first tip.
“They’re going to be scared,” she said. “Give ‘em the clay when they first get here. It’s hard as a rock. Working to soften it keeps their hands and brains busy so they forget their fears.”
Of course she was right.
I gave each child a piece of clay. Celia, a frail-looking girl with frizzy red hair and a missing front tooth let out a big sigh and pulled the wrapper off her clay. I had managed to distract her.
Then it started.
Chris, the tall blond-haired boy I would later catch coloring his stomach—not coloring lying on his stomach; actually lifting up his shirt and coloring on his tummy—sniffed. A lone tear trickled down his cheek.
Katie, the girl to his left, was on the edge of her seat. She looked at me and back at Chris, her mouth a minus sign.
What if we just told the truth?
In a stroke of genius, it came to me. I stopped pretending like I knew everything in the world. Stopped acting like a teacher. I held up a piece of clay one kid had formed into a ball.
“You know,” I said, “right now, I feel like this piece of clay.”
The fidgeting stopped and the room got still. “My stomach feels like it’s rolled up in a hard ball. Were any of you a little afraid to come to school today? Maybe like you didn’t know what was going to happen and you were afraid you would do things wrong?”
At least eight kids raised their hands.
“Well, do you know that I’m scared, too?” I said. “You see, it’s my very first day as a teacher. Ever. I’m afraid I won’t know what to do—how to do things right.” I scanned the room, halfway expecting some kid to say, “Look out. Ship’s going down!” And a mass exodus of 29 little people, running for their lives.
What I saw instead were faces relaxing and shoulders rising, like ten-pound weights had been lifted from them.
Katie raised her hand. “I think you’re a good teacher, Mrs. Dunn,” she said with a lisp. A couple of other kids chimed in with simple words of encouragement.
The tide was turning.
I think it was because I was honest. Because I recognized and validated the emotions of those kids. I never forgot the lesson. I took it with me in every new career twist, every job, and, finally, every blog post I would write.
I told this story once on my own blog and my smart, accomplished friend, the amazing Kare Anderson, said:
I did not have a teacher like that until freshman year of high school—and she changed my life by her empathy and clarity in seeing each of us. And to take that approach with clients takes daring—to take off the uber expert hat and be human and helpful.
Now, there are some times when, obviously, it’s better to keep your thoughts to yourself. If you are a surgeon and it’s your first operation, you’re not going to say to your patient, “Hey, it’s okay to be nervous. I’m scared, too, because this is my very first surgery.”
Or you’re a pilot who just got her wings and your quivering voice comes over the intercom. “Good morning. We’ll be flying at 39,000 feet. Just wanted to share with you that it’s my first flight. I really hope I don’t screw up.”
Okay, you could say that, but it might not go over very well.
The Emotionally Intelligent Blogger
Much later, when I was working in a gifted education program, our team read a groundbreaking book by Daniel Goleman called Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. The premise was that people can be more successful when they learn how to recognize and understand emotions—in themselves and others.
Since then, a theory that got its start in the field of education has trickled down to business. We are finally recognizing that we are not dealing with prospects, clients, customers, readers.
That we are interacting with people. When we recognize that distinction, as my friend Danny Brown put it in this post, we see that the readers of our blog are just like us: with passions that light them up, with complex feelings, with beliefs and opinions they want to share. In Danny’s words:
Companies that treat us like people will have more success engaging us and generating positive opinion. Companies that treat us like people will get us raving about them to out friends and family. Treat people like people and you’ll never go wrong.
What Emotionally Intelligent Bloggers Know
We have all known people who are smart but don’t have the social-emotional skills to connect with people. Many times, the ones who excel often have something extra: compassion and empathy. They can pick up on what others are thinking and feeling.
The emotionally intelligent blogger produces content to motivate and engage others, knowing that:
No one knows all the answers.
Emotionally intelligent bloggers bounce back and forth between teaching and learning. They are comfortable enough in their own skin to know that everyone they meet can teach them something new.
When you start thinking this way, when you take off that expert hat, the pressure is off. You can offer constructive advice on your blog while pulling others into the conversation, readers who may also have had personal experiences with the topic at hand.
People are craving the truth.
People aren’t getting a lot of unvarnished truth these days. Our politicians waffle and flip flop according to which way the wind is blowing. The cable company rep tells you that your crappy internet service is the fault of someone or something else. Heck, even the so-called ‘reality shows’ on your television are orchestrated, rehearsed to manipulate you into feeling one way or another.
Do you realize how powerful you can be by just telling the truth on your blog—or the truth as you know it?
Showing empathy will set us apart.
Those gifted students of mine had buckets full of empathy. They could understand many different points of view and were sensitive to the feelings of others, mostly because they had such deep feelings themselves.
But today, at this moment, we are living in an empathy-challenged world.
Emotionally intelligent bloggers use empathy to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They do not have to have experienced something personally to relate emotionally and be able to write about it. They are good at validating other people’s feelings, even if they are different from their own.
We can use humor to make emotional connections with people.
Emotionally intelligent bloggers know that turning humor on themselves can earn respect and trust. Instead of using humor to belittle others, they relay their personal experiences and laugh at their own mistakes, in hopes that someone who is going through the same thing can learn how to overcome their own challenges.
There you go. If you have been thinking about writing more posts that connect with your readers in deeper ways—and recognize them as people first—you have my permission.
Not that you needed it.