Something I never thought I'd be able to say:
Want to learn how to be a more effective, persuasive speaker? Teach a kindergarten class.
This year, my ability to communicate effectively to very young children has grown considerably. My kindergarten students are 6 years old, the year before elementary school. Standard, right? But the academy also has students that are 4 and 5 years old.
I enjoy working with the more advanced students, who can carry conversations in English. I only hear half a dozen Korean words every day from them, sometimes zero. Their ability allows me to really get to work on explaining everything we are doing and why we are doing it.
When I started work this spring, I thought it would be like teaching 1st graders, which I have done for a few years and enjoyed.
It's not the same.
We spend the whole day together, for one. I only spend an hour and a half with my first graders.
The difference in the students' development and maturity requires me to bring a different approach. Chiefly, I have to bring a lot of excitement and energy to every lesson.
How I present an idea, and with how much energy, has a huge effect on whether it will be well-received. I can easily make a fun game laborious if I under-sell it. I can also make mundane tasks seem fun if I attach some emotion or a goal to them.
Navigating those dynamics has really pushed me forward in being able to persuade those children to do what I want them to do.
Before I get any deeper into the theory of it, I'd like to share some stories.
Things that worked:
Seven little statues
This particular success was not entirely intentional on my part. I was actually surprised by the result. Very pleasantly so.
For a long time, since the first week, we've had a system for sitting up straight. I made it sort of a game, in which they had to follow me—lean left... lean right... look at the door... sit up straight!
One day, I was playing around with my water bottle. I had shown them how you can open the top to a water bottle and swing it over your head--upside down. The water doesn't come out! Centripetal force keeps the water in the bottle.
But this particular day, I wanted to go extra slow, just to the point of the water almost spilling.
Guess what? It spilled.
A few of the eager ones jumped up and grabbed some tissues. I told them no, tissues are too thin. There's too much water. I will go to the kitchen to find a towel.
Before I walked into the kitchen, I glanced back and saw a face peeking out the door. She saw me looking and jumped back into the room.
I thought, "Oh no, they must be playing, I better hurry."
What I saw when I walked back into the classroom floored me.
Just thinking about it now is bringing a tear to my eye.
Every student was propped up in their chair, sitting perfectly straight. The desk was dry and there was no sign of any mess.
The scout was there to make sure they wouldn't be caught in the act of cleaning up my mess!
I had to know how they did it.
I said, "Thanks for cleaning, but you wasted too much tissue paper!"
The chorus came, "No~!"
Someone said they only used 3 tissues.
Enthusiastic nods of agreement rippled across the room.
I couldn't believe it. I took five minutes to thank them, and explain why it was so amazing what they just did. Many other classes would relish the opportunity to cause some trouble while the teacher was away.
Not this class.
This class took it upon themselves to disregard my instructions to not clean up the water. They thought they could get it done without wasting tissues (something we had recently talked about), and they did. I suppose they thought they could please me by doing it fast (something I emphasize - we are the Cheetah class, after all) and they did. They worked together to solve the problem and wanted me to find them sitting up straight in their chairs (again, something I expect and encourage).
It was the proudest I've ever been of a class of students. That's when I knew they had bought into my program, and they wanted to do the right things.
I've always known they were great kids, but that was the day that really brought the lesson home for me.
That transitioned naturally into a situation that happens at least once a week. I forget my book or some supplies in the teachers' room, and I have to run out to get them after class should have started.
I walk out the door saying, "I'm going to go get my book, and I'll be back in one minute. Will everyone be sitting nicely when I come back?"
There is always a flurry of activity, and inevitably my most enthusiastic student shouts,
"Everyone! Sit nicely!"
Typically there is one student not sitting right when I peer through the window on the way back, but they see me coming and they always snap to attention. I am always sure to congratulate them on doing a good job, thank you for sitting so nicely, etc.
Then something else started happening...
I don't know exactly who started it or when, but the students have taken to "being a statue" while my co-teacher and I prepare their lunches. While we're dishing up the food, they sit as perfectly still as they can, eyes fixed forward.
For a few months previously, we had chosen the students who were waiting patiently and quietly to come get their lunch first.
I suppose a competition for "best statue" was the natural result??
We have one student in particular reminding us every day to check their feet, too. So every day there is an inspection, and I have to choose who is sitting the most still.
I don't like doing it very much, and it's legitimately hard to choose because they are all so good. Some days I would choose based on who was the first in their chair after we come back from washing our hands. Other days I waited to choose the ones who had moved (or talked) the least.
Then, I got a new idea!
It feels like a stroke of genius now, but it was frankly born from laziness.
I didn't want to bother picking who was best, because they are all so good. It is kind of taxing to make those decisions. I need my mental faculties for my long days of teaching, it feels wasteful to stress over trivial decisions such as these.
The idea: One student can sacrifice their position to be the "Statue Inspector."
They have to be last, but they get to choose the order of who gets their lunch.
I wasn't sure if they would go for it, but damn, they loved that idea.
I had a room full of enthusiastic hands raised, wanting to be last to get their lunch. Two seconds previously, they were all clamoring to be first, and now they were pleading with me to be last.
I get a good chuckle every time I think about that.
Even my most temperamental student was raising her hand so high she was practically standing, repeating loudly, "I want to be last!"
This was from the student who has literally cried and thrown multiple tantrums throughout the year because she wasn't the first to read, line up, or be called to participate in some activity.
I think I've stumbled on the best idea of the month!
The trick with this technique is to just give them a time limit to make their choices. They will agonize for 5 minutes if I let them, so I cap it at 1 minute while we finish up the lunches. Also rotate the Statue Inspector so everyone gets a chance after a week's time.
Make it their idea
Something that stuck with me from a long-time ESL teacher friend of mine was this idea that you have to "trick" the kids into learning.
It's not something I succeed with every day, or do a particularly good job of overall, but I try to remember it. I try to present some things that we have to do as optional, or frame things as a game.
If I can get a couple students to buy into the idea, it goes so much more smoothly. Because the kids like me and I bring a lot of energy to the class, I can get away with sort of lecturing them for a while, but every now and then...
I have to make it their idea.
I give them two options, cleverly disguised as two ways to do the same damn thing. They pick one, and they've got some emotional investment in the learning process. Once the kids are emotionally invested, you've got all the ingredients you need for a great lesson.
Persuading kindergarten students to do things is not particularly hard, I prefer to push for the best results.
If they ask why we are doing something, I never tell them "because I said so" or any similar non-answer. They should know why.
I think "because I said so" has an energy-draining effect, so I always take the time when prompted to give my best reason why we should complete our current activity. I usually end up getting that emotional investment I look for from at least one student, and we can move on.
Stretching to explain things in compelling ways is a big part of what has pushed my growth as an effective communicator this year.
I also don't allow the kids to go through the motions. I expect all activities to be done with enthusiasm. It sounds impossible (perhaps because it is).
Maybe it sounds possible but exhausting... and it is definitely exhausting at times.
Sometimes the only one with any enthusiasm is me, and that's when it gets really exhausting. But enthusiasm has a way of rubbing off on others, especially kids as young as these.
Consistent enthusiasm is the cherry on top that I'm always reaching for.
Kindergarten students are capable of studying for 5 hours with sustained, high levels of enthusiasm -- if their teacher makes it fun enough.
I firmly believe that.
It's damn near impossible for every activity to be fun with the intense curriculum we are provided with, but I enjoy the challenge to try.
If I succeed, the positive outcomes are too good to ignore. My skills as a teacher develop, while my students' skills as little people blossom. It's the push for excellence that keeps my skills sharp and gets the kids having fun every week.
Every day of their young lives is a precious opportunity to foster their development. I try my best not to waste any of my chances.
I've believed for as long as I've been a teacher that you get the results you ask for. If you show up and go through the motions, you can expect your students will, too.
This year, I've really applied myself to the task of consistently showing up with something to prove.
Every day, I put conscious effort into trying hard. With this mindset, it gets really easy to rise to the challenge when the kids start complaining about being hungry, bored, or tired. I make myself the example by raising my energy levels and expecting that my students follow my lead.
This approach has improved my ability to persuade others because I have routinely put myself in the position of digging deep, asking myself what else I can try in order to produce better results from my audience. Because my standard is not just obedience, but genuine enthusiasm, it requires a higher level of persuasion on my part. It means I go the extra mile on purpose, which usually makes the difference in how the kids respond.
I cannot talk to my coworkers or parents the same way I talk to my kindergarten class, but I think many elements are the same. Raise your own energy levels and frame your arguments in a way that includes your listeners' feelings and desires.
Persuasion also doesn't need to be sleazy. Persuasion can be as simple as doing whatever it takes to get your audience's full attention.
You do that with elevated energy and intensity.
Sometimes we need to be big and bold in this world, when our friends and family have their noses buried in their cell phones. If you want deeper conversations, with more joy and engagement, you might do well to remember what it takes to bring the out best from a class full of kindergartners.
Any teachers out there with some experience to share? Let us know! :)