When Lake Superior State University in Michigan announced earlier this year that the phrase “teachable moments” should be banned, it felt like an affront to the student affairs community. It’s a phrase we’ve embraced and made our own to describe the often difficult conversations that we have with students. Anyone can have a moment of educating someone else about facts, or as one submitter to LSSU wrote, “potty-training to politics.” What truly makes a moment teachable is the opportunity not only to educate, but also to be real in the eyes of our students. I think those who suggested the phrase be banned missed the benefit of the human side of teachable moments.
In an amazing feat of acrobatics, two of my student staff members managed to go simultaneously above my head and behind my back last week. When I found out what was going on via a conversation with my supervisor, I was disappointed in the decisions that they made. They violated our staff expectations; they were not honest with me about how they were feeling in regard to a mistake that I made, and in earlier conversation with them, had taken ownership of. I spent much of that morning with my office door shut debating how I wanted to proceed. Playing out a variety of scenarios in my head, I knew that I would not be doing any of us a favor to pretend like the situation had not happened. Later that afternoon when I found both of the staff members in the Community Building, I invited them to talk with me in my office.
As they sat across my desk from me, I asked them about their decision-making processes and to reflect on why they chose the path they did instead of the one that was established for handling these situations. Initially, they backpedaled until I stopped them and presented the information I knew. They admitted their mistake and recognized where they had made poor decisions in their handling the situation. Realistically the conversation could have stopped there, but I took it a step farther.
I candidly admitted to both of them that they had hurt my feelings through their actions. I even used feeling words, which is a huge feat for someone who is more comfortable thinking and processing. I told them how it felt to be on the receiving end of the information, how it felt to disappoint them, how it felt to not be trusted by them to repair the situation. When I finished, they sat quietly looking at me, not reacting.
Before they left my office, I assured them that we would move forward together from here, that this a small bump on a long road — as students, as staff members, as people who are supervised, and –most importantly — as people. In the days that followed, I saw a difference in how these staff members treated me in and out of the office. Instead of just telling me to have a good weekend, they asked if I had weekend plans. When I delivered food for their program on Friday night, they helped carry it in and then thanked me for going to pick it up. I can’t say it’s all traceable to my moment of being human, but that moment certainly didn’t hurt.
Teachable moments are about much more than facts and corrective action; they’re about the opportunity to build a connection and learn together with our students. The phrase may be banned by LSSU, but it’s alive and well in my daily discourse.