Strengths Based Work – No Boundaries, No Limits

As an Organizational Strengths Consultant, I have the privilege of working with people from all over the world. For me, the language of strengths has become the grand equalizer.

It has created bridges where there may have otherwise been gaps in culture, upbringing, life experience, faith, education, geography, age or career. And unlike other jobs, where there is often a tangible ROI or a series of KPI’s to gauge results, the outcome of this work far exceeds any one possible measure.

In fact, the indicators of a job well done are often invisible because the impact of this work is different for every single person. I cannot predict what will ‘stick’, nor can I control its influence or possibility.

How Strengths Work Starts with an Idea

For Rebecca Clark, a faculty member at Singapore American School, it was an idea. As part of our Learning Community 360 experience, Rebecca and her Professional Learning Community (PLC) colleagues engaged in a powerful strengths based discovery session.

One part of the dialogue sparked Rebecca’s thinking about the possible application to her work with Middle School students. Leading with her Individualization and Connectedness, Rebecca truly believes that teachers teach kids…not content. But it is often difficult to get to truly know kids through the deluge of curriculum and confines of time. But it is exactly at this critical stage in adolescent development that kids are desperate to know and be known.

So, Rebecca did what all great teachers do. She took an experience, meshed it with an idea, and offered it up to her students in a way that made it new, fresh, accessible and meaningful to them in their own context.

Rebecca has graciously offered to share this experience with us all, in an effort to highlight the true beauty of the Strengths work. When you give it away, the possibilities are limitless.

The following is her story. Enjoy!

Just One Sentence

by Rebecca Clark

Every Reading and Language Arts teacher out there surveys the kids at the start of the year in some way or another. We may choose a document with questions we revise year after year, on-the-spot conferring during class, letter writing, you name it.

This year, my teaching partner, Betsy Hall, and I tweaked last year’s survey for our eighth grade students at Singapore American School and got it GoogleDoc-ready, allowing the kids a few days to fill in answers and stories to explore who they are as readers and writers. Like every year, we learned a lot so we can teach them in ways that are more meaningful (yes, that’s my individualization talking).

The document, for some, ended up being four pages long, filled with stories of books that changed their lives, writing assignments that haunted them in their sleep, and dreams for what they would create at the end of the year for their independent writing project, which allows them to explore their passions for about a month in any genre (or mixed genres) they choose (yep, that’s my Individualization again).

As I started reading through them, even though we had streamlined it quite a bit from the previous year, I felt myself wanting to know the ONE thing that mattered to the student. And I mean really mattered.

What Really Matters

I flashed back to the session with our LVC consultants (Aleasha Morris and Linda Schubring), when the six of us sat together and did just that. We have worked together for years and consider ourselves a “dream team.” We know each other really well. We, as my wedding vows to my husband say, “celebrate our differences” in the most positive ways possible.

We meet each week, designing units and lessons and reflecting on our teaching. In a nutshell, we’re pretty awesome and get along. But when Aleasha and Linda engaged us in a new exercise, it was a game changer.

They asked us to each complete a simple statement:

To know me is to know that…

If we had to boil our whole selves (top five strengths — or beyond, plus everything else that made us tick) into one statement, how would we finish it? Did I mention how awesome our team is?

We just went there.

Some of us went pretty deep.

Some of us got emotional.

We learned more about each other through one simple sentence than we had learned in four years of working together.

Fast Forward a few Months: I had to try it with my Students

The GoogleDoc was done. All four pages of it. I had them highlight the top three things they really wanted me to look out for. It helped boil it down, but I needed something simpler. Surprisingly, though, what I got was more complex.

I told them the story of our PLC and how I learned that one of my friends is quiet in meetings because by Friday, she’s been so involved with her students’ lives and challenges on top of coaching (not to mention a human with a life at home — yes, teachers lead lives outside of school, despite our beliefs when we were little and would find it peculiar that they shopped in grocery stores) that she’s left a bit depleted. Not in a bad way. In a giving way. Her strength of Empathy is always ‘on’. So when she’s quiet in meetings, it’s not that she doesn’t have anything to say. Far from it, actually. It’s just Friday.

She shared stories that reminded me of my favorite part of the film Home for the Holidays when Holly Hunter’s character, an adult visiting her childhood home for Thanksgiving, exits the laundry room after emotional scene with an ex-boyfriend who has just dumped his “sad sack” stories from his life on her.

After she listens to everything in his tragic life and there’s a moment of not knowing where this leaves her, she says goodbye to him, holding back tears. Kind of like eighth grade teachers want to after a week of teaching kids who are in the most tortured years of adolescence.

Her brother, played by the gifted Robert Downey, Jr. reassures his friend who witnessed her quick, teary exit, “She’ll bounce back. Trust me on this. She feels her feelings when she feels them. Feelings come up, and she actually feels them, which is great. She’ll bounce back. Trust me.

Hunter reminds me of my colleague. She spends the whole week, well, feeling her feelings. She cares about kids. That’s why she’s quiet sometimes. Don’t get me wrong. Our students are talented, privileged kids. But it takes a lot to teach this age, and as you’ll soon see, they have a lot on their minds that we as middle school teachers really get. And sometimes, her Empathy, can’t help taking it all on.

When I shared the story, my students were really drawn in. I think they like to see us as humans. They were ready to try it.

“So. If you had ONE sentence to share with me,” I asked my eighth graders, “how would you finish this starter? Tell me. What do I need to know about you in ONE sentence to teach you in a way that’s meaningful this year?”

Here’s what some kids shared. It was tough to get the list down to ten.

  1. To know me is to know that I didn’t know English when I came Singapore in fourth grade from Korea.
  2. To know me is to know that I always try to reach out for everybody who is having a bad day or just nobody who notices that person is there.
  3. To know me is to know that even though I love my friends here, I really miss my friends in London.
  4. To know me is to know that I almost always over think things, causing me to get stressed.
  5. To know me is to know that I have a hard time fitting in.
  6. To know me is to know that I get stressed about every little thing in life. I get stressed about homework, my social life, sports, etc. I’m working on not doing it as often and just remind myself to calm down but I still get stressed a ton.
  7. To know me is to know that I hate losing.
  8. To know me is to know that I just had to leave a small group of friends that I was with for three years and who were like siblings to me.
  9. To know me is to know that I am experiencing one of the most stressful years of my life, knowing that my dad is retiring from his job; his passion after working in the US military for almost 25 years and that it’s possible that my brother who is a senior might not be able to graduate from this amazing school, which affects me so much more than my parents think.
  10. To know me is to know that I worry about my homework getting done and making my teachers angry, and when I try to do my homework I either forget or feel unsatisfied.

Leaving it so wide open with just a sentence starter allowed insightful, sensitive, and inspirational responses; they gave me just one sentence, and that window into their lives allowed me to teach them as people. They didn’t have to use Strengths language, for me to see, understand and appreciate their strengths.

Not to sound too much like the end of The Breakfast Club, but in that single sentence, they invited me to see who they really were.

  • The kid who doesn’t do homework is actually the one who fears punishment and judgment (he’s in my room 10 minutes early every day doing his work and quietly asking that I check it).
  • The shy girl who doesn’t speak up became the girl who is thinking of her father and brother’s lives changing (she likes to confer quietly with me rather than a writing partner).
  • The amazing athlete everyone looks up to is really a worrier haunted by striving for perfection. He’s exploring it in his writing right now and is creating one of the most complex essays on the sacrifices he’s made in his swimming career, choosing his sport over friendships.
  • The popular girl always surrounded by boys in the hall? She is actually the one who is afraid she doesn’t fit in.

And that’s teaching, no matter how many kids we have on a class roster. It’s going to be a beautiful year. All because of one sentence.