Being an elementary school teacher: My secret weapon for dealing with adults

My secret identity comes out: I am an elementary school teacher. I teach both kindergarten through fifth grade general education and special education. There is a priceless reward in helping struggling students reach their full potential as scholars. I feel privileged to be a part of that. Perhaps an unexpected reward that comes from being an elementary school teacher is that the patient, nurturing, and maternal attitude that I use around my students had helped me successfully deal with adults in a way I never thought possible. I have a side job as a server on the weekends. I have learned that when communicating with my adult customers and coworkers, it is best to think of them as second graders. Talking to them as adults rarely gets the job done. It is better to talk slowly, calmly, patiently, and in a maternal style. I have several examples which I will list below:

1. One time the line was very long at the bar, so I helped the bartender out. One gentlemen asked the bartender, “Do you have limes?” She replied, “We ran out of limes,” in a regular tone of voice aimed at an adult male in his thirties. He then got belligerent and challenged us by stating, “You really don’t have any limes?” I could have said “no” in a regular adult tone. I could have even attempted sarcasm such as, “What part of “no” don’t you understand?” like I have seen male bartenders do in other bars (I would not recommend this strategy). Instead I had an idea. I wanted to calm the gentleman down so I replied very patiently, calmly, and slowly like I was talking to one of my kindergartners: “No, we do not have limes.” The key to my success was not to make it obvious that I thought he was mentally challenged for not understanding the first time or for thinking that he could try to intimidate two sweet women. I treated him like he was my seven year old student. I was nice but firm and also surreptitiously condescending (not in a way that was obvious). I held onto the word “No” in an attempt to drag it out like I do with preschoolers, “Noooo.” It helped to make my mouth into an “O” shape as if I was teaching this gentleman to sound out the letter. Guess what? It worked like a charm. Homeboy smiled and said, “No worries” as he quietly left the bar.

2. The next incident I was bussing my table when a woman in her forties asked, “Do you have any straws?” I replied, “I’m sorry ma’am we don’t,” in a kind, professional manner. You’d think that would get the job done, right? Instead I couldn’t have been more wrong when she burst out, “So you don’t have any straws?” She emphasized “any” as if this were The Sahara and I said we couldn’t find any water. It was a matter of life and death to have a tiny straw in which to suck up her soda. I can think of something else I’d like her to suck but I have to avoid getting off topic. I decided to treat her as if she were one of my first graders asking to go to the bathroom five minutes after I had just said no. I smiled and replied very calmly but firmly, “Still no.” This lady then got embarrassed for how she acted and smiled and said, “It’s okay.” I don’t know where these people come from. If I don’t have straws in my kitchen I can’t automatically pretend I’m Criss Angel and pull one out of my ass. (I’d rather not think about what Criss Angel has up his ass).

3. My final example has to do with my male coworkers ages 20-40. I was on break with all five of them. A June bug came crashing onto our table. Immediately the boys wriggled and cried out, “Ewwww! A June bug!” I told them, “June bugs are attracted to the light.” My 40 year old coworker mirrored my information to the rest of the group as if he had learned a new fact: “June bugs are attracted to the light.” He then picked up the struggling June bug and put it in a can of Coke. Having seen my kindergarteners kill bugs without knowing any better, I immediately forgot about code switching and talked to this 40 year old like he was a kindegartner. In my patient, firm, and maternal voice I said, “We do not kill June bugs. They are our friends. Just because they are inconvenient to us doesn’t mean their lives are worth any less than ours.” One of the 20 year olds snickered and said, “Friends. Hahaha.” Thinking I wasn’t looking the 40 year old took the can of Coke and dumped it out on the grass so the June bug could fly away. The next June bug that landed on the table got left alone. The boys allowed me to pick it up and release it. When one of the other 20 year olds said, “Don’t they live for only a day anyway?” I explained, “June bugs have a different concept of time than we do. To them, a day feels like 10 years to us. We wouldn’t want to cut their precious lives short just like we wouldn’t want anyone to cut our lives short.” The boys sat there transfixed as they were thinking about my lesson. I think the lesson I learned was the most powerful of all.

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