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Do you think you are better than everyone else?

When I was at primary school there was an incident that has stayed with me for a long time, about 40 years in fact. It shows the power of the spoken word and the power of those in positions of power to influence the people they work with.

I was one of those kids that loved learning, heck I still do, and I was always looking to stretch myself, again I still do. One day when I must've been about 11 years old, I had completed some work earlier than my classmates, I had checked it and then waited in line to ask my teacher if I could please have some more work. The response from my teacher was less than supportive, in fact the response was a loud (enough to silence the rest of my classmates) "so you think you are better than everyone else?" I was horrified. That was not what I meant at all, I just wanted some more work to keep myself busy and tried to explain that in a quiet voice but to no avail. I didn't get any more work, all I got was humiliated and shamed. Obviously this has not scarred me for life in terms of my love of learning but it is a refrain that from time to time has popped up when I am vulnerable.

So you think you are better than everyone else?

What does a comment like that imply? Well to me it said, don't excel. Beware the tall poppy. You are not as good as you think you are. It also said I can't be bothered dealing with you as an individual, be like everyone else. Be smaller. Be quiet. Suppress your needs. Be good but not too good, work hard but not too hard unless you are working hard to fit in of course. For goodness sake don't be you!

I have been really blessed to have pursued the career of my choice, to have met amazing people, to have learned from them and I have had opportunities to do things that I never thought I was capable of. I have had great champions in my life and I consider myself very fortunate. However sometimes when I have had a chance to step up and do something new or take on a leadership role or step into a challenging situation where I have to stand up for something I believe in, there is that little voice that goes "so you think you are better than everyone else?" And then the following tumbles. A plaintive cry "I don't think I am better than anyone else, I just have something to say". The inner critic questions "what right do I have to speak, to take up space, to be here?" And I shrink in the glare of the shame spotlight.

Why tell you this story? Simply because it illustrates the power we have to influence others through what we say and do. I am pretty sure that this particular teacher will have no recollection of this moment at all, it would just be another exchange in what would total thousands over a teaching career I imagine. I am sure his intention was not to harm, just get me out of his face so he could work with the rest of the class, perhaps he was stressed. We all have times where we say something we shouldn't have, and none of us are perfect. Mindfulness and being in the moment can reduce the reactive comments and, if we do make a mistake, allow us the presence to apologise and make amends in a timely fashion.

The take home message for teachers (and anyone who lives or works with children and young people) is to be mindful of what you are saying, you have tremendous potential to impact on the lives of the young people you live or work with and you never know when there is a pivotal moment happening. Shaming is simply not a good way to manage behaviour. And the same message goes to the adults in the room, particularly those in positions of authority or power, remember that the words you use have potential to help or harm as well. There are a few specific incidents from my adult life I can recall where it almost felt as though I had gone back in time and again I am standing in that moment of shame in the classroom, "so you think you're better than everyone else?" I have reacted by trying to be smaller, stand out less and fit in with the group which is not the most proactive position to be in and has rendered me fairly ineffective in that moment.

Over time I have learned that I have the ultimate power as to whether that nasty little voice of self doubt and shame gets heard or not. Again, I am blessed to have had the opportunities to read and learn and reflect. I have had some amazing coaches and mentors who have helped me. I am also lucky to have other refrains from my life that counter that nasty voice, it is amazing which voice can be the most easily heard in times of stress or strain though.

What are the refrains that you hear over again from your past? Do they help you or harm you? Which refrains deserve a hearing and which ones need to be silenced or at least reduced to a faint whisper?

Our words can lift or lower, can hurt or heal, can empower or suppress, can create greatness or squash it... I hope today is a day of uplifting words, thoughts and deeds for you and the people you engage with. What an amazing difference it could make to the world if we all took on that challenge!

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