intercultural learningreflectionTeaching

Excellence through habit

‘We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’ –Aristotle

Rejecting mediocrity

Our habits make us who we are. They shape our character and inevitably, our destiny. Our habits come from the actions we take and those come from the choices and decisions we make in our lives, in our work, with friends, with family.  Habits are powerful, and they are consistent.  Can we change them? It’s no easy task, the alternative is worse though.  The essence is that we always have a choice and that choice is just as powerful as the habit.

When I was younger I had very different habits then I do now. With food, with responsibility, with my general lifestyle, the way I treated people.  I liked to party, I ate fast food, smoked ten cigarettes a day, I was nonchalant about everything.  Some of my social circles reflected this. I just wanted to chill, I didn’t take things very seriously.  Mediocre was acceptable, but at the time I didn’t think it was mediocre and also didn’t think there was anything wrong with my habits or my attitude.  But I had some goals, and when I started doing some soul searching I realized that changes were needed.  Our environment plays a big role in reinforcing our habits, so my advice would be, initially, change your environment. Is that your town or city? Or is it your workplace? Is it the people you surround yourself with? It could be all of that. So take action.

Changing those habits has taken years and effort.  Whenever I’ve questioned the decision to change, I’ve stayed the course.  I’ve kept the faith that changing is necessary, uncomfortable at first, with slip-ups and skepticism but I’ve stayed committed to the change.  The first step is recognition and the second is the choice.  Throughout, there is resistance, from the people around you, friends, family, but mostly from yourself.  Your brain is telling you that it’s too dangerous to change things, to venture out into the wilderness, alone.  Powerful change only comes from sacrifice.  You got to be willing to take the hits. Like Rocky says to his son, ‘The world ‘aint all sunshine and rainbows.  It’s a very mean and nasty place.  Nobody is going to hit you as hard as life….. You can’t go around blaming people, or looking for excuses, cowards do that, and that ‘aint you. You are better than that.’ But you got to be willing to take the hits!

Praise vs Criticism

So how do we get to Aristotle’s excellence? Practice, practice, practice.  Start a new habit, and be vigilant, disciplined and committed.  For teachers, that means not teaching out of a textbook or course book, not printing lessons off the internet, not making hundreds of photocopies of paper.  There are better habits.  If we are language teachers we need to not just introduce new language but coach and guide our students to be good communicators, because language is not just the words written or spoken but a means to communicate.  Communicating is not just talking, but listening, responding, being culturally aware.  Our language is based on our culture.  When foreigners speak English they should do so with some intercultural competence.  Understanding other cultures is essential, being tolerant is essential, being kind and courteous, essential.  Students don’t have to have my American accent or an English one, but they should be culturally competent.  When I say that, I am not referring to fish n’ chips and hamburgers.  I’m talking about praise and criticism, appropriate greetings, body language, slang or informal expressions.  Our students need to be aware that North Americans and Brits like to praise more than criticize.  We believe that it’s motivating to praise, we are uncomfortable with criticizing.  Polish people, prefer to criticize.  Teachers and parents criticize in order to motivate, they don’t praise much.  Being culturally competent means teaching our students stuff like that. So many students young and old are poor listeners.  They are probably poor listeners in their own language.  So work on it with them.  Give them opportunities to practice listening to their classmates, not a CD recording.  When you give them a photocopied piece of paper and ask them to do an exercise you are checking out. Bad habit, easy and noncommittal. Check in, change the habit, little by little, by introducing activities and tasks that get students working not putting them to sleep.

It’s no easy task to change our habits.  Some of them we have without even recognizing it.  But we are self-aware. So far, there is only a list of ten animals which have past the test of self-awareness, the latest being the European magpie (cool fact, I had to share because that’s awesome), but at a very basic level, so we are in small company here.  That means you can reflect, take a step out of yourself and look, what do you see? How do you feel? Why do you feel this way, can you change it? Of course.  There is nothing to fear.  We don’t live in primeval times, where our survival was a day to day job.  You have food, you have shelter, your demise is not imminent.  Consequently, it is up to us to make the choice to change for the better, step by step, little by little to reach that excellence we seek.

Products of a system

The system is built like a factory.  There is a bell that rings, there are separate facilities, specialized subjects, students are arranged in batches (age), like a date of manufacture.  There is a standard, everything is standardized, because the system wants us to be the same, like a robot.  People are different, unique, excel at certain tasks more than others.  You don’t have to teach to the test in every class and you certainly don’t have to assign standard exercises either.  Start a new habit, give them a project, where they have to work in teams, collaborate and create.  Where is collaboration in the system? There isn’t, it’s all about the individual and that is the problem right there.  That’s probably why we teachers are like that, we are products of that system aren’t we? It’s time to go left and not right.  Let’s make something happen. To non-conformists everywhere, we aren’t quitters, we are go-getters, we deliver.  One lesson, at a time.

If you change your habits you set a new standard, one that with continued practice you will excel at.  There is always a choice, and it may be difficult but you won’t die if you fail. You’ll learn from failing, so fail big, and then get back up and try it another way.  A lot of students are sedated, so wake them up. Let’s make something happen.  Breaking habits, takes tremendous effort, it’s a process.  There is no quick fix, just like with the education system.  Being more effective means adapting certain habits and breaking others.  Be patient, collaborate with others, and don’t be critical. It’s important to think like a ‘be’ person.

I can be more patient

I can be more resourceful

I can be more creative

I can be more cooperative.

Don’t be a ‘have’ person:

‘I’ll be happy when I have my house paid off’

‘If only I had a boss who wasn’t so rude’

‘If only I didn’t have such miserable co-workers’

‘If we had a better system…’

We need to stop looking from the outside-in and look from the inside-out.

Am I starting to sound like a broken record? Sorry about that.  It’s quite a big message, and it needs repeating.

Breaking the habit

One of my bad habits from my youth was I didn’t listen.  I thought I did, but really, I wasn’t.  People pretend to listen but they just hear.  Man, it’s a tough habit to break, because you don’t realize you have it.  Being a good listener is one of the most important skills you could ever have.  Pay attention to what the person is saying to you.  Whether you are a teacher or not, it doesn’t matter.  Don’t be robotic, be self-aware, take a step back and wonder…..

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy it. Please subscribe to the newsletter to show your support. I’ve had problems with turning the comments on for my blog, sorry. Bear with me….


‘In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control.  Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.’  -Epictetus

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change, education, growth mindset, life learning, new approach, reflection, taking action, teaching
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Whatever you do, whatever your job is, there’s a desire to do it better. If it’s not a job than it is a hobby or simply to be a better friend, coworker, person or human being. The desire is real and there’s a craving to satisfy it that is indescribable to most of us. We set boundaries on ourselves, come up with excuses and avoid the question. But no matter how hard anyone of us tries the desire to improve remains and will never vanish.

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