Written By: Hans Appel
I was fortunate to attend one of the best counselor prep programs in the northwest. Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg Washington is highly distinguished for 3 specific programs: Accounting, Teaching, and Counseling. Indeed, their counseling program is second to none, in my part of the country! Perhaps, the biggest distinction between CWU and other universities’ counseling programs is the experiential practicum that students receive in a real world clinic. While some programs are grounded in role playing, scenarios, and fake setups, CWU required me to complete nearly 2 years of individual and group counseling with actual clients. It was insanely rigourous and inordinately challenging. All 50 minute sessions were videotaped for us, our supervisor, and our student teams to review, annalyze, and critic. We spent hours transcribing words, interpreting non-verbals, and examining feelings or thoughts. If you’ve ever recorded yourself doing anything, you recognize that the camera catches everything. Frequent questions arose during viewing sessions that would make the most confident individual re-examine their future counseling path:
**Why did you cross your legs there?
**How come you leaned forward there?
**What message are you sending to the client with this greeting?
**How might you more accurately capture this person’s story?
**What transference or countertransference was observable in that clip?
As you might imagine every little component was picked over. In fact, I believe the saying ”leave no stone unturned” could have come from CWU’s clinical counseling program. It was a challenging and awesome experience and I loved everything about it! Frankly, we all knew that if we survived this program (and not everyone did) we’d be ready to flourish in the helping profession. Of all the memories, learnings, and take-aways from my time in the program, the one I continue to come back to is something I call The Tissue Lesson.
During one unforgettable review session, my supervisor (Dr. Collins) took a close look at a session I was confused by. During the session, the client and I seemed to be connecting well. We were building rapport and the she was slowly opening up. At one point, she began to cry and started to share some intense feelings. Suddenly, she stopped emoting and put up an invisible wall. It was clear that she no longer felt comfortable to explore her feelings in that moment. On video tape it became clear that she quickly clammed up and returned into her own head before moving the conversation into a different direction. As our team zeroed in on this piece of the tape, we tried to determine what might have gone wrong. Dr. Collins, an expert in human behavior and a passion for teaching future counselors made me replay a 20 second clip probably half a dozen times.
“What do you see Hans?” Collins questioned?
“Ah, I don’t know. I gave her a tissue as she started to cry,” I stated as I tried to make sense of his nonsensical question.
“How did you give her the tissue,” Collins probed?
“Ahhh, I handed her the box” I said with slight annoyance, as I looked around the room at my fellow peers trying to understand the point of this inquiry.
“Anyone else see anything” Collins posed to the other students?
In that moment, Dr. Collins reached for the tissue box next to him...slowly and methodically pulled out 1 tissue presented it to me with an open posture flourish and then set the entire box next to me. “Hans, let’s consider how you presented the tissue to her instead” as Collins gathered the box back with an ere of excitement, as if he knew, he was about to forever change my thinking.
“When you handed her the box, there was no compassion, no feeling, no warmth. You simply picked up the box and set it down coldly, to her as if to say ‘dry your tears now.’ Obviously, that wasn’t your intended message but you didn’t present the tissue in a way that encouraged her to continue to explore her own feelings. It’s critical to create a safe culture where our clients can tackle real emotion because that’s where real learning and insight comes from.”
We went on as a small group to discuss and practice something I’ve come to dub 'the tissue display' for another 15 minutes. During this time we determined the optimal spot in the room for the tissues to reside. We reconfigured the chairs to better meet the demands of immediacy. We worked through just how close the box should be to both the client and counselor. Additionally, our group delved into a thorough examination of how to offer the tissue, how much eye contact to give, what to say and not say. Let me assure you, there are literally a zillion ways to hand someone a tissue. We played around with subtle differences that might be awkward, funny, or strange ways to offer up the tissue. I can only describe the scene, as if it was an image from an improv group such as SNL or Second City blocking and choreographing potential actions for a performance. Near the end of this experiential learning discussion, Dr. Collins asked the group, “So, what’s the big takeaway from Hans’s session today?” Naturally, we all started yammering on about tissues, feelings, safety...when Collins stopped us sharply:
“No, No, No” Collins explained. “It’s not about the tissue. Although don’t get me wrong, the tissue matters. Obviously, knowing how to respond to someone in tears is critical.
But that’s not ALL! It’s about the DETAIL and INTENTIONALITY OF THE MOMENT. Exceptional educators think through EVERY aspect. The lesson moving forward is that you each need to analyze, consider, and reflect on every action, communication, and facet you present in a helping or learning setting. Furthermore, you must consider the space, environment...right down to the furniture layout and choice of the room. Will you have background music, what type of lighting is best, what will hang on your walls, etc. No detail is too small!”
This entire review session is burned in my memory. Years later, I’ve used the tissue lesson with school counseling interns to great success. Obviously, it’s a beautiful way to illustrate the need to establish a growth mindset towards reflection and to think in terms of student experience rather than educator perception. When we’re trying to create perfect culture for humanistic growth, Collins was exactly correct in that every detail matters.
The tissue lesson emphasizes both practice (how to present a tissue in a kind, respectful manner) and theory (application of detail focused mindset).
My wife, Jen, has a similar story (which I won’t share here) about learning the best way to collect student’s paper assignments. While some teachers still request students turn them into a box and others have students pass homework forward, Jen learned during the first year of her teaching career that collection of homework should be done individually by the teacher. While technological programs have changed and altered the way students now hand in their work, taking the time and consideration to physically hand your work to the teacher helps with:
**Ensuring that students don’t lose assignments on the way to turn them
**Forgeting to turn in work that they’ve actually completed
**Increases personal connection between Teacher/Student
**Provides a quick opportunity for Teacher to check-in with Student to gauge their understanding and/or completion of the work
Now to be honest, this post has nothing to do with tissues or homework...
Award Winning Culture establishes a mindset for continual exploration of details that impact thoughts, feelings, and behaviors...and thereby LEARNING.
But are these levels of consideration actually necessary in education? Well, there’s a band of edu-stars who apply this level of detail to their own work.
“Teach like a Pirate” author, Dave Burgess has emphasized the need to explore every detail of teaching as if it was a performance. His background in magic and theater have shaped his thinking as he carefully crafts the mood, ambience, and style of his learning environment. While some readers seem to get stuck on simply dressing like a pirate, Burgess’ exceptional message of magnifying YOU and the secret sauce of what makes YOU special as an educator is absolutely brilliant. It’s not about recreating Dave Burgess or emulating him into your own school. You’ll never be a very good Burgess but you have the capacity to do life changing work if you tap into what makes YOU special. I love how Burgess asks educators to consider even the smallest detail such as: Do I want my students to enter with the lights on or off. His point on room lighting is not to share the right amount of light in the room but to eloquently illuminate that every detail is a choice and when your trying to conjure up educational magic, no detail should be overlooked.
Other educators have created inspired work regarding the entrance of students into a space (classroom, front doors, etc.) John Norlin and Houston Kraft, from Character Strong, have created a concept they call “Four at the Door + One more.” By focusing on a specific daily routined connection, teachers are able to increase student engagement by 20%.
This same level of intentionality to detail is seen in Kayla Delzer’s work with flexible seating, David Geurin approach to creating Future Driven Schools, and Michael Matera’s infusion of Gamification as an overlay to great content. Indeed, Elisabeth Bostwick’s exceptional new book “Take the Leap: Igniting a Culture of Innovation” takes readers on a journey of facilitating Learners’ CURIOSITY through a multitude of angles of innovation that highlight an inspiring array of intentionality. Sean Gaillard, author of “The Pepper Effect” would ultimately remind educators that focusing on the details of collaboration, creativity, and innovation have the potential to create a masterpiece of educational harmony.
I so admire these educational thought leaders...not just for their ideas...but for their willingness to step outside the proverbial tissue box and wrestle with the intricacies of student experience.
But unraveling the details of a school action applies outside of the classroom as well. While numerous educators post and share stories to social media accounts, few consider the exceptional specificity of Joe Sanfelippo. This superintendent and branding savant from Wisconsin realized that people in his community were invariably watching their beloved Packers on Sunday afternoons. Thus, timing social media releases during timeouts, halftime and directly before or after kickoff demonstrated a level of consideration that most educators wouldn’t even bother with. Are you that intentional with your social media presence?
Still other social media giants like Mariah Rackley and Beth Houf view every moment under the lens of community building through brand promotion. They’re experts in recognizing culture building moments and have the foresight to share them out in a palatable and entertaining way for others to enjoy in real time. By eliminating delays in information and storytelling in the moment, they’ve effectively created a more cohesive school family. GENIUS!
But the learnings from the tissue lesson may also be applied outside of student involvement. For example, consider the facets of a parent meeting. Join me as we explore questions like who’s present in the meeting; where do you meet; how are the parents welcomed; how will they find their way to the meeting; are there reminders or confirmations; is there an agenda; time frame; will there be snacks, water or coffee available; how will you take the temperature of the room; who will lead the meeting; how will you handle late arrivals; how will you gauge success in the meeting, etc. Realize that parent meetings can be anxiety provoking circumstances for many of our parents. How might you intentionally eliminate undue concern and make for a more productive meeting?
Jimmy Casas applies a similar breakdown to the hiring process. Listening to him, last summer in Chicago, teach administrators the secrets behind hiring educators was akin to watching Dr. Collins examine the nuances of a tissue. Of course, learning from Casas, Collins or any other expert, at the top of their field is more about mindset, attitude, and approach than just style. Winning educators are always driven to up their game. Never being satisfied that they’ve arrived.
As you start breaking down routine educational events into the tiny particular choices, decisions, and aspects that form your work, you realize that the great educators have a different level of thinking that goes into creating educational magic.
Additionally the tissue lesson teaches us that there is no perfect way to present the tissue to every person. Barbara Gruener says that “mindfulness is being where your feet are.” When educators are willing to be in the moment and are committed to getting outside of their own heads to take an empathic stance on others experience, educators find themselves in the perfect position to serve.
Perhaps, the greatest lesson from Dr. Collins’ tissue experiment is to never stop reflecting on our work. And if you think about it, modeling a lifelong pursuit of learning might be our greatest gift to our students, families, and colleagues.
**What unintended outcomes might YOUR actions be yielding?
**What current educational practices might you dissect to recreate a better experience for others?
**How might you step back and take a wide view on something your currently struggling with?
Might there be a more meaningful way to offer THE TISSUE?
About the Author
Hans Appel has worked as a counselor in the Richland School District for the past 18 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He’s passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness. In 2018, EMS was awarded the ASCD Whole Child Award for the State of Washington and the Global “Class Act Award” for creating a culture of excellence through kindness, service, and empathy. Recently, Hans launched his own blog about School Culture and this fall rolled out a student-led leadership podcast called Award Winning Culture: Hosted by Wildcat Nation, which can be subscribed, listened or reviewed on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, and Libsyn. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow Hans on twitter @hansappel094. Follow AWC on twitter at @awculture or Instagram @awardwinningculture. Wildcat Nation at @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emscounseling #WildcatNation #AwardWinningCulture
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.