One of the best lessons I ever learned was from a teacher that, up until adulthood, I was sure was not a great teacher. Backstory, I was in 6th grade and suffering from extreme (undiagnosed) anxiety. I was scared to death of entering Junior High and High School and not being prepared for the rigor I was expecting. This 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Grove, was fun and creative, but she never assigned homework. In my 12-year-old mind, that meant that when I got to 7th grade and had six courses (and six courses worth of homework), I would most certainly fail to rise to the challenge. My young, scared brain determined this teacher would have been great in kindergarten, but she was doing me no favors this late in the game.
Little did I know, one lesson this teacher taught us would occur over and over and over again throughout my adulthood. Whether or not she realized it at the time, I refer back to what I learned on this topic constantly in various facets of my life.
So, what was the lesson? Pretend you have made a new friend who is an alien from another planet. They are not human, they have never been on Earth, and they know nothing of what it is to be human or live in our society. Now, write them instructions on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Easy enough, right? I rolled my eyes, somewhat disgusted with the “easy-ness” of this assignment. I had made quite a few PB and J’s in my young life. How hard could this be?
- Get peanut butter, jelly, and bread
- Spread the peanut butter on the bread
- Spread the jelly on the bread
- Put the pieces of bread together
The day after we turned in our assignments, Mrs. Grove came into class with grocery bags full of bread, peanut butter, jelly, and utensils. She sat down with the instructions written out by our class and demonstrated to us a lesson I will never forget.
She looked at my instructions. Get peanut butter. She pulled a jar of peanut butter out of the bag. Get jelly. Again, she pulled a jar of jelly out of the bag. She did the same with the bread. So far, so good.
Spread the peanut butter on the bread. In shock, I watched as she took the jar of peanut butter and rubbed the JAR on the loaf of packaged bread. Spread the jelly on the bread. The jar of jelly was then “rubbed” on the packaged loaf. Put the pieces of bread together. She looked confused. The pieces of bread were already together, safely inside the package. Eat. There was nothing for her to eat safely. The peanut butter, the jelly, and the bread were still neatly stored inside their containers, no sandwich made.
I was perplexed. It seemed so straightforward. Anyone should have been able to make a sandwich with my instructions. Strike that; any human living in America on Earth probably could have made that sandwich. But not an alien from another planet. It was then I realized I missed many steps and made a lot of assumptions about my alien friend. The vast majority of my classmates made very similar mistakes. My most significant assumption was that this other Being implicitly understood the several steps I did not explicitly spell out:
- Open the jar of peanut butter.
- Open the loaf of bread and pull out two slices of the pre-cut bread.
- Using a butter knife pulled from the silverware drawer, dip the knife inside the peanut butter and scoop.
- Use that same knife with peanut butter to spread that peanut butter onto ONE of the slices of bread.
- Wipe off the knife with a paper towel.
- Open the jar of jelly.
- Much like you did with peanut butter, scoop the jelly out of the jar using the knife you just cleaned off with the paper towel.
- Spread the jelly on top of the peanut butter
- Take the second slice of bread, and place it on top of the other slice of bread so that the peanut butter and jelly are BETWEEN the two slices of bread.
- Replace the lids to the peanut butter and jelly, and tie the bread bag back up so as not to spoil your ingredients for future use.
I watched this teacher, over and over, attempt to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches using our instructions by following them to the literal letter. Nothing added, no assumptions made, nothing implied. Just following these instructions. She may have successfully created two sandwiches out of 25 students.
The lesson I learned that day was threefold:
- Assumptions about someone’s level of knowledge or understanding can be dangerous and cause trouble;
- Be explicit and err on the side of over-explanation. What is evident to you may not be apparent to other people;
- This is the root of all disappointment – expectations are not communicated effectively, resulting in an “inferior” product. Only when I am crystal clear in what I expect can I hold someone else accountable for the result.
As an adult, an employed individual responsible for others, and a parent, this lesson comes into play repeatedly. It is not simply good enough to tell my 12-year-old child to “do the dishes.” They do not understand what my expectations are. With no guidance, the dishes may be “done” in their eyes, but they are nowhere near my expectation of clean and done without me explicitly explaining and showing them what I mean when I say “do the dishes.”
Likewise, telling my coworkers to “do bookkeeping” is not sufficient. I must remember to break things down into tiny, granular steps even if I feel it is overkill. Even if I think, “they should know this already.” My idea of what bookkeeping entails may differ greatly from what others believe is inclusive in the service of bookkeeping. Our only hope to get the desired result is to be clear in the instructions.
It turns out that 7th grade was not quite as rigorous as I had expected, so Mrs. Grove not assigning a ton of homework did not matter much in the grand scheme of things. But the lessons I did learn with her are some of the most valuable I could have asked for. They were practical and memorable and applied to so many things besides just how to make a sandwich.