Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Maybe you’ve heard the analogy about how difficult it is to teach an “old dog” new tricks.  An “old dog” is someone who is set in their ways, who’s “been there and done that” and who is not particularly impressed by our leadership credentials.  We run into “old dogs” all the time when we inherit teams, and they can make our jobs a chore.  I once had a children’s joke book that had stellar advice about how to deal with “old dogs.”  The joke went like this:

“What do you need to know to teach an old dog new tricks?”

“More than the dog.”


Great advice!  As leaders, we need to stay at least one step ahead of those on our teams.  You do this through continuous improvement – taking courses, being a bookworm or a tapeworm (someone who listens to tapes), reading trade publications, attending conferences….  There are a gazillion options available to us.  The hard part isn’t finding a way to learn more; it’s making it into a habit!

Think about this:

If you haven’t learned anything new lately, have you earned the credibility to lead a group of people who are experts in what they do on a daily basis?  You can’t lead any farther than you yourself have gone.


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Filed under authority, coaching, discipleship, expertise, Fathering, growth, habits, leadership, learning, mentoring, modeling, parenting, Sharpening the Saw, Spiritual Growth, Teaching, trust

The Competence Cycle

As team members learn how to do new tasks, they will go through four predictable stages related to their confidence and competence.  The leader’s role is to help them progress through the four stages without damaging their self-confidence or causing too much risk to the team or organization.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence At this stage, the performer has little concept of what the task is actually going to entail.  She is incredibly excited about it and feels enormous confidence that she is up to the task.  The problem is that this confidence is rarely based on reality.  The confidence comes from ignorance of the skills, knowledge and hard work necessary to complete the task.  Often, performers feel that success in previous endeavors will guarantee success in this one.  Sometimes they are right, but most often they are not.  The leader should be very specific with a performer at this stage.  It’s important to tell her exactly what, when, where and how a task should be done.  Make expectations crystal clear, and supervise progress closely. Think about the last time you took up a new sport.  I’ll use golf as an example.  You watched it on TV, saw the pros do their thing and thought, “Hey, I can do that!  How hard could it be to hit a ball with a stick?”  So, you go out to a golf course and mortgage your house to play 18.  (You didn’t know it was going to be so expensive!)  You head to the first hole and watch the party in front of you.  Looks easy enough.  Your turn.  You set your tee, work a little bit to get the ball to balance on top of it, and then you take a swing!  You strain your eyes to see your first hole-in-one.  Wow!  Those balls are really hard to see…oh… wait.  No, they’re not.  They show up nicely against the green color of the grass.  You take another swing… and another… and another… This is getting embarrassing.  The party behind you is starting to laugh… and then complain.  Now they are getting hostile.  You’ve just entered… Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence This stage is typically a huge letdown for performers.  The high expectations they had have not materialized.  The task is harder, bigger, less glamorous, more work, more expensive…you name it.  They’ve made a big step, though.  Just recognizing that they don’t have the skill set or knowledge for the task is the first step toward getting them.  Now they know what they don’t know.  As long as the performer doesn’t regress to Stage 1 (i.e., go into denial about the skills and knowledge they need), you’ve got them right where you want them.  Now that they know they won’t be the next prodigy, they will typically be much more teachable.  What they need from you is encouragement.  Their confidence has been dealt a blow, and they need to know that this is a normal stage…that all experts were once beginners.  Keep the end result in front of them to motivate them through this stage. Now that you know you aren’t Tiger Woods, you have a few choices.  You can give up – golf must be a hereditary skill that you didn’t get in your gene pool.  Or you can keep plugging (divots, that is).  Get a coach, head to the driving range, practice, practice, practice…  With time, instruction and practice, you’ll reach… Stage 3 – Conscious Competence Progress has been made.  The performer has developed the competence to be able to perform the task.  The problem here is that the performer has to really concentrate on the steps to get it done.  He will typically be hesitant and afraid of making mistakes.  He might over-think the process, leading to avoidable errors and frustration.  Your role as the leader will be to be patient and allow him plenty of practice.  He may need a pep talk from time to time to remind him of how far he has come.  If the performer starts making too many mistakes in a row, his confidence could be seriously damaged.  If you start to see signs of demoralization, give him a break so that he can get his mind off all the steps.  When he relaxes, he will perform better. You are now a golfer, but you’re not enjoying it much.  It takes too much thinking.  Eyes on the ball, legs apart, knees bent, eyes on the ball, pull back, eyes on the ball, elbow straight, eyes on the ball, swing, eyes on the ball, WHACK!  You thought golf was supposed to be fun.  Be patient.  Before you know it, you will cross over to… Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence Eureka!  You’ll rarely recognize the transition from Stage 3 to Stage 4 when it happens, but you’ll be able to see it in retrospect.  One day, you’ll observe the performer, and she will be performing the task without even thinking about it.  Be sure to point it out to her, because she will probably be the last to know.  The beauty of this stage is that the new skills and knowledge have been integrated into the performer’s skill set.  She is now the expert that she originally set out to be! When did it happen?  Who knows?  Overnight, you stopped having to think so much about what you were doing.  Now, you can’t wait to get on the greens.  Everybody wants you to join their group for the upcoming tournament.  Tiger called and asked you for some advice. The Competence Cycle is universal.  All experts were once beginners  – even the Tiger Woods of the world.  While some have natural ability, disciplining it to make it work for them is still a learning process.  Use the Competence Cycle to diagnose your performers.  Then, meet them where they are at to help them move to the next level.

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Filed under Challenges, Change, coaching, comfort zone, commitment, delegation, discipleship, failure, Fathering, feedback, growth, leadership, learning, management, mentoring, motivation, parenting, performance, Persistence, Productivity, Teaching

Summer Slide

As the kids head back to school, teachers everywhere are facing a common dilemma – the “summer slide.”  Over the summer break, kids’ reading abilities, study habits and knowledge levels erode as books and other intellectual pursuits take a back seat to swimming, movie-going and Nintendo-playing.  Teachers often have to repeat up to six weeks of lessons from the previous year just to get the students back to their previous levels of proficiency and knowledge.

We may know this happens intuitively, but Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle have actually studied the phenomenon.  They followed 790 randomly-selected Baltimore students from 20 different schools from the time they entered the first grade in 1982 through their graduations in 1994.  By comparing testing scores from one year to the next, the researchers were able to see the impact a lack of academic focus had during the summer.

Those students who enrolled in summer camps, music or art lessons or who were encouraged to read during the break tended to maintain knowledge levels, while those who had less focus during the summer tended to forget more of what they had learned the previous school year.  From year to year, these learning gaps grew wider and wider between the two types of students so that by the end of the fifth grade, the difference in verbal abilities was two years and the difference in math abilities was a year-and-a-half.

Now, I’m guessing that not too many of us adults have been to summer camp, music or art lessons in quite awhile, and statistics don’t look too good for our reading habits.  A Gallup poll on reading habits in 1990 found that the proportion of Americans who had not completed a book in the previous year had doubled to 16% since the previous poll in 1978 reported 8%.  An Associated Press-Ipsos poll in 2007 had the number at a dismal 25%.  If these numbers continue, over 50% of us won’t read any books by 2052, and no one will be reading books by the year 2112.

A.C. Neilson (the company that measures television ratings in the U.S.) reported in 1998 that six million videos are checked out every day (and that’s just my family…).  Compare that to three million library books checked out in the average day (and a good percentage of those are by students).  Neilson also tells us that the average American family watches over four hours of T.V. a day (equivalent to two months of non-stop T.V. viewing a year).

So, how’s your “summer slide” going?  If elementary-age children could lose one-and-a-half to two years of verbal and mathematical ability after just five summers, what does that mean for us (who have had a few more summers on our record)?  Are you actively learning anything, or has life since high school or college been one big summer break?  Don’t let those brain cells drain away; it’s use ‘em or lose ‘em!  Head to the library…we’ve got some catching up to do!

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Filed under brain, growth, habits, learning, Teaching

All Eggsperts Were Once Beginners

In 1885, Peter Carl Fabergé, a goldsmith and jeweler, volunteered to create a jewelry egg for Czar Alexander III of Russia to give to his wife, Marie, at Easter.  He kept the egg a secret until the special day and then presented it to the czar, who then presented it to his wife.  It was a rather ordinary looking egg, somewhat large with a plain whitish shell.  But when the czarina opened it, she found inside several tiny surprises made of gold, enamel and precious gems.  The gift delighted his wife so much that Alexander commissioned a new one to be created every Easter.  Each egg, lavishly and creatively decorated and always with a surprise inside, typically took a year or longer to create.  They became so popular that when Czar Nicholas II took the throne, Fabergé began making two eggs each year – one for the Czar’s wife and one for his mother.

Today, we know of 56 of these eggs, though a few of them have disappeared.  The last Fabergé Imperial Egg to go on auction was sold for $9.57 million at Christie’s in April 2002.  It’s no wonder Fabergé Eggs have become synonymous with anything that we consider to be a priceless possession, something to be handled with utmost care.

As leaders, we sometimes treat some of our responsibilities like Fabergé Eggs.  We won’t delegate them to our team members because we are so afraid that they will drop them.  This can be especially true with projects or tasks that we started ourselves.  We carefully put them together; we tweaked and fine-tuned; we polished and shined them until they were perfect.  And though a team member or two has shown interest in taking them off our hands, we continue to clutch them possessively.  And who could blame us?  No one will take care of our Fabergé Egg like we will.

While that may be true, we’ve got to get up the courage to pass the Egg along.  While creating it brought us new skills and knowledge, the Egg can no longer help us develop.  Its value now is in passing it along to allow others to gain skills and knowledge as they care for it.  And even if they drop it, there are lessons to be learned in that, as well.  (After all, you probably dropped it a few times as you were creating it.  How do you think you learned to care for it so well?)  All eggsperts were once beginners.

What’s your Fabergé Egg?  Pick someone who needs the skills it teaches, and pass it along.  It will free your hands up to start working on your next creation.

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Filed under Abundance, delegation, discipleship, failure, Fathering, leadership, learning, management, mentoring, parenting, Scarcity, Teaching

Making a Mess

My youngest son decided to stand on the neighbor’s water line (PVC pipe) last night and broke it. Water sprayed everywhere, and we couldn’t get it to stop. Nor could we see well enough in the darkness to fix it or even assess what had broken.

I was furious, but my son’s reaction to my anger wasn’t very satisfying, so I increased the volume with some loud scolding. Still, he didn’t seem to be showing enough remorse, so I increased the volume again with a few growls and deep sighs of exasperation. They didn’t elicit the desired response, so I stomped off angrily and took a swing at an innocent towel hanging out to dry. That did the trick, and the tears began to flow.

After the adrenaline had worn off, I was embarrassed about my outburst. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that my anger was less about my son’s irresponsibility (it could have happened to any of us – most of the plumbing where we live is barely taped together) and more about the inconvenience it caused me.

The broken water line had to be fixed – that meant a plumber after dark – that meant money, which we’ve been handing out like candy lately. I didn’t know who to contact in Thailand at that hour to come fix a busted pipe, and I wasn’t looking forward to interacting with our neighbor (who we never talk to) about something of theirs that we broke.

Probably my angry tirade did little to “teach my son a lesson” and much to make him fear his dad’s emotional instability when a mistake has been made. The next time he breaks something, he will know who NOT to tell. If I really wanted him to learn from his mistake, a calm discussion about respecting other peoples’ property would have been much more effective.

And for all I know, the event was God’s way of getting me to talk to my neighbor. He gave me ten months since we moved in, and I haven’t even ventured over to say, “Hello.” Maybe He took things into His own hands. To love my neighbor, I probably need to know him first. A broken water line gives us a reason to interact, and it puts me in the right frame of mind to be humble when we meet.

After I made my apologies to my son, we found that the situation wasn’t as bad as I originally thought. We were able to cut off the water. Then I wrote a note, and we stuck it to our neighbors’ door together (they weren’t home at the time). We had a short discussion about the importance of respecting other peoples’ property, and the lesson seemed to register.

This morning, our neighbor came out to inspect the water line while I was reading on the patio. We had a nice discussion, learned about some things we had in common and worked out an arrangement to fix the water line. I also learned that their family is considering renting our house after we leave. Since two of their children have grown and moved out, they need less space.

We talked about the house and the owner and agreed to allow for a walk-through later this week. Before that discussion, I was a little worried about how the transition would go with our landlord, but I feel better now knowing that he will probably have a renter as soon as we are gone.

In retrospect, my mess turned out to be much bigger than the one my son made, and it was harder to clean up. Glad my Dad isn’t accustomed to flying off the handle with me. His volume tends to be more subtly and skillfully applied.

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Filed under accountability, blame, christianity, Convenience, family, grace, Inconvenience, Interpersonal, leadership, mistakes, parenting, Relationships, Teaching

They Walked on Water

I teach Bible lessons at a summer camp for abused children in Texas. This year, we were covering Jesus’ life and ministry, but as I wrote my lessons, they really became more about Peter and how God worked through his life.

Day three of the camp was the “Walk on Water” lesson. Peter gets out of the boat and walks on water to meet Jesus on the Sea of Galilee! Amazing! As long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, he walked on water, but when he noticed the wind and the waves, he began to sink. There’s a good metaphor in that for helping us to deal with our problems in life.

Many of us give Peter a hard time, because he started to sink beneath the waves. He should have kept his eyes on Jesus. And even Jesus chided him for his “little faith.” But let’s not forget….Peter got out of the boat. He only had a little faith, but at least he had more than those eleven boat-huggers. No one else was even brave enough to get their feet wet.

I asked the kids how many of them wanted to be “water-walkers” for Jesus – to do the scary things He asks us to do sometimes – and they all said they did. Each child got a “Water-Walker” sticker…

…and some ice-cold water to remind them of their commitment, but that wasn’t the end of lesson.

This lesson came with a test. Would they really be willing to “step out of the boat?”

Their test really started out as a test for us as a teaching team. How could we give them a safe and fun object lesson that would simulate walking on water? Inspiration came from a YouTube video segment about Steve Spangler on the Ellen Degeneres show.

Corn Starch + Water + Hours and hours of manual labor = Walking on water!

Corn starch and water make a funny liquid-solid. Hard when you put pressure on it; soft when you don’t. The official term is “non-Newtonian,” and it’s plenty cool!

I knew we had to try! Through a friend, I made contact with a wholesale food distributor that sourced and procured 300 lbs of corn starch for us. To that I added all that I could clear off the shelves at Kroger, Wal-Mart, Super Target and Albertson’s. We ended up taking approximately 400 lbs to camp.

On Day 2 of the camp, we began mixing 200 lbs of the corn starch and 12 gallons of water in a 90 gallon swimming pool. That was a mistake. In that large an amount, it doesn’t mix easily. We did our best imitation of the “I Love Lucy” grape-squashing episode, but a day and a half later, we had made little progress. Someone suggested we try mixing smaller amounts and then pouring them in, and that made all the difference.

Within a few more hours, we mixed up 167 more pounds to the right consistency and added it to the top of our earlier mistake. Water sports day was almost over, so we invited the kids to come walk on water before we even tested the mixture.

While the teaching team mixed up the last batch, we allowed the first group of girls to get into the goo up to their elbows.

Then, we lined them up and had them get a running start. The first girl to go across hesitated before she reached the other side of the pool and stopped dead in her tracks. The goo at the bottom was like cement. It would pull a toe off your foot if you tried to extract yourself too quickly. Several times while mixing, I got so stuck that I couldn’t get out and ended up falling rear first into the mix.

With the help of several adult camp guides, we got our brave pioneer out of the mire, and I’m happy to say that the second tester actually did walk on water! Once they saw how it was done, the rest of the girls and then the boys had no problem following in Peter’s footsteps, though half of them would allow themselves to get stuck just for the fun of having their camp guides struggle to extricate them.

In the end, 56 campers and a few dozen adults were brave enough to “get out of the boat.” The most courageous danced in the middle of the pool or did cartwheels across it. We still had a few boat-huggers, but you’ll find them in any group of any size.

The experiment was fun, but it begs the question….how many pounds of corn starch did Jesus use when he let Peter walk on the Sea of Galilee?

Here’s our some video clips and pictures from the object lesson.  Because of the nature of this summer camp, I can’t show you any of the kids’ faces.


Filed under belief, christianity, faith, Fear, Spirituality, Teaching, trust

The Amazing Chinese Bamboo Plant

The Chinese Bamboo plant starts from a tiny seed. You plant the seed in the dirt, and you water the seed. Very little seems to happen the first year. Despite your efforts, only a tiny shoot pokes out of the ground.

So…..the second year you water and fertilize and protect the seed…..Nothing happens.

So…..the third year you water and fertilize and protect the seed…..Nothing happens.

So…..the fourth year you water and fertilize and protect the seed…..Nothing happens.

So…..the fifth year you water and fertilize and protect the seed.….Finally, during the fifth year, the Chinese Bamboo plant begins to grow. In fact, it grows 90 feet tall in just 6 weeks!

The question is, did it grow 90 feet in six weeks or in five years? The answer, of course, is that it grew 90 feet in five years. It took five years to grow the root system that would one day support a 90-foot plant.

People are often like the Chinese Bamboo plant. We invest hours and hours trying to develop ourselves or others, and nothing happens.  We spend years discipling our children to follow the Lord, but…..nothing happens.   We hold countless meetings with our staff members to coach them in the development of their strengths and developmental areas, but…….nothing happens. We redouble our efforts to help a friend make better decisions, but…….nothing happens.

If you’re like most people, you will be tempted to give up. Don’t do it! If you give up, the seeds you planted will die. But if you continue to care for the seeds, one day (when you least expect it) the results of your labor will seem to magically appear overnight!

If the Chinese Bamboo plant immediately shot up 90 feet in the first year, one strong wind would blow it down. By growing deep before it grows tall, it gains the strength it needs to withstand the force of heavy winds. Similarly, lasting growth starts on the inside of people. It’s difficult to see that change is taking place, but this is a necessary process. The growing they do on the inside creates strength of character and conviction.

Don’t give up hope! Your efforts will be rewarded!  Once the root system is established, your growth or the growth of those you are coaching will spring up seemingly overnight!


Filed under Change, christianity, expectations, Religion, Spiritual Growth, Spirituality, Teaching