Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Marsha Stipe School of Positive Reinforcement

I am a graduate of the Marsha Stipe School of Positive Reinforcement. We were a small graduating class, made up of school administrators from the district where I worked prior to retirement. Marsha Stipe was our assistant superintendent, my supervisor, a visionary leader and a mentor.

In a rural school district an administrator occasionally has to travel to attend meetings and for required professional development. In eastern Oregon that means driving long distances. Anyone who has traveled with a group knows the challenges . Just deciding where to stop for a meal requires the negotiating skills of Henry Kissinger. The driver faces the additional burden of five passengers who each will share their knowledge of the best route, when to pass a slow moving truck on a blind curve, or how many miles an hour one can drive over the posted limit... and they usually share these tidbits after the fact.

Marsha’s rule for travel was simple…praise the driver. At first it felt artificial. I felt a little silly saying, “Nice job passing that Bekins moving van.” But, when I was the driver I really liked hearing, “Good parking!” The last time parallel parking was praiseworthy, I was in high school. Marsha explained that driving for a group of coworkers was assuming a risk and we should reward a person for taking on the additional responsibility. If we want people to step up to responsibility we need to let them know they are appreciated. We also want them to drive the next time so we don’t have to.

Marsha also believed in heaping praise on the person who made the dining decision. Getting a group of administrators to move is like herding cats. If no one takes the leadership role, you can spend a lot of time with the “Oh, I don’t care. Wherever you want to go is fine with me” discussion. This conversation continues with “Oh, I don’t like Chinese, Cuban, Italian, etc. etc.” until every possibility has been eliminated. I really did appreciate that someone made a decision and just told me what time to meet in the lobby. And Marsha made sure that the person was commended.

I practiced Marsha’s philosophy when traveling for a family reunion in England. My father’s wife, Elaine, was driving the rental car with my father and his three adult children through rural England, negotiating the roundabouts and back roads to get us to an obscure bed and breakfast. None of us knew where we were going but everyone was quick to point out when Elaine missed an exit. At one point Elaine calmly asked that we give her directions before the turn rather than yelling after passing an exit. I remembered the lessons learned at Marsha Stipe’s School of Positive Reinforcement and started to train my siblings on the benefits of positive reinforcement. Driving in a foreign country is stressful enough without criticism. Giving each of us in the car the responsibility to support the driver made the trip a bonding experience. We were all successful when Elaine was successful...and, she continued to drive us around England!

During my administrative career, long after Marsha Stipe had retired, I continued to follow the teachings of the Marsha Stipe School of Positive Reinforcement. I felt an obligation to carry on the tradition. In the spirit of “each one, teach one,” every time I checked out a district van to drive staff to a workshop I provided my riders with a short seminar and I enjoyed the praise of my exceptional driving skills that they heaped on me during the trip.

When we were small we were praised for every small effort. Contrary to what my granddaughter believes, I don’t think we need loud applause every time we use the big potty, but doesn’t it feel nice to be acknowledged just for doing a job well?

I’m grateful for the people who have taught me life lessons. Marsha Stipe was a great influence in my professional life, but she also taught me to be kinder and grateful for the everyday efforts of my peers and family. We are a team. We are in this life together. We must support and encourage each other in our successes.
So, today’s lesson is to practice telling our family and coworkers when they are doing a good job. It makes for a kinder, more supportive environment. Who doesn’t like to hear that they are appreciated? Life is good...tell someone what you appreciate about them and make the world a better place.

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