On being F.A.T.: A reflection on teaching and working with diverse groups of individuals.
“You are one of the most F.A.T. people I know,” Tricia said with a smile. One of my colleagues was speaking to me about dealing with change in our university setting and how we could prepare for the new policies. Tricia was from the U.K. and a resident of Australia who had worked in Singapore. She was a very experienced communications teacher. You can imagine my surprise at her claim that I was F.A.T., so I asked her what she meant.
The F of F.A.T. stands for Flexibility. In general, flexibility refers to how quickly one can react or respond to change, a willingness to adapt to events. This is the open mindset, the willingness to embrace ambiguity, the quick adjustment as the situation changes, and the attitude that is taken.
Early in my teaching career, I was in a setting that was the perfect introduction to that flexible mindset. On Friday, I was given my schedule for classes that I would be teaching on Monday. On Monday morning, I was given a new schedule and told that I would be teaching in completely different classrooms 10 minutes before my classes started; I had new rooms, new times, and new students. I had a choice, I could get upset or I could accept that the situation had changed and move forward with a positive attitude. So, I went forward with a smile.
In fact, that positive attitude is central to being flexible. It wasn’t an easy start, but I felt much better about my reaction when I discovered that the reason for that sudden change had to do with a few classrooms no longer having electricity or windows and there had been a concern about snowdrifts entering the classroom. In the end, I was grateful for the change and glad that I had gone about it with a smile. That flexibility meant less stress for me. I simply accepted that I had no control over the situation and chose to be positive in response.
Years later, in another country and another position, when the same situation occurred and I responded with that positive mentality, my colleagues ended up asking me to be their interim department chair.
The A stands for Adaptability. Adaptability in this context is about behaving in uncharacteristic ways in order to effectively deal with situations or people. My previous employer funded a training called “True Colors”, a personality training that encourages people to better understand themselves and their colleagues. This program went over core values, needs, and communication styles in order to encourage better communication. In a company with over 45 teachers, only 3 of us were labeled as “Gold”. Everyone else fell strongly into Blue, Green, and Orange. Gold personalities are generally not that adaptable, as they have a strong desire for order, rules, and authority. My personality test was so far in the gold that the other colors were mere slivers. The communications coach said they had never seen anyone that far into the Gold category. He asked me how I could even function with all the changes that happened at my work. My colleagues were stunned at my color ‘reveal’.
“You can’t be Gold, you are so diplomatic! You never say anything bad about anyone and you are always smiling when people interrupt you or your schedule changes,” said Kyra.
“When I came into the office for the first time, you smiled and welcomed me and took the time to explain things to me, even though you were clearly busy. You are the only reason I didn’t turn around and go back home!” declared Paul.
“No, it makes sense. Whenever you are faced with a scheduling problem, you tend to offer choices of solutions. Everyone else always asks me to solve the problem for them,” said Manar.
“When I needed to take longer with the students, you waited patiently for me to finish. And, I cut into almost 20 minutes of your class time. But you didn’t complain, you just smiled and said “No Problem”,” said Jeff.
While my personality may prefer structure and order, being adaptable means being willing to understand where the other person is coming from, being able to adjust to the situation through understanding. So, when my order was being interrupted, I continued to adopt a flexible, positive attitude and adapt to the changes that were presented. When my schedule was suddenly changed, I accepted that I had no control and moved with the situation. When the technology in my classroom stopped working, I may have had a moment of panic, but I moved forward with quick thinking and adapted to the use of the dry erase boards instead. Being adaptable may mean working outside of my comfort zone, but I find that reaching out to others in that way simply helps. Situations are easier to solve, people are easier to work with.
The T stands for Tolerant. Tolerance is accepting opinions and practices that are different from your own. Embracing the interchange of cultures with varied interests. A willingness to listen to others’ points of view, even when you disagree.
Did you know people of different cultures have very different comfort distances when having a conversation? Personal space distances are not universal. When I worked in central China, my students would come within 2 inches of my face to speak to me. I knew that this was a comfortable distance for them, while it made me very uncomfortable. I learned to turn my body slightly so that my shoulder would face the students for my personal comfort because shoulder-distance is different than chest-difference with personal space. It was a challenge to me, but one that I learned to deal with and accept.
When I worked in the United Arab Emirates, the school I worked for hired Canadians, Australians, the British, and Indians. I was one of 2 Americans when I started at the college, a situation that lasted for more than 4 years of my 9 with the college. I was also the only American in my neighborhood. I had a lot to learn and a lot to tolerate. From the camels in my backyard to the goats in my garden, from the rules about dress and public displays of affection to learning how to Morris Dance and participating in British Pantomime, I learned that being open to opinions and practices that were different from my own could mean temporary discomfort but more often led to acceptance, excitement, and contentment. I wasn’t there to change anyone’s mind or make anyone change their ways, I was there to teach and learn. Being tolerant didn’t mean I had to agree, it simply meant being understanding and accepting that other people hold different beliefs than I do.
Personally, I think that is part of what makes this world such an amazing place.
On reflection, I am flattered that Tricia felt that she could label me “F.A.T.” with such confidence. Each time I am approaching a new teaching methodology, a new educational technology, a new colleague, or a new group of students, I take a moment to consider what it means to be F.A.T. and hope that I can continue to be Flexible, Adaptable and Tolerant, both as a teacher and in life.
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