A few weeks ago, I volunteered at my son’s school. The school was hosting a competition which attracted dozens of bands, drum lines, and dance troupes from neighboring districts. Since the competition was a fundraiser for the school’s marching band (of which my son is a member), I decided to spend a few hours on a Saturday morning helping out.
When I arrived to volunteer, I was given the job of staffing the registration table. Each competition group needed to register when they arrived and my job was to collect registration papers, answer questions, and make sure teams knew where to go. Each team was assigned a classroom in the school that served as their “home base” for the day. As the team moved through the different phases of the day, they could return to their home bases to regroup, eat lunch, or do whatever they needed to recharge through what seemed to be a very long and exhausting day.
Compared to what the competition teams were doing, my job was relatively easy. It was made easier due to the expert help from a student volunteer. When I started the morning, the student explained that she volunteers every year and knew the ropes. She showed me the forms the teams needed to submit and explained the different types of teams and what the schedule looked like for each group. As teams arrived, she made sure all students were properly registered and escorted the teams to their home bases. While I sat behind the registration desk for most of the morning, she logged a significant number of steps running around the school. Since I was the adult, I was given the “responsibility” of staffing the table. But this student was the one really doing all of the hard work.
If you read last week’s post, you know I recently finished a book by José Antonio Bowen titled Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience and Reflection (2021). In the book, Bowen discussed how motivating personalized messages can be and encouraged instructors to use students’ names in class. Channeling Bowen’s advice, at some point that morning, I decided to regularly recognize the student for her work. After she returned from a walking a team to the far ends of the school, I said “Thanks Courtney. You rock!” When she was asked to run an errand for another volunteer, I communicated my appreciation for her hard work. “Courtney, you’re doing awesome work today. Thanks!”
I want to be clear that I wasn’t offering false praise or anything. She was rocking it as a volunteer and her hard work and thoughtfulness made the day run more smoothly. I was genuinely impressed with her ability and work, and I wanted to communicate that to her.
Here’s the problem: Her name isn’t Courtney. I worked with this student for hours and called her Courtney throughout the morning. Throughout our work together, I probably referred to her as “Courtney” a dozen (or more) times and she never corrected me. I only realized my mistake near the end of my shift when one of the event organizers asked her (by name) how the morning had gone. By that point, I had been calling her the wrong name for close to four hours.
Although I apologized profusely to the student before I left that day, I’ve been thinking a lot about this incident over the last few weeks. Some of this reflection has been influenced by another book I’m reading- Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace (Smith & Johnson, 2020). I bought the book after seeing the one author (Brad Johnson) speak at a conference days after my work with the student not named Courtney. After beating myself up over the incident, I found a little comfort in the following section of the text:
“The best allies are willing to make mistakes and keep trying. As allies, we must acknowledge when we’re wrong or could do better and correct our course. We resist getting defensive and insisting that we’re already doing enough. We listen and learn. We iterate.” (pg. 14)
And that’s what I plan to do moving forward. Clearly, I messed up. But I’ll work to do better next time.
Bowen, J. A. (2021). Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection. JHU Press.
Smith, D. G., & Johnson, W. B. (2020). Good guys: How men can be better allies for women in the workplace. Harvard Business Press.