Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits in the life of a teacher
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
Last month, I wrote about Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)’s private victory, the term he uses to describe the first three of his seven habits. Covey asserts that the private victory (his habits 1, 2 and 3) takes us from dependence to independence, and the public victory (his habits 4, 5 and 6) moves us from independence to interdependence.
In our individualistic society, it can be difficult to see interdependence as an improvement on independence. A hallmark of Covey’s work, however, is the concept of a principle-centered life and, although Covey is not an explicitly religious writer, spirituality is woven throughout his work. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he writes about interdependence as a goal — a calling, even — and a way for us to become interconnected with God and one another. If the private victory is one way for us to protect and use the gifts we have been given, the public victory is a way for us to share those gifts, operating not in a vacuum, but hand-in-hand with God and one another.
You may recall that Covey began his discussion of the private victory (habits 1, 2 and 3) with the personal bank account; similarly he opens his discussion of the public victory with the idea of a relationship bank account. The concept is simple — we want to avoid being overdrawn in our relationships, making sure that we not only make withdrawals when it comes to our interactions with others, but investments as well. This is at the heart of interdependence. When our relationships are healthy, we can count on our friends and they can count on us. Similarly, when our relationship with God is set right, we know we can turn to him no matter what and we can feel his love and guidance all around us.
Covey’s fourth, fifth, and sixth habits flow from this concept of interdependence and are, like the first three habits, encircled by Habit 7: sharpen the saw, the concept of taking care of ourselves physically, cognitively, spiritually, and emotionally. The personal strength that results from taking time to sharpen the saw builds a firm foundation for healthy relationships, allowing us to think win-win (habit 4), seek to understand others’ perspectives before asserting our own (habit 5) and synergize (habit 6).
For me, these habits flow together naturally — so much so that I find it difficult to tease them apart. Think win-win (habit 4) is all about compromise: finding solutions that work for everyone. In order to do this successfully, we need to listen to what others are saying — seek first to understand, then to be understood (habit 5) — and, once we do, synergy (habit 6), the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, arises almost naturally.
These habits bring to mind Gospel stories about Jesus’s early miracles — the loaves and the fishes and the wedding at Cana in particular. When those in attendance stopped worrying about whether or not there was enough and put their trust in God, they quickly discovered that there was more than enough to go around. This resulting abundance fed not only their hunger but also an abundance mentality whereby everyone could eat and drink their fill, celebrating together and creating a feast in which love and kindness flowed as readily as food and drink.
Or at least I assume that’s how it went. Human nature being what it is, it’s possible that there were some party guests who, like the brother of the prodigal son in another story, kept score, tallying up how many pieces of bread and how many glasses of wine they received in comparison to those around them.
But which party would you rather attend?
When we stop keeping score and worrying about what’s mine and what’s yours, whether food and drink or possessions and ideas, it’s easy to find solutions that make everyone happy and, that feed our relationships, keeping them healthy. In order to do this, however, we need to put our competitive nature on hold and adopt an abundance mentality — the notion that there is plenty to go around, at least when it comes to what matters. Love cannot be divvied up into equal portions and dished out accordingly, nor can trust or other intangible traits that allow us to connect with others.
When we seek first to understand the needs and feelings of others, we instinctively know how to meet those needs and soothe those feelings. But Covey’s fifth habit has a second part as well: seek first to understand, then to be understood. It is reasonable for us to expect those we care about to understand our needs, wants and feelings, too. Keeping a healthy relationship bank account means making relationships a two-way street by listening to others with our whole hearts and expressing our needs to them as well.
I can’t help but think that the thread that ties all of this together is gratitude. When we take time to be grateful for what we have, it’s easy to adopt an abundance mentality because we already feel blessed. Similarly, gratitude for what — and who — we have in our own lives allows us to open our hearts to listen to what others are saying and to hear the feelings behind their words. Finally, a grateful heart makes it easy to engage with others, to share what we have and use the gifts we have been given in unison with others’ gifts to create solutions that benefit everyone.
So, how do we bring all of this into the classroom? With younger children, we can lay the foundation by teaching them the simple acts of listening without interrupting, paying attention to others’ feelings and expressing their own feelings without accusing, shaming, or blaming. When we teach them to compromise, we not only give them a firm foundation in habit 4, but perhaps a taste of habit 6 as well.
With older students, we can discuss these habits outright, challenging our students to identify the behaviors behind the habits, but also to discuss why interdependence matters in the first place. Is it what God wants for us? How do we know this?
Finally, coming full circle, we need to remember always to sharpen the saw. By treasuring and building on the gifts that God has given us, and taking care of them and ourselves, we create the energy and skills we need to be a fully interdependent partner to those around us, working together to make our classrooms, our families, and our lives the beautiful place our Creator intended it to be.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.
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