No Room for Mr. Wonderful

If you don’t know Mr. Wonderful, allow me to introduce him to you.

This is Kevin O’Leary – a self-made Canadian billionaire who is one of the five deep-pocketed judges on the mega-hit television show Shark Tank.  For those unfamiliar with the premise of the showup-and-coming entrepreneurs pitch deals to the judges—hoping to raise desperately needed capital for their fledgling companies.

Naturally, both the sharks and entrepreneurs alike try to get the best deal they can.  Each is trying to get the most out of their investment.  Occasionally the sharks will compete vigorously amongst themselves when the entrepreneur has developed something ‘special’—an extraordinary product or service that the sharks’ sense will have extraordinary potential in the marketplace.

O’Leary is the Great White Shark of the group. He is brutally honest, aggressive, unrelenting, overly brash and insolent. His interrogations are relentless. He undercuts the other sharks. He tries to give “aggressive” deals to the hopeful people who appear on the show. He’ll be the first to tell you if he thinks your idea is stupid, or if he thinks your business decisions are stupid, or even if he thinks the other sharks are being stupid.

Following in the tradition of former American Idol judge, Simon Cowell, and Hell’s Kitchen’s ill-mannered Gordan Ramsey, Mr. Wonderful has figured out that rude and obnoxious behavior can improve one’s celebrity status.

It also makes for good TV and higher ratings.

“You’re dead to me” is a common retort O’Leary gives to entrepreneurs who decline his offers. Here is a short clip of Mr. Wonderful, well … being wonderful.

So, why how did O’Leary earn the nickname ‘Mr. Wonderful’ when he clearly is not.  The title originated from an off-handed, sarcastic comment born out of disgust from a fellow-shark who despised O’Leary’s approach.  The title, one of derision, was one O’Leary liked, so it stuck.

His reputation hasn’t helped Mr. Wonderful make too many deals in the past seven years. As of last season, O’Leary had closed fewer deals than any of the other sharks and invested only $5.4 million in new companies.

I suppose Mr. Wonderful’s reputation for humiliating and embarrassing well-intentioned, novice entrepreneurs on national television doesn’t engender a lot of trust or mutual respect.

It doesn’t work in the school building either.

Here’s my question for everyone who teaches, everyone who coaches, everyone who stands before another person in the name of mentoring or guiding or instructing them in any way: Are you occasionally a Mr. Wonderful?

Do you ever behave in ways that are more about you than about your students (or employees)? Do you overdo it, put on a big show, humiliate students for the sake of proving who’s in charge (and who’s not)? Because it builds your rep and makes students fear you? Because, in a sense, it makes for good TV?

Have you ever…

  • yelled at a student in a demeaning manner or called them a name (jerk, punk, or worse)?
  • openly compared a student to a sibling or another student for the purpose of embarrassment?
  • called a student’s question stupid?
  • used sarcasm to ridicule a student?
  • read a student’s paper out loud to a class to illustrate a mistake (anonymously or not), and maybe gone too far in making fun of it?
  • cracked a joke about a student’s appearance?
  • revealed some aspect of a student’s personal life for the sake of humor?
  • torn a student’s paper or thrown it into the trash in front of them or other students?
  • thrown a marker, a book, or anything else across the room to get students’ attention?
  • assigned a punishment that would publicly embarrass a student, like wearing something silly or standing in front of peers to single them out?

I am sad to say that as a young educator, I was guilty of some of the things on this list. Sometimes I was unaware that I was being rude or inconsiderate when I made biting comments in class. I didn’t fully understand the damage I was causing to individual children, the overall class climate, and the level of trust students had for me. I was wrong.

If you have never committed any of the actions on the list, that’s fantastic. It means you are extremely patient, compassionate, and hold your students in high regard. You are also an outlier.

I suspect most educators can relate to something on this list or have, at a minimum, tacitly condoned these behaviors in others.

Some of these behaviors are harsher than others, but all of them have one thing in common: They are motivated by our desire to communicate something about ourselves, to build our own reputation—a reputation for being witty, for being smart, for being “real,” for being someone not to be messed with.

Does it work? Sometimes. It gets your point across. It stops undesirable behavior, at least in the short-term. It most definitely teaches a certain type of lesson. And if you’re trying to prepare your students for an even meaner world, well, you’re no doubt accomplishing that.

But it doesn’t produce meaningful learning.

In fact, it changes the subject altogether. If you humiliate someone, their focus moves away from the matter at hand. Instead of thinking about the long-term repercussions of not doing their work, or not paying attention to directions, or not socializing at certain times, or not engaging in silly, attention-getting behavior, that student is now focused on how much they can’t stand you.

Humiliation is usually rooted in power and the desire to make another person embarrassed, scared or isolated. So it is hard to see how it can play a part in mutually respectful relationships.

Now sometimes you get a student who you think deserves to be taken down a couple of pegs, to be put in their place, and public humiliation might really teach them a lesson. Ask yourself this question: Does being humiliated by your boss, colleague, or spouse work to improve your behavior? How does it make you feel long-term?

Ultimately, our role as educators is to help children learn positive behaviors that will make them better, more responsible, more productive, more compassionate people.

Shouldn’t we model the behavior we want to see?

Do we want our well-intentioned students to fear making mistakes because it means risking public ridicule? Do we want the students with challenging behaviors to experience yet another poor role-model, leaving our classrooms angry, and contemplating new ways they can beat us at our game.

Yes, I have had my Mr. Wonderful moments as a teacher and principal and I am not proud of it. I’m pretty sure my actions came at a cost to children and myself, whether I knew it or not.

Children deserve high expectations, rigorous and meaningful learning activities, and a well-structured, positive learning environment. It is also important for us to provide them with appropriate, timely, sometimes direct feedback when they fall short of the goal. But humiliation has no place in a teacher’s classroom management tool box, or a school leader’s leadership style for that matter.

So the next time you’re about to make that big gesture, throw that marker, shut a student up with one of your signature put-downs, or embarrass a student in public, ask yourself whether you’re doing it for the student or for yourself.

And, if you recognize a bit of Mr. Wonderful in you, maybe it’s time to tell your inner Mr. Wonderful he’s now dead to you.

Your students won’t miss him.