by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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The tiny classroom was filled to capacity with a handful of students who had shown up that night intent on making a difference in the world of education. Nervousness filled the air like a thick fog, blurring the world around each of these people as they battled through their own feelings of fear and anticipation. Through the thick fog, their eyes searched the room, looking for signs of similarity and familiarity amidst the group of students. The students had come together for the first night of class in their Master’s Program in Education, and their eyes were scanning through the faces and bodies of the people as their brain was making snap decisions on what the other students would be like based on their outward appearance. We don’t want to admit that our minds go through this process because of the stalwart opposition that society has built up to judging a book by its cover. Despite the fact that society might detest the creation of these initial perceptions based on what someone looks like or dresses like, it is what the human brain does millions of times per day, searching through the surroundings for connections to previous experiences.
As one of the students in this course, I sat in nervous anticipation of what the night would bring, fearful of what others were thinking about me. Knowing that they would be creating their own perceptions about me not only from what they saw, but also from what I had to say, my mind played with the dilemma of how I was going to introduce myself. As a physical education teacher, I was fearful of the perceptions that my classmates would have about me for there are countless unfair perceptions about this profession. The perceptions of a PE teacher as being the lowest of the low, not fit to be called a teacher, of only being able to roll a ball out onto the field for kids to play with, are not only unfair, but in most cases completely misguided. These perceptions of PE teachers stem from years of a society that sees athletic people as just ‘dumb jocks’ who don’t belong in an academic setting.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by how others judged me for I had experienced it my entire life. Growing up as an athlete who committed himself to academics as well, I was seen as an oddity, a tradition breaker, someone who didn’t make sense to others. As a student athlete, I did not fit into the frame that they had created in their minds for athletes. The frame that others had built around me was a problem frame for they said that athletes were supposed to be dumb and unable to handle the rigors of an academic setting. As I tried to show others that I did not fit into their perceptual frame, I had become tentative about admitting who I was, afraid to give others a way to box me up and put me aside. It was with this tentativeness that I introduced myself as a PE teacher that first night of the course and instantly I could feel the frame being thrown up around me again.
The initial perceptions that my peers had about me would be difficult to escape as the frame they had built for me as a ‘dumb jock’ felt more like solitary confinement in a prison cell. As a committed academic who could hold my own in this academic setting, I worked hard to prove myself a worthy member of the class and that I did not belong in the frame they had thrown up around me. As I got to know people in my cohort, I realized that not everyone had built this original frame, as they were able to freely create a perception that stood apart from the one that society would paint for me. The struggle to escape this kind of frame or prison cell is one that I still deal with every day, even though my years as a PE teacher are long in the past. Even as a PhD and CEO of a company, I still push hard to try to show that I do not fit into the frame that others want to put me into.
Our mind wants to create perceptional frames around everything that we come across in our daily lives for it allows us to feel comfortable in our surroundings. It seems that no matter what we are introduced to, our minds can create links and connections to a previous experience in order to make sense of a new reality. It is from these previous experiences that our perceptions are built and so the task of changing someone’s perception is daunting for it is difficult to rewrite old memories, past experiences, and societal norms. As someone who has struggled to escape the frame others have created around me, I must remain conscious to the idea of trying to creating fresh perspectives that can be changed and modified to fit new experiences and new people. We all struggle with trying to figure out what others think of us, but we cannot allow others’ perceptions of us to negatively impact our ability to make a difference.