Marla Mattenson is a relationship & intimacy expert specializing in coaching couples in business together with a desire to learn how to take their drive for success and growth mindset in business and apply it to invigorate their relationship. Over the course of her 25 year career, she’s helped more than 12,000 couples including Academy Award winning actors, producers and directors, NBA players and coaches, Grammy Award winning artists, and millionaire entrepreneurs. Marla was also a National Board Certified mathematics teacher in Los Angeles for seven years and is currently on the board of directors of a charter school in Hollywood consulting for them on their sexual education programs for 7th – 12th grade. She’s coached couples, families, individuals, companies, as well as school culture and leadership. Using her neuroscience and mathematics background, Marla is uniquely gifted at working with couples to transform their negative habitual patterns because the hidden power of successful businesses, are the stable, loving relationships behind the scenes.
We talk to Marla about the positive and negative power struggles that happen in the Classroom and she shares some strategies and techniques that can help shift the way look at power in the classroom.
“If you can give those kids power intentionally and you co-create with them, they're going to learn to trust you. They're going to learn to respect you. They're going to learn that you care about them, and those are the things that make kids work in the classroom and outside of the classroom."
— Marla Mattenson
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Marla Mattenson. Marla is a relationship and intimacy expert specializing in coaching couples in business, together with a desire to learn how to take their drive for success and growth mindset in business and apply it to invigorate their relationship. Over the course of her 25 year career, she's helped more than 12,000 couples, including academy award winning actors, producers and directors, NBA players and coaches, Grammy Award winning artists and millionaire entrepreneurs.
- John: Marla was also a national board certified mathematics teacher in Los Angeles for seven years and is currently on the board of directors of a charter school in Hollywood, consulting for them on their sexual education programs for seventh through 12th grade. She's coached couples, families, individuals, companies, as well as school culture and leadership using her neuroscience and mathematics background. Marla is uniquely gifted at working with couples to transform their negative habitual patterns because the hidden power of successful businesses are the stable loving relationships behind the scenes.
- John: We talk to Marla about the positive and negative power struggles that happen in the classroom, and she shares some strategies and techniques that can help shift the way we look at power in the classroom. Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Marla Mattenson.
- Houston: Welcome everyone to the CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, a special guest who lives just down the road from me and we met serendipitously, which turns out my favorite way to meet people. This is Marla Mattenson, a nationally board certified mathematics teacher. She serves on the board of the directors at a charter school here in Los Angeles serving seventh through 12th grade. Focus of your career has been marginalized students. Now, you're an entrepreneur who's working on systems and working on really helping people experience meaningful relationships in their life. Thank you for being here today.
- Marla: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to chat about all of these good things with you.
- Houston: Yeah. The reason why we're here is because we just started chatting about this stuff and we realized there was a ton of overlap. You were like, "I got to share some things," and you were sharing some strategies that I was like, "This is so perfect for any educator to hear." My favorite topic of conversation is this idea of power struggles. Tell me a bit about what makes a power struggle happen in a classroom, what's a powerful version of that, and a frustrating version of that.
- Marla: I love this. Power struggles... I mean, as children, what we're doing is we're trying to find out where we end and where the world begins, right? That's the first power struggle that happens is like where do I end and where does the rest of the world begin? As a child, it's our job to push our parents as far as we possibly can to see where the boundary is.
- Houston: Or teachers.
- Marla: Exactly. Exactly, right? But it starts at home, right? Wherever your home is. Whatever boundary you learned from your parents then transfers into the classroom, right? In the classroom you start to learn, "Ah, what can I get away with and what can I not get away with?" Some students who love power struggles will push, push, push to see, to feel what can I actually do in this classroom if I'm really needing to have a power struggle to prove that I'm worthy, to prove that I'm lovable, to prove that I can get attention, and I do it in a way that does not serve the classroom, that's a negative power struggle because it's selfish. It's only about the students. It's about me needing attention as a student, me needing, you know, all of the eyes on me, and I want the power in the classroom. Okay?
- Marla: That's the negative version. The positive version is I know that if I need the power in the classroom, I have to consider the whole classroom. That's when we teach collaboration, right? That's when we teach that my needs and your needs are just as important. If the teacher, and you know, I was an educator for seven years in Los Angeles Unified working with these very challenged students, when as the teacher, if I set the tone for the positive power struggle because there will always be power struggles, right? Even as adults, right? We still have them. I could walk down the street and have a power struggle or in my car, right? I'm driving down the road and there's a power struggle. Who's going to go first? Who's going to get in front of the next car?
- Marla: When we understand as educators the power struggle in a positive way, we can literally help our students become empowered and become the powerful version of themselves that considers the whole. That's what we really want, right? We really want collaboration in the classroom where students are working together, and we want collaboration in life where we're helping each other to elevate, right? I would like to say this is not just from me. The tide lifts all ships, right? The rising tide lifts all ships and that's what we want for our students.
- Houston: Yeah. You were sharing just before we got on the mic here a story of a particular student that's a great illustration of that power struggle. Tell me a little bit more about that student and the way that you navigated that to empower this young man in your classroom.
- Marla: Oh my goodness. I'm sure none of the educators listening can relate to this. Ha, Ha. I had one student. I'll just use his first name. His name was Rodolfo and he was the most annoying student. I just have to say that honestly.
- Houston: Lovingly.
- Marla: Lovingly. Years later, we became friends. Rodolfo, not only was he the most annoying student because every time I opened my mouth as the teacher in the classroom to start teaching, he would open his mouth and start talking, but he also had perfect attendance. He was there every single day. Every day he was there and the whole class was annoyed with him. They would literally just say, "Rodolfo, stop. Be quiet," you know, because they wanted to learn at some points in the class, right? I realized that one day he was absent, and it was like heaven in the classroom. Everyone was like, "Why is it so peaceful in here?" It's like, "Oh, because Adolfo's not here interrupting." I realized, "Oh my gosh, I'm part of the problem. I'm part of the power struggle going on with Rudolfo."
“When we understand as educators the power struggle in a positive way, we can literally help our students become empowered and become the powerful version of themselves that considers the whole. That's what we really want, right? We really want collaboration in the classroom where students are working together, and we want collaboration in life where we're helping each other to elevate..."
— Marla Mattenson
- Marla: I realized that I was focusing on his negativity and not encouraging him in a positive way. I was just, you know, kind of really belittling him to try to get him to stop talking. I made a choice that I was only going to focus on positive things with him. When I made that choice, I also made the choice to completely ignore everything else. If he was just talking out of turn or trying to distract the classroom, I would just continue to teach and continue to help and continue to work with the groups and everything and let him do his thing. Then, I would walk over to him because, as you know, proximity in education is very important. The closer you get physically to a student, they start acting a little more appropriately, right?
- Marla: I would go over to him and I would look at his paper. He'd write his name down and I go, "Oh good, Rudolfo. Good start. Keep going. Keep going." I'd give him positive encouragement. He'd do any little work on the paper or any little work in his group and I would give him positive reinforcement. A couple of years later at an open house when he was in someone else's class and he came to visit me, he said, "You know, Miss, you're my favorite teacher of all time." I was blown away. I thought, "Are you kidding me? I used to yell at you all the time in the classroom until I made that shift." I asked him why, "Why am I your favorite teacher?" He said, "You treated me with a lot of kindness."
- Marla: It was really moving for me because that power struggle really turned into a collaboration, and he learned through my ability to focus on the positive in him on how to do that for himself.
- Houston: I love it so much. One of my favorite quotes, I think it's Eckhart Tolle that says, "What we resist persists."
- Marla: Oh yes.
- Houston: A lot of times that's what a power struggle is, is that dynamic of we're frustrated because the way that we process the world, our needs are different, right? Where we end and where the world begins, we have different perspectives on that and different needs, and students are trying to discover that. Sometimes when you resist students like that, they're only going to persist. Not to say that that technique works for all people, nothing does, but I love that idea of just looking for the good and you're going to find it. All of a sudden, you're acknowledging positive behaviors, which actually starts to change the way they behave. That's such a beautiful example, and then to come back years later and say, "What a gift. You're my favorite teacher because you saw a good in me."
- Marla: It was really beautiful. In addition to that technique with him, another thing that I did was, and I did this with all my students, was I saw my students with fresh eyes every day. I didn't bring yesterday's behavior into today's classroom, and that was a very intentional thing that I would do before I would open my door in the morning and I would say, "I will see every student with fresh eyes as if this is the first time I'm meeting them." I didn't bring their previous academic issues in, and I didn't bring their previous behavior issues in. I would just look at everyone fresh every day. Honestly, as a relationship expert now working with couples, that's what I teach my couples also is how do you see your partner with fresh eyes every day.
- Marla: Don't assume you know everything about your partner. Be curious. Be open and see the best in them. That's what I did with my students.
- Houston: I love that. What a challenging commitment, but a beautiful intention to start everyday because most of our frustrations in life is that gap between expectation and reality, and our expectations are built by those little experiences. If we start to expect something from a person, we're going to see it.
- Marla: That's exactly right.
- Houston: Good or bad.
- Marla: Exactly. Exactly.
- Houston: Start each day, I want to look at you with fresh eyes. You shared one technique that I think is so brilliant from a relationship perspective. You called it celebration cards. Could you just share like how you into that process and why?
- Marla: Yes. In my first year, I was really nervous about teaching inner city kids because I heard all the stories about what goes on in the classroom with power struggles. I created a technique, and maybe I'm not the only one who has done this. I hope I'm not. I created this technique called celebration cards. What you do is you go to the store and you buy postcards that look happy. Okay? They have to look happy. I would always buy these balloons with happy faces on them on the postcard.
- Houston: It's like cheesy happy almost like.
- Marla: Yeah, cheesy happy.
- Houston: Go big.
- Marla: Like over the top happy. Like nobody can interpret it as anything other than happy. Okay? What I would do on the first day of school is I would go over all my rules and regulations and all that good stuff, and then I would say, "Okay. Here's what we're going to do. At some point during this semester, I will absolutely find something amazing that you have done as a student, and I'm going to send a postcard home to your family, to your aunt, to your uncle, your grandma, some adult who wants to celebrate you as a human. Okay? You need to have their address. If you don't have it now, you can bring it back tomorrow. But the only thing I will do with this postcard is send something happy home, something positive. Okay?
- Marla: And if you're sitting there thinking, there's nothing you're going to find about me that's positive because you hate math and you hate this subject and you're going to be a problem, guess what? Challenge accepted. I will absolutely find something wonderful about every single one of you. It's not necessarily going to be something academic. Maybe it's going to be you're going to help someone. Maybe it's going to be you've been on time every day this week. Maybe it's going to be something else. Okay? Some kindness. I will absolutely find something." What that does is... You know as an educator, when you look around your classroom, every single class, you know who the potential troublemaker is going to be. You know who the potential power struggle kids are going to be.
- Marla: If you can give those kids power intentionally and you co-create with them, they're going to learn to trust you. They're going to learn to respect you. They're going to learn that you care about them, and those are the things that make kids work in the classroom and outside of the classroom. This is what I would do. I would intentionally in the first week of school find something for each one of those power struggle kids that I would recognize like, ooh, I can see. That kid's turning around talking to the student behind them. That kid is doing something weird with their papers. I can tell which ones of the kids are going to be potentially the power struggle kids, and I would send those postcards home first.
- Marla: This one student on the second day of school, she helped me translate. I had a speaker who didn't speak any English at all. I can hack my way through Spanish, but not amazingly. She would translate for this student who didn't speak any English. In the first week, I sent home one of these celebration postcards, and this girl who was a gang kid, she was in a gang and she had all kinds of issues, behavior issues, she came back the next week in school and she said with tears in her eyes, and she said, "My mom put that postcard on the refrigerator. I've never gotten anything positive from a teacher at all, let alone a math teacher." She became like my absolute best right hand. She helped me with everything.
- Marla: She ended up getting pregnant two years later and you know, having a baby early. Then years and years later, because I'm still involved in education, I went to one of the graduations and she was also there. She had already graduate and she was becoming a psychologist. I mean, it's amazing. These celebration postcards... You don't put the stamps on them first because the kids will just take them, but you ha you pass them out and you say, "All you need to do is write down the name and the address of the person you want it sent to, and on a sticky note, I want you to write your name on top of the postcard and put it on top of there." Then I had them in a procedure hand it in and have them do alphabetical order.
- Marla: The kid who passed it in behind them, "Oh, is your name A, B, C, D," right? I would teach them alphabetizing, so that I didn't have to alphabetize them once they got to the first row and they would just pass them all over. They'd go right into a box, period one, period two, period three, and then I would look through them throughout the course of the semester. Okay. I would send out, you know, five to 10 postcards every other week and get it done. It's an amazing technique, and it helps soothe that power struggle because they know that you're on their side. That's what all kids want. We all want that.
- Houston: So very true. Marla, thank you for that gift of a... First of all that, the paradigm shifts around how we look at power in our classroom and the practical strategy of celebrating people in a way that is simple but so poignant, right? We all want to be on the refrigerator, and we all want to feel acknowledged and like someone's on our side looking at us with fresh set of eyes, looking for the good in us. What a gift if all of us could have teachers that every single day said, "Challenge accepted. I'm looking for something wonderful in you." That's powerful. Thank you.
- Marla: Thank you so much. This is amazing. I'm so excited to share all of that.
- John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.