You can’t do everything, but you can do something.
The title of this article should provoke some questions in your mind. Isn’t positive generally related with “happy,” “upbeat,” “fun,” or “not negative?” Although this is the popular premise, it is an incorrect interpretation and one that can keep many from further exploring the unlimited potential of students.
Many educational researchers have confirmed that a positive environment is the most conducive for maximum learning results. Immediately our minds conjure up these visions of classes filled with frivolity and unrealistic happiness in a contrived situation overflowing with artificial sunshine, which we are certain is reserved for the carefully chosen study group and definitely is impossible in the realm of everyday teaching. Therefore, we dismiss the possibility of what a positive approach could mean to our students, our program, and ourselves, and carelessly conclude that it is impractical, idealistic, and has no application in the real world of education. Yet, when we study outstanding schools across the nation, there is one common theme: everything is based on a positive foundation.
We have all heard the story of the young man who studied for an upcoming math test. After several unsuccessful attempts to master fractions, he threw down his book and announced in disgust, “I’m going to really mess up on this test tomorrow!” Jumping to his feet, his eager father reprimanded, “You must be positive!” And the student retorted, “You’re right! I’m positive I’m going to really mess up on this test tomorrow!”
In this case, the young man was really dealing with the essence of what positive is all about. On the other hand, his father was offering a weak (at best) solution to his son’s predicament; just “thinking” it is going to get better is self-deception at the highest level.
Our friend Webster defines positive as “constituting a motion which is definite, unyielding, certain in its pattern; not fictitious, real, logically affirmative.”
Doesn’t this also describe the attributes of a master teacher? Think about your most effective and influential mentors; didn’t they bring these same positive traits to the learning process? Now let’s go one step further and analyze our own teaching efforts.
Do we constitute a definite forward motion? Let’s not confuse filling up time with information as definite forward motion. Although spontaneity is always a signature of a fine teacher, it must be above and beyond the careful planning of each day’s goals.
Are we unyielding and certain in our patterns? When we settle for less than excellence, that’s exactly what we get. It is important that our students understand our level of expectation. In truth, they do. Simply follow them from one class to the next, and observe their behavior change according to the expectations of the teacher.
Are we non-fictitious, real and logically affirmative? We have all fallen into the trap of being unrealistic. (Though we have fulfilled the non-yielding aspect of our positive definition, we have violated the “real” issue.) And when we address the area of the logically affirmative, we find this is the pivotal point of judgment that separates the good teachers from the positively great ones.
It is pointless (and maybe even detrimental) to affirm anyone who has not accomplished the given task or assignment. That certainly doesn’t mean we stop encouraging, inspiring, or supporting them, but we must be honest.
Learn the fine art of correcting a person’s efforts without damaging his or her self-image. To keep from hurting a student’s feelings, we are often tempted to lower the standards so they will feel the accomplishment of the goal, and, as a result, raise their self-esteem. (It also means we do not have to confront the situation and the aftermath of emotion that comes with personal disappointment, so the path of least resistance seems to be an inviting option.)
Unfortunately, the short-lived pseudo-satisfaction is quickly replaced by the understanding that we shifted the rules in the middle of the game. Lowering expectations often backfires and leaves the student with a sense of false security about the integrity of the original goals. (Remember when you were very young and played checkers with an adult who let you win? There was an empty feeling of self-doubt, wasn’t there?)
Conversely, when we fall short but are met with the “affirmative logic” to immediately go back to the drawing board, hone our techniques and skills, and reach deeper into our creative potential, then the disappointment of not achieving the desired goal is replaced with the drive to try it again, knowing there will be a higher level of self-improvement that will honestly and positively raise one’s self-esteem. Now that is positive teaching.
When we begin each new school year, we have new students, a new mix of personalities, and an opportunity to put some fresh new thoughts and ideas into practice. There is no second chance at a first impression. What better time to get serious about being positive?!
This article is adapted from the book “Everyday Wisdom for Inspired Teaching” by GIA Publications, and reproduced with permission from Tim Lautzenheiser.