Why so Negative? Fostering Positive Teacher Attitudes

In my last post, I went over what I have used in my career to build positive relationships with students.  But what if the teachers we are leading do not have positive attitudes.  I have worked with many different educators over the years and many of them have wonderful attitudes.  They are happy with their job, most of the time.  They are positive and upbeat, most of the time.  They get along with their colleagues, most of the time.  We have to understand that teachers are people with emotions and they go through the same struggles everyone goes through (and then some), so why did I make it a point to backhandedly say they were generally positive people?  Why didn’t I just leave it as they are happy, positive, upbeat, etc.?  Why did I have to write “most of the time”, which even in writing seemed a little sarcastic?  I do not want to be thought of as a teacher basher.  I am not.  Actually I am far from it.  I believe in teachers.  I believe that they are the ones responsible for pushing students forward, to opening doors to places their students haven’t even thought about. But for some reason, they sure do focus on the negative side of things.

Let me do some back tracking before you stop reading this and begin to hate me and everything I have to say about teachers.  I believe teachers have been trained to focus on the negatives.  They have been trained to believe that whatever is happening to them, must be looked at through a negative lens and they must then defend what they do.  This isn’t just a one-time occurrence and I believe that this happens daily to many of our teachers.  Just think about how the US education system is portrayed in the media.  I can seem to be constant negativity that teachers take personally.  Teachers take this personally because teaching is a very personal and emotional occupation, which can be very draining.  Then think about when administrators meet with teachers to discuss data for their schools or their students.  Usually this data/information is done in a way that could be construed as judging or comparing one teacher against another.  Many teachers sit in meetings being lectured about how they need to improve their students’ scores on one assessment and many times, there is no mention as to the baggage that many of their students bring with them on a daily basis.  It is impossible to believe that teachers are working with their students on the content all the time.  Teachers must also work with their students on other behaviors, such as how to work with others in a respectable manner, how to positively collaborate with others, efficient ways of utilizing technology, getting students to think creatively as well as critically to solve problems, and the list goes on and on.  Then throw in the difficulties that each student brings with them into the classroom on a daily basis, and teaching becomes overwhelming, especially with some administrator showing you how poorly your students are doing on an assessment.  If this happened to you on a daily basis, I would imagine that you would begin to focus on the negatives on things and how to defend yourself.  It seems only natural this would happen.

So what do we as educational leaders do?  Do we just tell our teachers that they have to do better and that we are hear to listen to them?  That may seem like it could help, but what this sets up is a cycle of negativity being poured onto the teachers and then they return the negatively to you.  This can be a vicious cycle that is never ending and could result in the entire climate of the school to decline.  This negativity would spread like the flu through an elementary school.  It would go from one teacher to the next, then on to the administration and students, and then to the parents and community at large.  This small illness becomes an epidemic for a school and the community and ultimately, disaster.  I believe that by just talking about supporting our teachers is not nearly good enough, we have to model positivity to our teachers and show them that we expect positive attitudes in our school.  But we also have a responsibility as educational leaders to take it a step further.  We must understand that teaching is a very personal occupation, where teachers put their hearts and souls into their craft.  We cannot just jump into constructive feedback and expect the teachers to accept it, we must build up our entire school community through actions first, to show that we are all learning here, no one is perfect, and we can all get better.

The first thing that I tell teachers, when I am working with them, is that we are going to focus on the things we can control. This seems like such a tiny aspect of leading teachers, but believe me, many teachers are constantly focused on things that they cannot control, which leads to worries, which leads to stress, which leads to negativity (did I just take a quote from Yoda and Star Wars about the Dark Side?).  Teachers tend to focus on the students who are struggling in their classrooms.  Most teachers want all of their students to be successful, and thus focus on the students who are struggling.  Many times the struggling students are English Language Learners, students in special education, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, or have other struggles that cause them to underperform when compared to peers.  If you don’t think teachers focus on the types of students they have in their classrooms, just show them some data of two different classes and ask them why one class performed at a higher level.  More likely then not, the student make up of the classes will be mentioned.  Another thing that teachers focus on that they cannot control are the questions that appear on a standardized test, weather that is a state assessment or a district assessment.  I would agree with the teachers that some of the questions that appear on these assessments are not perfect, but why do spend so much time and energy focusing on this?  This won’t change the question that the students have to answer.  It just seems like a waste of time.  I believe that worrying about a thing we cannot control is like a rocking chair.  It will give us something to do, but it won’t get us anywhere.

The second thing that I do when I work with teachers is to focus on growth. I focus on the growth of the students and the growth of the teacher. Too many times our focus goes one end-all, be-all item, like grades, state assessments, or passing rates. What do these tings really tell us anyway? Basically they tell us how a student is performing at the end of a grading period, end of a semester, or the end of a school year. It is a snapshot of the student at one period of time. That is it! On its own, it really doesn’t tell us anything more about the students or the teacher. But what if we modified this slightly and instead of focusing only on the end, we put our efforts into focusing on student growth? I believe this modification would help the teachers shift their mindset from focusing on students who are close to a passing grade or passing a test, to focusing on challenging all of their students to become better, to understand more, to be better problem solvers. I also believe that once we as leaders focus on growth, it takes the negative aspect out of analyzing student data, as we are attempting to get a bigger picture of the student, not just a snapshot. This would then take some of the pressure off of the teacher and then harness the energy into growing all students. I believe that if we focus on student growth, the final scores and passing rates take care of themselves, which is a nice little bonus.

Finally I believe that educational leaders must use the knowledge base in their school to improve the entire staff. Just think about the collective knowledge that is in one school, your school and now imagining harnessing all of that knowledge to push the entire staff forward. Just imagine it, teachers learning from other teachers, principals learning from teachers, assistant principals learning from cafeteria workers, teachers learning from custodians. What a beautiful thing. An entire educational unit becoming better by just observing, listening, and collaborating with other members of the community. To allow this to happen, leaders must become vulnerable. They must model to their staff that we can learn much from our colleagues and that this is an important aspect to build up positivity in everyone. This modeling shows our teachers that we do not know everything and that we are striving to learn more, learn from experts, and we believe we have a school filled with experts. We as leaders can ask teachers to present professional developments to other teachers or just allow time for teachers to observe other classrooms. This is vital to positivity as it shows our teachers that we believe they are all professionals and that they have knowledge that we feel is important. I whole-heartedly believe that teaching is one profession that is not treated as a professionally. Once people feel respected and treated professionally, shockingly they tend to work more professionally and respect others’ opinions and thoughts. This doesn’t happen over night, but is vital for building positivity in a staff.

I understand that educators and educational leaders have a multitude of things that take up their time during the school day and at night, but shouldn’t working on positive attitudes be one of them? I feel that if we increase our positivity levels, more positive things will happen to our teachers, our students, and ultimately our schools. As I reflect on my work with teachers and teacher leaders, one thing is for sure: The happiest people do not have everything. They make the best of everything they have. Stay positive and keep moving forward!

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

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