Earlier on the blog, we were talking about the goal of kids hearing 3 positive statements for every negative one. But let’s be honest here. If there’s anyone whose negative to positive ratio is off, it’s us. Teachers.
There’s a considerable list of people we may hear negative comments from. Teenagers (who aren’t exactly known for cheerful enthusiasm), those parents (you know the ones), administrators, politicians who have no experience with education and even newspapers that seem hell-bent on trashing teachers every chance they get (Hello, Chicago Tribune).
But here’s the thing. The most immediate way of changing this ratio is to change the way you talk to yourself. Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if our culture truly valued education and not just the acquisition of A’s and I would love to play a role in bringing about that change. But I’m also a firm believer in the serenity prayer and what I have the most power to change is the way I talk to myself and the way I hear what others say to me. And just as we can hear negative implications, we can learn to listen for the positive as well.
This might seem obvious or it might seem silly, as in “I’m an adult, why should I need to learn how to talk to myself?” But that’s exactly what bothers me. We’re asked to help students with something many of us can’t do for ourselves. The first thing that comes up when I Google “positive self-talk for” is “students.” And lots of people have suggestions on how to help students talk to themselves. Which is great and something we should do, but I want to consider how we talk to ourselves first. Wouldn’t learning how to do it ourselves make us better teachers of others? (Not to mention just happier people!) So let’s talk about some of the things teachers hear and how they can sound in our heads if we’re not careful.
The Dreaded “Still” and Its Antidotes
I call the word “still” the dreaded “still” because it carries so much implied criticism for teachers. “I don’t understand” is fine and has a place in every classroom, but “I still don’t understand” can sound more like a criticism of our teaching. Parents are also masters of the dreaded “still” as in: “my daughter still doesn’t understand your expectations” and “Tyler still doesn’t have an A.” I believe that learning happens on its own timetable and that there’s value in confusion, but it’s easy to hear all of those stills as “if you were a good teacher, this wouldn’t happen.”
And teachers are guilty of the dreaded “still,” too. “They still don’t know how to integrate quotes!” “We’ve been reading Gatsby for a week and five people still don’t have their books!” “Seniors who still don’t know what a run-on is!” We may aim our complaints at students, but I think part of why we say these things is to let off steam around our greatest fear–that we have failed as teachers. But just as we accept that failure is a normal part of learning for students, it should be for us as well. The phrase “not yet” is an important self-talk tool for students, and it should be for teachers as well. How about “teaching is incredibly difficult. I may not have figured out how to do ______________ yet, but I’m making progress.”
Another antidote to the dreaded “still” is listening for other words that also have implied meanings, but more positive ones. Like “already.” If you ever hear a student say “it’s 10:30 already!” hear that as “you’re an awesome teacher, I’ve been so engaged I haven’t noticed the time passing.” I’m serious. “Now” as in “Oh, I understand now” indicates some sort of change that you probably had a hand in. Bask in the glory. “Not so bad” (as in “oh, that homework is not so bad”) might as well be teenspeak for totally awesome. We all know students for whom “I totally failed” means “I got a B,” so we’re used to translating teenspeak. And it may sound silly, but I believe that taking the time to replay the translated message in your head helps increase the ratio of positive messages that you’re hearing.
Department of Complaints
I was telling a colleague the other day about a really difficult class I had early in my career. It was a class of struggling seniors who came with a lot of baggage and built up anger towards school and not a lot of hope for the future. I tried to listen, I tried to engage, I tried a lot of things, and rarely felt like anything worked the way I wanted it to. But I also learned to be thankful for really small things. And I learned that if roughly the same number of people complained that the class was way too hard as complained that it was way too slow and boring, I had hit about the right level and pace. So I would say to myself “oh good, there’s a balance of opinion, I’m on the right level.”
And it’s worth bearing in mind that students have to complain about adults a good portion of their waking moments or they risk losing their teen card. It’s easy to hear “We should watch Lion King!” as criticism of the lesson and “2 chapters for homework!” as an attack on your organizational skills. But it’s probably best to just let those comments go as kids being kids (especially when the 2 chapters are actually fewer pages, but they didn’t even bother to look). In fact, if I make a new seating chart and anyone likes their seat, I joke that I’ve failed.
I’ve also learned from my own little one that testing limits is natural. So the question “can I have a cookie for breakfast” isn’t a sign that I’m a horrible mother, it’s her chance to explore a boundary and see if it’s still there. My only job is to stay calm and re-establish the boundary. Admittedly, when I hear “can we do nothing today?” my first thought is often “haven’t I clearly established the expectation that we engage in meaningful work every day?!” But I can replace that with “boundary testing is normal; this kid wants me to show her that the world is a stable place.” (Yes, I think in semi-colons.)
If you’d like to learn more about positive self-talk, here are some ideas from other people that I found interesting. There’s a technique where you imagine your self-critic as external to get some distance from it. And apparently, some psychologists think it helps to address yourself by your name when you talk to yourself. Since most of us have a teacher name (Ms. Nelson) as well as what friends call us (Karena), I think our names hold a lot of power.
Stay tuned to Next Time Teaching, I have more thoughts on positive self-talk and more classroom resources coming.