One of my clients recently wrote to me about a small but significant shift in his teaching praxis. He, like many teachers, is finding teaching a challenging climate with little satisfaction.
He wrote: “One day last week in school, the day was dragging and I was noticing the same old negative behavior and really felt like I didn't want to be here. I knew I had to try and change that somehow, but I couldn't do EFT (a powerful anxiety releasing exercise I teach clients and students). I tried to notice the positive things that were happening in class and respond to them. It worked, at least for the moment, and I felt better and noticed the students seemed more engaged. However, doing this felt very unnatural to me. I personally love positive reinforcement and am hurt by criticism. Paradoxically it feels foreign at school to be positive and praise my students. What are your insights on this?”
Insight 1: It’s impersonal. Nationally many teachers are dissatisfied with their work. This is evidenced by the fifty percent attrition rate of new teachers within the first five years of teaching. Additionally it is reflected in the confusion and tension around common core reform, educator evaluation and zero-tolerance policies throughout the country. In other words the environment in which hundreds of thousands of teachers and students attend daily is fraught with conflicting attitudes and negativity.
Insight 2: Noticing positivity changes the way you feel. There is growing research to indicate that putting more attention on the positive parts of a negative experience changes your feelings from victimization, fear and anger to happiness and empowerment.
Why is this important in the classroom? When you have twenty to thirty students there is a broad array of behaviors that please and displease you as a teacher. One common habit for a teacher is to attend to the negative issues first. On average teenagers hear a negative (don’t, should, not now, stop that, no etc) a staggering 450 times a day! This generates a climate of negativity that reinforces over and over again that there is something wrong which needs fixing. It feels bad and over and is fuel for teacher burn-out. For children it is a mind-numbing process that engenders a feeling of wasted time in the learning process. It demoralizes everyone.
Focusing on negative behaviors in the classroom becomes a challenging habit to break and unfortunately often leads teachers to miss many opportunities with their students.
Insight 3: Praise to admonishment ratios is a science worth investigating. A wonderful book, ‘How Full is Your Bucket? ‘ tracks research to show that a ratio of four praises to one admonishment (PA ratio) changes behaviors. This is a powerful tool to change classroom behavior and starts to work immediately (as my client noticed). If you track your PA ratio for one lesson you may be shocked at what you find. Many teachers (and parents) falsely believe their PA ratio to be close to four to one but when they experiment find the reverse is true. To change your PA ratio requires practice and honesty. Try it , even if it feels unnatural (which it will at first) and you will notice a difference.
Insight 4: Criticism hurts more than we acknowledge. In a world where heroes suck it up and move on I notice there is often a denial by many just how much criticism damages their relationships and diminishes their performance. Criticism is often non-specific and subjective. Contemplate and analyze what behaviors affect your moods and efficacy as a teacher and explore ways to communicate your needs in a non-critical fashion. This shift from criticism to feedback (I like to think of it as feed-forward) changes everything.
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"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports