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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Out Of the Negativity, Be the Water That Affects Positive Change

By Starr Sackstein — January 21, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

Being a victim of the system is not an effective way to promote progress, we must be a part of the solution.

Angry, nervous banter brews in the doorways of classrooms within earshot of the very students we try to protect and dissuade from using negative talk. They hear the dissatisfaction and experience our anxiety in the classrooms too often.

With a revolving door of poorly implemented initiatives and the continual pressure to get the numbers of progress up on standardized tests, teachers need to vent, right?

While I agree that we all have moments of anguish as it relates to the challenges of success in the classroom and the system, I don’t agree that we should be airing our negative energy anywhere near our kids; we need to model responsible behavior and address the issues with the administration in our buildings and try to make positive change.

Rather than just complain and rant, we must take action with the appropriate parties.

Teachers must take the opportunity to work with each other, support each other and create an atmosphere that promotes positivity. We need to be each other’s greatest advocates.

What can we do first?

The first step is being the person who doesn’t contribute to the negative talk. Share your dissatisfaction with colleagues, friends or a therapist away from school. Get it out of your system, so the focus can remain on what’s important during the day: the kids.

It’s imperative that we don’t participate in this activity at school, but it isn’t enough to not contribute, we also have to take action by focusing our thoughts on the positive. The negative energy will undoubtedly force teachers into early retirement. Folks burn out for much lesser stresses, the last thing we need to do is reinforce all of the system-wide badness, by encouraging rants of what’s wrong.

Being a victim of the system is not an effective way to promote progress, we must be a part of the solution.

Here’s where the heavy lifting comes in

Like with all situations that require action, if we want things to change, we have to actually do something about it. We have to be the change.

Determine what the biggest gripes are among the staff and start working on a plan to make the environment free of them. Whether you create a committee or a lunch group that actively seeks to problem solve and then share ideas with the staff, there are always ways to start defusing the angst.

If folks are anxious about the new teacher evaluation system, work together on developing better professional learning that will assuage the fears and offer success in the classroom. Encourage a risk-taking environment that allows teachers to try new things and praise each other for those efforts. Being courageous in the classroom is challenging and requires support, but it can provoke major change in attitude, especially when the student experience is positive. Their chatter and excitement spreads like wildfire.

Greet students and colleagues at the door and in the hallway with a smile. Ask how things are going and actually care about the answer. Smiles are contagious; so start an epidemic. It’s an extremely powerful message to send when trying to shift the tone of a community and it’s easy enough and requires no money.

Invite struggling teachers into your classroom and plan projects or classes together. Create opportunities that break cycles of isolation. Education is a social career, don’t be afraid to lean on each other and communicate regularly about challenges and successes; this isn’t a competition, it’s a team effort. The more we work together, the stronger the community grows.

Make a space to celebrate and share best practices. Whether it is during a monthly professional development or a permanent place to share ideas like a school blog or Twitter hashtag, allow teachers to recognize each other and practice what seems to be working with other teachers. Rather than tell teachers how to teach, offer them options of what is working and let them choose what is most comfortable for them.

Open the lines of communication with administration in a non-confrontational way to eliminate the perception of a “gotcha” environment. This atmosphere can be poisonous and actually become an antidote to learning. No one takes risks when they feel they are being watched and judged poorly for every single misstep. We are human beings and we make mistakes. Kids are terrified to make them and we keep telling them it’s okay, shouldn’t it be okay for us too?

Like with all heavy lifting, there are big rewards

When schools work together to shift the tension and mood to create a climate and culture of learning, there is a palpable shift in the attitude of all involved. Kids are more excited to go to classes to learn and teachers enjoy coming to work early and maybe even staying late. The thing with negativity is that is viral and once it infects a community, the dangers of its venom are much farther reaching than anyone wants to acknowledge.

School leaders MUST do something about it because allowing it to persist can greatly degenerate the learning potential.

Here are some easy ways for individuals to contribute on their own:

  • Get involved in Twitter if you aren’t involved already - developing a PLN can help stay positive and give the support you may not be getting in your building. Once you have an account and you are reading what others are posting, then you can step up your game and participate in one of the many excellent education chats. They are a great place to get ideas, share concerns and shake off the yuck.
  • Start blogging - we talk to our kids about reflection and it’s essential for a teacher to be reflective too. What is our part in the culture at our school? If we aren’t doing anything to change it, we are contributing to what isn’t working. Consider your body of work on a day to day basis and keep yourself honest by writing about it and sharing it. Model reflective behavior for your students.
  • Join a professional organization in your content area or leadership. Conferences and/or email listservs can provide another great place for learning and support to help quell anxiety and develop great skills to take back into the classroom.

Ask yourself every day, “what can I do today to improve my practice and better my community?” What will you do today to make your school a better place to learn in?

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.