I’ve had the privilege of knowing several absolutely outstanding educators, the kind of teacher that makes you proud to be in the same profession. My sister-in-law, Susan, is one of them. She teaches in Northern Virginia, in a small town outside of DC. In her 35+ years of teaching first grade, she has left her loving, encouraging fingerprints on not one but two generations of students. She is now teaching some of her former students’ children!

The other day she was standing in line at the grocery store when a voice behind her said, “Is that you?” She looked back to see the smiling face of a former parent. As often happens to Susan, the mother began enthusiastically thanking her for giving her (now adult) son a great start in school and for being such a positive influence in his life. Susan was rather surprised at this mother’s comments because the son had only been in Susan’s class for a very short time as he was transferred to another class a few weeks into the school year. When Susan suggested to the mother that she must be confusing her with the teacher who had her son the majority of that year, she said, “No! You are the one who gave my son that note. Don’t you remember? He was very worried about moving to the other class where he didn’t know anyone. You gave him a little sticky note to put in his pocket. It said, “You are going to fly!” Susan, he kept that note in his pocket every single day for years. When I washed his pants, I had to be very careful to take the note out, wash the pants and then put the note back. In fact, he mentioned the other day that he still has the note!”

When Susan shared that story with me, she was blown away. She had forgotten all about that event until the conversation with the mom in the grocery store line. Then she remembered that fateful day and how, almost as an afterthought, she quickly wrote an encouraging message on a sticky note and gave it to a scared little boy and told him to put it in his pocket.

There is power in a teacher’s words!

Research shows that, on average, teachers make more than 1,500 decisions every school day. Our decisions include how we prepare our lessons, how we differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners, remediation strategies, questioning strategies, classroom management issues, assessments, communicating with peers and parents, and a hundred other things. We can get so caught up in the “doing” of teaching that we lose sight of the human aspect of teaching. One of my former principals (and a great lady to work for) used to remind us in our faculty meetings that we don’t work in a pickle factory putting pickles in a jar. We teach human beings who have hearts and minds and souls. Therefore, we must include in our 1,500 daily decisions the decision to protect and nurture our students’ hearts as well as their minds.

I promised you real world, practical ways to be the powerful, positive teacher so here goes:

Step 1: Make the Decision

Decide right now, while you are reading this article, what kind of teacher you want to be. Your students will remember you years from now. Will they remember you as one who inspired and encouraged them to not settle for good enough but to push through to their very best? Or, will you be remembered as the teacher who beat them down? On one of my school visits a while ago, I overheard a teacher using a loud voice to tell her students, “You guys are lazy! You are nothing but trailer trash!” I was utterly heartbroken by her angry words.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about trying to be our students’ friend, trying to be popular or win them over with undeserved flattery or by being an easy grader. I am talking about loving our kids enough to give them our very best every single day and expecting their very best every single day as well. I am convinced that today’s young people are literally starving for someone who will love them enough to hold them to the highest standards.

I will dedicate a future article to practical ways to be our very best as teachers. But, for today, I want you to look in the mirror and decide who you want to be. Then write it down and look at it every day, especially on the hard days. For inspiration, think about a teacher or professor who deeply inspired you. What did they do that inspired you? What did they say? How did they act?

Step 2: Be honest

This is gut check time. In the privacy of your own thoughts, how do you see your students? Obviously, our students are not perfect and they can be trying and get on our nerves occasionally. That is real life. Labor statistics report that being a teacher is often listed as one of the top 5 most stressful jobs, right up there with surgeons and enlisted military personnel. Our students are not perfect and neither are we. But, for the most part, do you really care about them and their futures? Do you truly desire to see them grow and flourish academically? Do you see each student as a chance to make a positive impact on their life and on our nation’s future? Or, are you angry at them? Do you feel bitterness and resentment towards your students? Do you see them as a “lost cause,” people who are wasting your time? When you read the earlier part of this article about the teacher who called her students “lazy, trailer trash,” did you identify with her and often feel the same towards your students?

If these negative feelings describe you, may I humbly make the following suggestion because I care about you. If you are feeling constantly angry, frustrated and bitter, you are burned out and something in your life needs to change now! This change must happen before you can change your classroom. You may need some time off, you may need to go to your principal and ask for help. Maybe that help is in the form of a mentor teacher or a PLC (professional learning community) who can walk alongside you and give you some great professional advice. You may need some targeted professional development (such as classroom management strategies and/or strategies to engage diverse learners). If the problems in your personal life are adversely affecting your professional life and, thus your students, you may benefit from professional counseling. The bottom line is, in order for you to be a powerful, positive teacher you need to be emotionally healthy and have a positive attitude towards your students.

Step 3: Get in their heart

My motto when I was a classroom teachers was, “First I get their hearts, then they give me their minds.” As an educator, I’m sure you are familiar with the extensive research on the importance of establishing positive regard with your students. One of my favorite quotes is by Dr. James Comer, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” (Comer, 1995) That statement is accurate whether the student is a 5 year old Kindergartner or a 25 year old graduate student.

We get in our students’ hearts in a hundred tiny ways. We make eye contact and welcome each student to class each day. When a student is home sick, we send a quick email telling them we missed them in class and look forward to having them back soon. We find out what each of our students likes so we can talk with them about it or, better yet, attend an event in which they are participating. I’ve spent years attending Boy Scout awards ceremonies, basketball games, football games, debate tournaments, concerts, drama productions, and religious ceremonies. Each event was an opportunity for me to see my student shine in a way I couldn’t see in my classroom and gave me an opportunity to cheer them on and visit with their parents and family members.

Perhaps you feel you have no time to attend any event. You can still find out what they are interested in and become familiar enough to be able to talk with them about it; with so much information available on our smartphones, we have access to info on everything from March Madness scores to new video games hitting to market to which musical group just won a Grammy. Showing an interest in our students’ lives and their interests (or course, as long as they are healthy and wholesome interests) goes a long way in establishing Positive Regard in our classrooms.

Step 4: Speak Life

Sarcasm has no place in our classroom. The same goes for put downs, insults, and humor at someone’s expense. Sarcasm is not funny. Sarcasm is veiled anger.

Rather, a positive teacher speaks life into the student. We look for and commend the best in each student and we invest our time in helping them achieve their dreams.

I met a young woman recently who impressed me as a bright, ambitious, hard working person. She mentioned that her dream growing up was to become a nurse but she gave up that dream and became a massage therapist instead. When I asked why she gave up her dream she answered, “When I told my high school counselor that I wanted to be a nurse, he said I wasn’t smart enough so I needed to pick something else.” Words have the power to literally change the trajectory of a person’s life. Use them wisely.

A much better approach would have been for that counselor to encourage that young student and let her know exactly what steps she would need to take in order to become a nurse and then support her with tutoring or mentoring as needed. I have seen many students, some very disinterested in school, do a 180 degree turn when they found their passion and realized what they needed to do to reach their dream. The earlier we can help a student find their passion in life and give them direction in how to get there, the better. That is called student engagement and that is speaking life into our students.

We speak life into our students when we tell them that we see them as leaders, as creative thinkers, as artistic, as kind, as compassionate, as thoughtful, as helpful, as great listeners, etc. Speaking life is not insincere flattery; it must be absolutely truthful. Therefore, we must take the time to really “see” our students and actively look for those character traits, talents or gifts so we can sincerely speak life into them. Remember, the world (and perhaps members of their own household) are constantly putting them down with critical words and unrealistic comparisons. The 14 year old girl who is struggling with feelings of insecurity and low self–esteem because social media tells her that the only definition of “beautiful” is the airbrushed models in the fashion magazines, will be blessed by the teacher that takes her aside to say she sees in her an intelligent mind and a compassion heart.

Step 5: Maintain high expectations

Think about the people in your life who see the very best in you. That was my grandmother. She always saw me in my best light and I worked hard to make sure I stayed in that good light! Our natural, human inclination is to rise (or sink) to the level of other’s expectations of us. Therefore, if we want to see excellent behavior in our students, we need to model the behavior, teach the behavior, encourage excellent behavior when we see it, and correct when they fall short. As teachers we need to see our students in the best possible light because, if we see them as “always” in trouble or “always” failing, that is exactly what they will do. For example, if we reprimand a student with, “There you go again, always getting into trouble” we let them know that we see them only as a troublemaker. Consequently, if we speak life into them, we encourage them to live up to our expectation. For example, “John, the words you chose to say to Mark were unkind and hurtful. But John, that’s not like you. I know you to be a kind person. I’ve seen the way you are so patient with your younger siblings.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting we ignore or allow bad behavior. Just the opposite! I am suggesting that we expect excellent behavior from our students. In order to accomplish that, we need to teach the expectations, encourage excellent behavior when we see it and correct and reteach when we don’t see the behaviors we expect.

Now it’s your turn. How do you create positive relationships with your students? How do you speak life into your kids?

Thanks for joining the conversation. I love to learn from my fellow educators. Teachers are my heroes!!!

Jackie Matthews

Jackie Matthews

Education done well (with excellence, passion and love) can change individual lives and entire communities for generations. One of the most exciting and rewarding personal experiences in my life is watching someone “get it."

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