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I was having a conversation this morning with a teacher I’m very close to, someone who trusts me enough to be honest with me, and who does it in a way that is loving and generous. She was talking about how my website and podcast sometimes make her feel like she’s not doing enough, she’s doing it all wrong, her teaching is never quite good enough. And that makes her feel like crap, because all she ever does is work, to the detriment of her physical health, her mental health, and her relationships.
To be fair, I’m not the only one making her feel this way — she gets this message from professional development, from people who write books and articles and create media directed at teachers, and from her school leadership. None of us are sending that message in quite those words. Instead, we are offering up ideas, strategies, new tools, fresh ways to fine-tune and improve and grow and it is all so well-intended, but to an overwhelmed teacher who is trying desperately to just keep their head above water, it’s like trying to drink from a firehose. The message ends up getting reduced down to one thing: DO MORE.
She compared it to Pinterest, how you might be doing something like planning a baby shower for a friend, and you’ll do some research and get a cool plan in place and buy all the things, and then you look at Pinterest and it’s tile after tile of beautifully curated images and all these amazing ideas that you didn’t do but they’re all great ideas but you don’t have the time or the budget to do them and there’s too many choices… and you look back at your baby shower stuff, and the shower is tomorrow, and you go, wow, this shower is gonna be terrible. I’m terrible.
And when I look back over the ideas I’ve put out over the years, I can see how it could make a teacher feel that way. While I fully believe it’s all good, useful stuff, I get how it could be overwhelming. It has always been my hope that it would be consumed on an as-needed basis, when people have the time and space for it, when they have a problem they want to solve. And maybe if teachers had total control over their time and their craft, it would work that way, but they don’t. Administrators also consume this stuff. And they want their teachers to implement it. And far too often, they want them to implement it NOW. This ignores all of the good things teachers are already doing. And so even teachers who manage to avoid that Pinterest-y comparison often have it placed in their laps anyway.
So right now I want to pause my usual stream of ideas and suggestions and talk to those administrators, to principals and superintendents and instructional coaches and anyone else in a position to tell teachers how to do their jobs. I have no new strategies or tools or books to share with you this week. Nothing new to implement.
My only message for you is that your teachers need a win, and they need it now.
When a person only receives criticism — direct or implied — and no praise, they’re drained of motivation. And this is especially true when that person is doing something difficult. Something like teaching. Without any feedback about what they’re doing right, it becomes easier and easier to give up.
The opposite is also true. Sometimes even in the toughest situations, the smallest bit of praise can give a person enough confidence, enough of a dopamine hit, to keep going and keep trying.
But to work, the praise needs to be specific. Generic praise does no good at all.
I had a principal one time tell me I was one of his best teachers, and when I gently I asked him how he knew that when he never came to my classroom, he thought about it and said he just knew, because no parents ever called to complain. I really liked him as a person, but I’m sorry, that compliment didn’t mean anything to me. I would have much rather had him watch me teach for 10 minutes and tell me one or two things I did that he thought were especially effective. Even if he only gave me that feedback once a year, it would do more for me as a teacher than what he did instead. And it would have motivated me to work even harder.
So this is my ask of you as an administrator: Choose 10 teachers on your staff and make it a goal to give each of them one piece of specific, positive feedback this week. For some, you might only need to think about what you’ve noticed during your past observations of them. For others, you might need to arrange a short classroom visit — make sure the teacher knows ahead of time that you will ONLY be looking for things to compliment them on. Even better would be to ask them to choose a time when they’re doing something they think you’d like to see.
If you’re short on ideas, here are a few things you might compliment them on:
- Relationships and rapport with students: Are they tuned in to their students’ moods? Do they seem to know their students well? Do their students seem to be relaxed? Do students take risks and seem comfortable asking for help? Do students show signs of liking and trusting their teacher?
- Decision-making: Are they good at noticing when a student is struggling with material? Are they able to course-correct when something goes wrong? Do they have a good sense for when more examples are needed, when some students are getting restless, or when it’s time to switch things up?
- Clarity and delivery: Are they good at explaining things, giving instructions, coming up with relevant examples? Is their delivery engaging, warm, entertaining, relatable? Do they provide adequate wait time or ensure that many students are included in the learning? Do they seem excited about the thing they’re teaching?
- Classroom management and logistics: Have they set up any systems in the classroom that makes it run well? Do you notice them modeling behaviors that students might emulate? Are there any signs that students have been given the tools they need to manage some of their own learning independently?
- Lesson planning: Do they come up with interesting activities to teach their content? Do they ask challenging questions? Are they good at managing time so that activities finish on time and students are let go when they should be? Do they make good use of unexpected leftover time?
- Design: Is there anything about the design of their instructional materials, seating arrangement, or classroom that makes them especially effective or inviting?
Please, please, please do not mistake this for a checklist that you should use to suggest areas for improvement. It’s not a walk-through sheet. And this list could be three times this long. Every teacher is good at something, and they need to hear about it — the more specific, the better.
After this week is over, pick 10 more teachers and repeat the process. If 10 was too much the first week, just do five. Or two. Or however many you can handle. My guess is that once you’ve done just a few, you’re going to want to do more, and it’s going to get easier. Because the person receiving the compliment isn’t the only one who gets a dopamine hit. The giver gets one too. On top of all that, this process takes very little time and it’s totally free. And in education, we like fast and free.
If you are not an administrator, you can take this small challenge into your own relationships — with your students, your colleagues, your own kids, your partners and family members and friends. And your administrator — they need it too, probably more than you realize. There is not a person alive who wouldn’t benefit from a genuine, specific compliment.
In 2016, I posted this incredible video about a teacher, Stephanie MacArthur, who did an activity with her students called the Compliments Project, where every student took a turn sitting at the front of her classroom while their peers wrote compliments on the board behind them. When they finished, the student would stand up and read the compliments in front of everyone, and when I tell you it is emotional — you just have to watch it. It’s absolutely worth five minutes of your time, and it’s a beautiful illustration of just how much we all need more praise in our life.
So that’s it for today. A pause in the firehose of ideas and suggestions and a request that you give some genuine compliments this week to the people in your life who need it. If you take me up on it, and it goes well, I would love to have you tell me about it below.
Thanks so much for the work you do.