As we get ready to head back to school, I’ve inevitably been thinking a lot about everything that I’ll be doing in my classroom this year. Over and over, I’ve come back to this idea of encouragement. The idea has come up in various contexts recently, and I’ve been thinking about the importance of providing an encouraging atmosphere, for students and for teachers. We like to think, at least in high school, that students are grown and they can handle harsh words.
I recently ran into a former student who was telling me that she was thinking about getting into teaching and unable to decide if she wanted to teach elementary or high school. Then, she said probably high school because you can tell them to shut up and stuff like that. We think high school students are grown-up adults, but they aren’t. They’re still children, still learning how to be adults, and they deserve as much encouraging talk as any other level of education. I’ve had some personal experience in the importance of encouragement, both negative and positive, as a student and a teacher.
School was always easy. Growing up in the gifted program early on in elementary school and taking accelerated and honors classes, nothing less than an A was acceptable. I maintained that high bar, too. From kindergarten through my senior year of high school, I only made As. Except for one class. It was the only B I ever made, but it’s not the grade that stuck with me. It was the teacher.
In this class, the teacher treated me pretty harshly and even told me one day that I may be gifted, but it was clearly not in literature. I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember exactly what was said. I just remember what it did to me. I spiraled downward, dropped out of honors English and bought into this idea that I would never be good with literature. I’m already my harshest critic, and this just solidified all the negative thoughts I had about myself.
On the other hand, I had a professor in college who had the opposite effect. There wasn’t anything specific that he said. We just had a really good relationship throughout college and afterwards. He was tough on my writing (It looked like someone had bled all over my paper). He, however, was encouraging and helped me become a better writer and a better reader, and really a better person. Because of him, my love for literature was reignited. As a result, I’ve taught ELA for 12 years, written marketing content for businesses, done freelance writing for a newspaper, published a novel, and run a couple of different blogs online. He helped me find my passion.
I’ve had a similar experience in my career as well. Early in my teaching career, I encountered some major discouragement. I was struggling a lot in the classroom, and it started to really get to me. I was in a really bad place. I felt like I was drowning, and I didn’t know what to do. But instead of offering a helping hand, I was basically told to figure it out myself. I was told that I was poison to my department. I was told by an administrator that teaching wasn’t for everyone. I wasn’t doing a good job, but I couldn’t find any encouragement either, which made things even worse.
Flash forward a few years, and I received some of the best encouragement ever. I had administrators that empowered me and helped me find my niche in education. I had one administrator who helped connect me with a lot of opportunities to develop my knack for technology, and then everything suddenly shifted. I’ve had another administrator who has given me opportunities to utilize my passion for integrating technology, and it’s been a major turning point in my career.
I’ve gone from feeling like I’m stuck out in open sea to actually having a purpose, and it’s all really because of the way people treated me. Our students and our colleagues are the same way.
If you’re familiar with the Broken Window concept, you can see how this applies to our classrooms. The theory says that when you don’t repair broken windows in a neighborhood, it encourages further, more serious crimes. By focusing on the small things, you create an atmosphere that is more conducive to order and lawfulness. It works the same way in class. If we create an atmosphere of encouragement in the small things, then our students will be empowered to do their best rather than be afraid that they will receive some cutting, sarcastic remark.
As you enter your classrooms for another year, remember how much words and actions can impact people. This job is hard enough as it is without adding any more negative thoughts. Sure, things won’t be perfect. You’re going to have those students (You know exactly who I’m talking about). But try not to stay in that negative zone. Often times, those students are the ones who need encouragement more, and they eventually become some of your best advocates. Find those positive spots in your students (especially those challenging ones) and encourage them in those areas. Something as small as an encouraging word, a high five, a smile, a pat on the shoulder goes a long way.
Do the same for your colleagues. When we teachers get together, it’s really easy for the conversation to devolve into a gripe session. Let’s help each other out and build each other up.