Before you read on, we invite you to take a moment and reflect on what would happen if we were to refocus the energy and mindset we currently apply to seeking out what isn’t working in schools towards finding out what is working… imagine that!
Be More dog
Recently, I spent some time with old friends from my school days. We had a great get-together and plenty of time to chat. One conversation stood out above the rest. As well as making me laugh, it resonated with me and had me scrambling for a notebook and pen to write it down.
My old mate Seamus was talking about his love of dogs and how much he enjoyed being in their company. I jokingly said, “You seem to love your dogs more than your family.” He looked me in the eye and replied, “Of course I do, they mean the world to me.”
Knowing I had dogs, he continued by saying, “Look, suppose you were to accidentally lock your partner and dog in the garage. You then go out for a few drinks and a spot of lunch with your friends and return some five hours later a little worse for wear. What do you think would be the outcome?”
(Should you ever find yourself in this scenario, our strong recommendation would be to contact Relate immediately!)
Before I got the chance to answer, he added, “Let me help you. On your return, you walk down the drive and become aware of your error when you hear screaming and shouting and a little barking and scratching (which you hope is the dog) from your garage. Your heart sinks and you have a sick feeling (plus the hope you didn’t leave the hammer accessible) as you head to free your accidental hostages.
“What do you think will happen when your victims are freed? Yes, you guessed right. Your partner will go beyond ballistic, calling you all the names under the sun, including the old favourites that normally crop up at these moments: ‘You’re useless’, ‘You never think of me’, ‘Why didn’t you answer your phone?’, ‘Did it not occur to that tiny brain of yours what you had done?’ The atmosphere for the rest of the evening will be cool to borderline permafrost and thawing will take you well beyond the next UN climate change talks!
“Meanwhile, your other victim, the dog, will greet you with her tail wagging while barking loudly and trying desperately to give you a big lick. This will continue for the next few minutes as she contorts her body in an S-like motion, wanting to show you affection. When you settle down to watch television later that evening, she will nuzzle up to you on the sofa after realising you have been put into forced isolation in your own home.”
I found Seamus’s tale quite thought-provoking. Both victims love you; one married you and helped you to raise a family, the other you purchased as a puppy (or rescued) and took home to become part of your family. However, their responses couldn’t be more different.
You see, your partner is like most people (myself included) and hardwired to find fault – the old negativity bias at work again. In this situation, they quickly lose sight of your strengths, the core reasons they have stuck with you for the last twenty years: you’re great with the kids, you make them laugh, you’re sensitive and you’re always honest and kind, etc. But because of your blunder, their brain filters out your many strengths and focuses on the error, which leads them to think you’re stupid, forgetful and are always out with your mates.
The dog, however, loves you unconditionally and, despite being held captive for the same five hours, focuses only on your strengths. She is incapable of seeing anything other than the best in you; her love shines through. After all, you feed her, show her lots of affection, take her for great walks, give her treats and even pick up her poo! Therefore, on your return, she is as happy as Larry to see you. In her mind, there is no need to remind you of your silly, small error. Dogs seem to be hardwired to value and trust those around them. They see the best in you always.
I reflected on this story for a while and began to see its relevance to school life and systems that can, on occasion, make us feel cautious and push us firmly on to the back foot. Establishing a default setting in us to focus on the negative and see the worst in situations and sometimes, sadly, in others, too.
What receives attention or focus becomes what we (or the client) strive(s) for and eventually becomes a reality.
Erika Stoerkel – coach and author
A key message throughout our book is the joy of finding strengths in others, acknowledging their contributions, celebrating their success and remembering to say thank you – the very thrust of our tale above.
I would suggest a good start to finding strengths is to focus your efforts on the potential of informal feedback - an undervalued yet extremely powerful form of feedback for highlighting staff strengths and giving a positive message and available for all to use at a moment's notice.
This kind of feedback is often given during the brief interactions as staff move around the school sharing time together – hence the importance of wearing out your shoe leather, which we explored in our recent blog.
Although snatched in a moment and rarely planned, this kind of feedback is so often affirmative; we would therefore advocate that you plan intentional walkabouts to tell staff the ‘good stuff’. It is irrelevant whether this praise is given by a teacher or someone in a leadership role. It confirms to the recipient the good things they are doing. For example, “Loved the assembly”, “The choir sang beautifully” or “Thanks for all your planning ideas the other evening.” You get the picture. If delivered sincerely, how can this feedback not lead to happier, more positive staff and encourage stronger relationships across the school? After all, it is the very glue that binds a school community together.
There are two things people want more than sex and money –recognition and praise.
Mary Kay Ash – an American businesswoman who founded Mary Kay Cosmetics
When it occurs regularly, informal feedback is potent and transformational. This is because it lifts our spirits, motivates us and makes us feel good. Why wouldn’t it? It also helps us to understand and clarify our strengths, giving us licence to do more of the same. In effect, we are spreading a little kindness around the school and creating and/or modelling a culture through these actions, ensuring staff are more likely to go the extra mile for the pupils, the school and its community.
'The most powerful drug in the world is kindness. It works for everyone, it's very hard to get the dose wrong and it's free at the point of delivery.' (Quoted in Private Eye)
Dr Phil Hammond – NHS doctor, private eye journalist, campaigner & comic
Ultimately, if an individual feels good about themselves, and more emotionally connected to the school and its culture, they are more likely to do more of the same and even exceed what is required of them. They will become intrinsically motivated to go beyond their job description – discretionary effort in action. This will then impact their team’s performance, and any goodwill generated will permeate the school community’s culture. Easy really!
Giving positive feedback to colleagues is such a simple thing to do, and yet it is so often neglected. Why? We have a theory about this that we call silent praise; an unconscious phenomenon that is happening in schools across the land. Typically, silent praise happens when staff walk around the school with their praise firmly locked in their heads. They know you are a great teacher, and they know you worked incredibly hard last week setting up the online parents’ evening, but it would seem they just don’t know how to acknowledge this and say thank you. They think that you will somehow pick up this praise via telepathy as they smile at you knowingly. They believe their mere presence is saying all they need to say. Consequently, your inner voice provides you with the all-too-familiar reassurance of, “I must be doing OK as no one has told me otherwise.” I’m sure you’ll agree that in these circumstances, silence is certainly not golden.
Let’s knock that myth on the head immediately. We know that staff need to hear the good stuff, and regularly. Imagine going through life with your partner without ever shining a light on the joy you gain from being with them, assuming that because you are thinking it, this will be enough. I am not a counsellor, but I can assure you that this will lead to problems from the outset. Your relationship will undoubtedly be tested. If you don’t believe me, try silent praise for a week at home and let us know the outcome at #yourewonderfulbutsorryIdidnttellyou.
Now think of the lovely staff in your department or throughout the whole school, who may go a week, or even a term, without any informal positive feedback or praise. Yes, this can happen. Imagine how they feel as they drive home. Check it out at #whydoIbothernobodyreallycares.
So, if you are one of those people who find this approach difficult, then start practising. Find some time to get out and pass on the praise. (We suggest you avoid giving it randomly to passing pedestrians but instead focus on your team!) If you feel awkward, remember that you’re probably not alone, especially if you are not the gushy type. Giving praise and positive feedback doesn’t always come easily to people, especially in the busy world of schools and classrooms. In this situation, you may have to adapt your style, because others may be reliant on feedback and someone being effusive about their practice. So, ‘fake it till you make it’ and one day you’ll genuinely feel it. After all, we are teachers, and most of us have at least one Oscar nomination in the Best Actor/Actress category for some of our performances!
If what you’ve read resonates, visit www.educaveman.co.uk.
EduCaveman is an empowering book for ALL educators which dares to dream of the schools we all want. It marries a nourishing blend of humour with school reality which invites teachers and school leaders to reflect on, and move beyond, some of the more grating and long accepted educational practices. Prioritising people over paper, EduCaveman is a refreshing elixir which oozes practical positivity and imbues professional confidence.
EduCaveman will be available to purchase in the Summer Term