One of the things that has always struck me as odd, and a little depressing, is the propensity of some people to focus on the negative. I guess I notice this more than the average person as my natural disposition is so often one of blind positivity and optimism (beautifully captured in Taylor Swift’s song Dear John). I have been told on more than one occasion that this is a little irritating, which, to be honest, is a fair comment. That said, I’m sure I’m one of many who choose to think this way. I can’t help it, and I don’t know why, but this is just the way I am wired. Life has certainly not been a bed of roses, and I’ve faced my fair share of adversity, but when the chips are down, I can always fall back on my default thinking, which, to quote Oscar Wilde, assures me that, “Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it’s not fine, it’s not the end.”
Over recent years, though, I have found myself developing an antipathy and a growing resistance to phrases such as:
“Assume the worst and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
“Plan for the worst-case scenario and anything else will be a bonus.”
“Expect the worst in people and you won’t feel let down.”
For me, these phrases are utterly counterintuitive and leave me cold. In fact, I can distinctly remember members of my family making disparaging, tongue-in-cheek remarks about my misplaced utopian view of the world. My retorts were just as barbed. “Must be a joy to live in your cynical world!”
Notwithstanding these frequent jibes, I have remained steadfast in my positivity and belief in the goodness of humanity. On reflection, I guess that is why the profession of teaching, for me, was such a good fit; it provided a chance to serve a system that shapes young minds for the good. To me, whether you’re working with children in a nursery or enjoying lunch in a bustling university refectory, the sense of hope and purpose is palpable. Where better to deploy some relentless optimism?
Anyway, over the last ten years or so, in my work with trainees, ECTs, Senior Leaders and Headteachers I have sensed a phenomenon which led me to carry out a little more research to investigate whether what I was noticing was an actual thing… It transpires that it was.
The negativity bias can be our inclination to embrace negative stimuli more strongly than positive stimuli. We discovered that we have a tendency both to linger on it and remember it for longer. We also learned that the negativity bias can mean that our brains register personal and hurtful comments far more deeply than a piece of hugely positive feedback from a trusted friend or colleague.
People may well:
I will now look at each of these four assertions through the eyes of an educator. However, before I do this, I would like to make three personal observations that may help you understand why teachers and leaders may be predisposed to this way of thinking and/or feeling.
1. You criticise my teaching/school, you criticise my very being
Teaching is in the blood. It’s a vocation. Speak to any educator and they will make no bones about the fact that this job is heart and soul stuff; it’s deeply personal. If you work in education, the simple truth is that you give it your all, and then some. The bottom line isn’t profit. It’s about something far more important than that: life chances. No educator ever wakes up in the morning, ponders the day ahead, and says, “Today I’ll aim for mediocrity.” They may well aim for survival, but certainly not mediocrity. Programmed into every educator’s DNA is the assumption that every interaction with a pupil could be the one that changes their life.
Educators invest in their pupils, and they keep investing, day after day, term after term, year after year. They back their pupils and they back them some more. They invest emotionally, even when their own emotional wells have run dry. To say that teaching or school leadership is an emotional job, is to underplay it.
2. The deficit model of education
Let me transport you back to your teacher training. Remember it? If you were in any way prone to sensitivity this would have been a tough time. I distinctly recall my paper-thin skin thickening as I naively navigated the early months of my training. For me, it was an emotional battleground on which development and professional growth was built upon a relentless focus on what I wasn’t doing and the skills I hadn’t yet mastered. I distinctly recall nailing an ongoing target (ensuring an appropriate balance of teacher talk versus pupil talk), and looking forward to receiving some positive feedback. I was like a child knowing that I would be going to the sweet shop after school. Sadly, the reality was thoroughly underwhelming. Yes, my progress against the target was acknowledged, but for the remaining fifty-nine minutes and thirty seconds of the sixty-minute feedback session, we focused on new deficits. Ring any bells?
Weirdly, or depressingly, I adapted and came to normalise this perverse way of working. Given that I didn’t know any different, I just assumed that this was how it was in education. And even after nearly twenty years, it didn’t stop – and it still hasn’t. Whether you’re a teacher or a leader, you’ll experience the same phenomenon – from appraisals to pupil progress meetings, from book looks to lesson observations, from governing body meetings to parent forums, and from local authority reviews to health and safety audits – the list just goes on and on . . .
And the common thread running through all these systems? As sure as night follows day, you can be certain to find a relentless, unswerving focus on:
· Next steps
· Even better ifs
· Missed targets
I began to make a mental note of the time spent evaluating success or strengths compared to the time spent on weaknesses. You won’t be surprised with the findings. I like to call this the deficit model of education. It’s staggeringly unbalanced and if we adopted it with the pupils in our care, we would be nominated at the Teaching Awards in the category of Most Demotivating Teacher.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not for one moment advocating that we ignore or overlook areas for development. Not at all. I just think we need to be more balanced in weighing them up with the strengths. Each should be given equal weighting. Moreover, surely we need to be more discerning about when to provide developmental feedback? To win the war, it’s not always beneficial to wage every battle.
3. Use of helpful language
Connected to this, and a point worth making, is the use of language within the deficit model. If you listen closely enough, educational vernacular is never far from words such as scrutiny, forensic, inadequate, etc. In fact, if you look closely enough, you’ll even see this sort of language in education’s Ten Commandments, otherwise known as the Teachers’ Standards. The preamble describes the requirement for teachers to be ‘self-critical’. Not ‘reflective’ but ‘self-critical’! That’s hardly language to rouse the soul or foster encouragement. Or maybe it’s just me . . .
When you chuck in a global pandemic, I think that some of those working in education move beyond the negativity bias, and experience what we call, the extreme negativity bias.
Although a fictional phenomenon, the extreme negativity bias, in my experience, can be very real for teachers and school leaders alike. Taken individually, it is not comfortable to see but collectively, the effects may well be amplified… Collectively, educators shouldering the extreme negativity bias do not make for happy staffrooms, schools, or systems…
As schools seek to return to a more normal rhythm following the pandemic, there has never been a better time to focus on getting our culture right in schools and in education. If we can get the culture right, we build a hugely strong foundation on which school development can flourish.
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