Updated: Dec 13, 2022
This is a reposted and retitled article from my old blog, written when I was the primary deputy head of an all-through school. On re-reading I found this to be a necessary reminder from my past self to focus on the positives, and not just the development points - something which I think many leaders and teachers might benefit from right now.
I used to write a lot about optimism and positivity. And I used to write a little bit about leadership. Back then I was in a really tough school as an assistant head and had been incredibly inspired by my time on Ambition’s Teaching Leaders programme.
Now I’m a deputy head in what I think is a less tough school but I think I’m a lot busier, in work and in life in general. I’ve not written as much and I’ve certainly not thought about positivity and optimism as much.
Not that I’ve not been positive or optimistic. There have been trials and tribulations which haven’t got me down and about which I’ve always thought ‘We’ll get through this and all will be well’. But I’ve not been very deliberately positive or optimistic. I’ve just been getting on with it all.
But by not deliberately thinking positively and optimistically, I’ve allowed some of my natural tendencies to get the better me: namely, that I am always on the look-out for things to improve, change or make better. I’m a problem-solver by nature and I like making little tweaks to things to optimise them.
Because of this, I’m way more likely to pick up on development points than to celebrate successes, especially when I’m walking around school. In turn, this can pollute my mind, making me believe that there is so much to do, rather than looking at all that has been achieved. And I’m sure, that if I’m commenting more to staff about development points, they will potentially get bogged down in thinking that nothing is going well and that everything needs to get better and that simply isn’t true.
In Mary Myatt’s ‘Hopeful Schools’ she writes about Hopeful Leaders. She says , ‘…it only takes one person to shift into a hopeful mode and it eventually spreads.’ From what I can tell, focusing on the positives, for example, what teachers are doing well, is a great motivator. I’m sure that science backs up the fact that a compliment really does go a long way, and, rather than making someone feel complacent about their work, spurs them on to do more.
This has inspired me to make a few promises to myself about how I will tackle my propensity to only focus on what still needs work:
1. Deliberately look for the positives and celebrate them – perhaps a quick comment, a short email, a public thank you during a PPA session. But I’ll really have to force myself to see all the excellent stuff that is going on around me.
2. Ensure that the positives are the focus of more of my feedback – this can even be linked directly to the ‘next steps’ part of the feedback: ‘You did really well at x – how can you use the same ideas to improve y?’
3. Prioritise HARD – what needs addressing right now? What can wait? I might even start writing things that can wait for later (so that I don’t forget them, but so that I feel I’ve done something about them). I reckon there might even be value in refraining from giving any development points as feedback at some points and just allowing someone to revel in their successes awhile.
4. Use knowledge of past myself to calm my fears – ‘What if I don’t try to solve this problem now?’ That’s my fear. But in the past, I’ve left things a while and things have turned out OK. I need to remember that.
5. Look at the big picture – the points for development are minor in comparison to all the amazing stuff that is already going on. I need to take a step back more often to see all the positives at play.
6. Share the impact – I often squirrel away positives very quickly so that I can get back to solving more problems. If I deliberately share the impact with others, then it might become more deep-seated in my mind. Besides, the impact is often the work of someone else anyway and they deserve the recognition.
7. Focus on the input as well as the output – when I think of impact, I think of a finished product. But actually, impact can be seen all the time. Not always in the form of hard data, but often in many other ways. Many positives occur on a daily basis just in how much work people are putting into a thing. This input must be celebrated too.
8. Remember what is valued – as mentioned before, it’s not all about cold hard data, it’s about all the other successes too. Being a school that values a broad curriculum and celebrates children’s creativity, for example, I should also be looking at the impact in these areas too, where there are plenty of positives to celebrate.
"On the more personal level, what this research means to me is that you have to work to see the up-side. Literally, this takes work, this takes effort. And you can practice this; you can train your mind to do this better. There's research out at UC Davis, showing that just writing for a few minutes each day about things that you're grateful for can dramatically boost your happiness and well-being, and even your health. We can also rehearse good news and share it with others... I think we can also work in our communities to focus on the upside. We can be more aware that bad tends to stick. One mean comment can stick with somebody all day, all week even, and bad tends to propagate itself, right?" - Alison Ledgerwood