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January 26, 2021

Ed Leaders: Here’s How to Avoid the Positivity Trap

It is a new year, yet everyone is tired. While we have only been in school for four months, it feels more like four years if emotions were measured in days. As a second-year elementary principal, I have watched my teachers and staff experience every emotion–excitement to be open and see our students; anxiety to transition to the many health protocols and rules; frustration with the new way of teaching concurrently, and defeated, feeling like a first year teacher again. Then it’s back to happiness to be in their classrooms, doing what they love, even if it is different, just because the alternative of being at home is not even close to what we love about being elementary educators. The adjustments that have come with distance learning have been a rollercoaster of emotions and challenges.

But we didn’t sign up for leadership because it’s easy. Any administrator I have spoken to has felt the same about the questions we are asking ourselves daily — Am I focusing on the right things with my team? Am I doing enough? I am constantly thinking of ways to balance the high expectations we have for our students with “chunking out” the new learning for our teachers. I have always prioritized being positive and modeling  a positive outlook for my staff, but I have recently found that being “positive” is not what teachers really need right now. They need more.  

virtual teaching

Authentic Conversation Is Sometimes Better Than Positivity

It’s not that having a positive attitude to model for my team is not valued or recognized. And it is certainly not that my staff would prefer me not to focus on the positive. Rather, it is that in this time of great challenge, when we are all pushing ourselves to our learning limits, our patience limits, and our emotional bandwidth is stretched to the max, our teachers need us to let them be real. They need a safe spot to land. And sometimes that means expressing their fears, their worries, their concerns, and not finding the silver lining in it right away. They have needed to know that I won’t judge them and we will still be able to find a solution despite feeling like they don’t know what that is. There have been a multitude of ways that we have made time for that in our virtual and hybrid schedules, since “dropping by” my office is not how this year looks.

Create Space And Time For Teachers To Connect On A Personal Level

With all of the time constraints we have had this year in learning how to create meaningful virtual experiences, intentional planning for connection has been a key component of building our staff community. What that has meant is taking time at the beginning of meetings to always connect. We have done this with the whole faculty on virtual platforms and used padlet to “shout-out” something we appreciate about our colleagues. We have used the chat to open common planning times with one word to describe how we are doing, or the kind of day we are having — this is a great way to get a temperature check in minutes, and usually sparks humor when teachers start to read one another’s adjectives. We have shared countless ideas together by using breakout rooms at every meeting in order to make the group smaller, and the conversation more targeted. These shifts are those that I want my teachers to make with their students, and if we become accustomed to connecting that way, then my teachers will be able to leverage these methods with their students as well. It also reminds us that we are all in this together. We are all facing the challenge of finding the positives in our days, and somehow, when we intentionally take the time to connect, the positives come to the surface organically.  

virtual instruction education

Reflecting On Our Growth, And “Chunking Out” Next Steps

A few weeks ago, we looked at our math data from trimester one assessments and went back to our school improvement plan to align our purpose and goals for the upcoming trimester. We shared authentic conversation and then planned for instruction with teachers from various grade levels grouped together in order to hear a different perspective. This was a departure from previous meetings when teachers were grouped with their grade-level colleagues. As I visited each breakout room, I heard common connections being made, laughter and humor, and real ideas for how to improve. When we came back together to the whole group, we used a “whip around” to summarize these ideas for everyone to hear, and synthesize. Some ideas that came up showed the work that we have still in front of us, and others showed the growth that we have made. Not all positive, but real talk.  We discussed our next steps in parts, and did not add anything new. “Chunking out” the next steps into a few weeks at a time is the way we are proceeding with everything this year, and framing our goals in this way matters.  Teachers have so much on their plates, and so much that they are already carrying, so breaking down the steps in which we will proceed with our goals into manageable parts is key.

So when we left the meeting, even though it was late on a Monday, and the fatigue of the day was setting in, I felt light and energized. As I looked at the faces staring back at me on the screen–there were so many smiles and the mood was light.  Despite all of the challenges and problems still left to solve, I know that we are creating a space to solve them that is safe. That is better than positivity. That is a culture of connection. I’ll take it.


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