This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Let’s talk about the popular phrases from the positivity movement that actually stifle teacher growth instead of help it. While there is some truth to these statements, I’m making the argument today that we’ve taken them a bit too far.

There are a lot of trendy phrases from popular culture and the positivity movement which have infiltrated our thinking and practices as educators. They are helpful, productive outlooks, and there is a great deal of truth to them.

However, I think we’ve gotten a little bit out of balance with the positivity movement and the rallying cry to be supportive of one another as teachers.

I believe that we need to be having these critical conversations about the issues. We need to be challenging one another to do better. Moving past truisms and getting real is the only way we are going to shift school culture to truly be about what’s best for kids.

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1) Just do you.

Truth: This is something we frequently hear when there is disagreement about the “best” way to teach. One teacher says flexible seating is amazing, another says flexible seating is awful. One researcher says kids need more direct instruction, another says kids need more time to explore concepts on their own. And we often find educators responding to these differences in teaching styles and effectiveness by saying, “Just do you.” In other words, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing or keeping up with all the latest trends. Just do what feels right for you.

Obviously, it is true that there’s no one magical teaching strategy or approach that will work in every classroom with every child. You do have to figure out what works for you and your kids. It’s not helpful to compare yourself to other teachers or become overly concerned with what others think about you.

Too Far: “Just do you” goes too far when it becomes a license to do whatever you want to in your classroom regardless of how it impacts your students. The phrase is sometimes used to justify individual preferences and what’s comfortable for the teacher over what research has shown us to be best practice and pedagogically sound.

For example, I once knew a fifth-grade teacher who decorated her entire room in hot pink and bright purple. The bulletin boards, curtains, anchor charts — every single thing in that room other than the desks and floor were in the most feminine, frilly decorative scheme you can imagine. It looked more like a 4-year-old girl’s bedroom than a classroom, to be honest. And when coworkers asked the teacher what her students thought about it, she’d shrug. “Pink and purple are my favorite colors. I’m just doing me.”

Can you see how that phrase has become a defense mechanism? It’s coded language for: How dare anyone question me? You don’t know me and you can’t judge what’s right for me.

It’s a retort designed to silence: You do you, I’ll do me, and we should each mind our own business.

To my knowledge, no one ever challenged that particular teacher on her thinking. And you know why? She had positive intent. She was just decorating her room in the way she liked!

No one wanted to be seen as negative, or unkind, or confrontational (we’ll get to that in a moment) so we all just “let her do her.”

What I’ve come to realize is that impact is more important than intent. No matter how good the intentions are, we have to consider the impact on others. “I’m just doing me” is something we need to say AFTER we’ve already reflected critically on the topic and talked to trusted colleagues about whether it’s what’s best for kids.

“Just do you” is advice we should give to one another only AFTER considering impact. If the impact could be harmful, then fellow educators have a responsibility to raise questions about it. We need to create a culture in education in which we are open to these questions. We need to embrace conversations about what’s best for kids and why we’ve made the choices we have in our classrooms, rather than becoming defensive and insisting everyone should just do whatever they think is best.

Being willing to self-reflect and dialogue on these issues is a huge first step in the right direction.

2) Don’t look for things to criticize: Just focus on the positive.

Truth: There are so many bad things in the world that will depress you and steal your motivation if you focus on them. Looking for the positive in a situation rather than the negative will improve your mood and therefore your productivity and achievement. You’ll be a more effective and happier educator if you surround yourself with positive people and uplifting ideas.

Too Far: I believe deeply in this truth and the value of being positive — I’ve written an entire book on how to counter unwanted negative thoughts and train yourself to have a more optimistic and realistic outlook. It’s called Awakened: Change your mindset to transform your teaching. In Awakened, I share how my natural disposition is to be judgmental, critical, and negative, and I’ve trained my brain over the years to stop worrying and be content.

But what I’ve increasingly observed since writing that book several years ago is that many people are using positivity as an excuse to stay in a bubble. “Focus on the positive” has become a shield against any call for critical thinking, and an excuse to tolerate injustice.

How many people have you heard say, “I don’t read the news, I have no idea what’s going on, it’s just too depressing” or “I never go on social media, there’s just too much negativity.” We probably all feel that way at times and have to create boundaries for self-care purposes.

But always being uninformed and refusing to get involved or speak up and take action is dangerous. If all the good, smart, caring teachers avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable, who is left to fight for change?

Here’s a fact that I think is often misunderstood: Being informed and openly critical of what you see around you is not the same thing as being negative or unhappy. Recognizing and voicing a problem that needs to be corrected is not the same thing as being a hater.

I encourage you to consider being critical in terms of being a critical thinker, rather than a negative person. You can — and should — cultivate joy even as you push back against things that are problematic. 

You see, thinking critically about what you observe other teachers doing (in your school or on social media) and the stories you hear on the news is a positive thing. And I challenge you to keep that truth in mind if you are ever on the receiving end, either being called out directly or simply reading a blog or social media post that questions a practice you commonly do in your classroom.

Remember that educators questioning things and creating dialogue around what’s best for kids is GOOD. It’s positive. Speaking up to question impact does not make someone a troll.

Remember also that questioning impact is not the same as questioning intent.

Often I see pushback met with a defensive, “You don’t know me; I care more about my kids and work harder than any teacher I know.” They leap to the conclusion that because a teaching practice is questioned, that means everyone’s assuming they’re not a good teacher. 9 times out of 10, that’s not the case.

You can be an amazing, effective teacher and still make mistakes in the classroom. You can love your students like your own and still have blind spots as to how the choices you’re making with those kids could impact them for the long term.

Rather than assume that people are just looking for things to criticize and be negative about, or that they’re just jealous or simply haters … choose to see that critical thinking and pushback as a positive thing for your students. Pushback helps you become a better teacher. Embrace it, and engage in it. That’s what moves our profession forward.

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3) Throw kindness like confetti. Just be nice!

Truth: We do need more kindness in the world. The way we speak to and treat one another matters, and being unnecessarily harsh or judgmental is often counterproductive. This is especially true in education, as teachers are often on the receiving end of unfair criticism and undeserved scrutiny. We need to lift one another up and support one another because it seems like so many others are tearing us down.

Too Far: Often kindness is seen as incongruent with pushing others to do better and be better. Giving constructive criticism or even questioning someone is seen as being unsupportive of a fellow teacher, and therefore unkind.

And when we value kindness above all else, we never get to have those important conversations that push our teaching forward.

Let me give you an example that is similar to something we’ve all faced. A colleague comes to you upset because a parent criticized the amount of homework she gives. The child works very slowly, and completing the assignments is taking 3-4 hours a night. The colleague is angry because that student still needs to meet grade-level standards by the end of the year, and the colleague thinks the homework is important practice. She’s refusing to modify the work in any way.

What would you do in this situation? I’ll tell you what I normally did, and what I normally see other teachers do. We empathize (“Oh, that’s so frustrating, that parent had no right to yell at you”). We value the teacher’s feelings above the child and parent’s feelings because the teacher is a friend or a colleague.

We focus on the delivery of the message — the way the parent said it — rather than the content of the message, the core issue. This is valuing niceness above all else.

If the parent didn’t say something in a nice way, we act as if that somehow negates the message and invalidates the opinion. It’s an excuse to disengage from our own responsibility to solve the problem and disregard someone’s legitimate concerns.

After we validate the colleague who is clearly in the wrong, we might venture a polite suggestion: “I wonder if you could maybe make a small accommodation to one of the assignments?” and try to help the colleague do better in a nice way.

When the colleague responds in a rage, “Are you kidding me? This kid is just being lazy! She doesn’t want to do the work!” we then back down. We are more concerned with keeping the peace and maintaining the relationship with a fellow teacher than with helping that teacher do better by her students.

Making the choice to “keep the peace “at the expense of our students is one of my biggest regrets as a teacher. It’s one of the things I’d most like to change if I could go back and re-do my early teaching years.

I can’t tell you how many times I looked the other way when I saw my colleagues doing wrong by kids because I didn’t want to create tension within our team. I valued the teacher’s feelings above what’s right for kids and I can never go back and change that. If you are currently doing school-based work, I hope you will remember my words here, and use this as the catalyst to speak up and push your colleague’s thinking a bit more than you are.

Remember that the majority of the teacher workforce is female, and as women (particularly white women), we are socialized to believe that we must be sweet and nice in order to be liked by others. We are conditioned to believe that niceness will make people like us, and therefore, niceness is more important than speaking truth if it’s going to make others uncomfortable.

Imagine if the norm was to confront rather than gossip about, to be direct rather than passive-aggressive.

Imagine if we had been socialized to believe that bravery and courage were more important traits than just being nice to each other.

I would argue that leaving people stuck in their blind spots — or worse, allowing them to continue doing something that could have a negative impact on kids — is not nice. Kindness and niceness isn’t just about making people feel good about themselves, it’s about helping them be their best selves. It’s about saying things they might not enjoy hearing but that ultimately will help them.

My husband is sort of my role model in this. He is not always “nice” to me in that he will tell me (in private) when I’m screwing up, and he might do it loudly or in an animated way that is not very fun to hear. But, his commitment to doing this prevents a whole lot of problems later on.

His criticism is not negativity, it’s critical thinking.

His willingness to get uncomfortable and allow the possibility of tension to enter our relationship is what makes me better. I’ve been in relationships in the past where I was allowed to steamroll over my partner and was never called out on anything. That just allowed my poor decisions and selfishness to continue.

There is powerful bravery in a person who says, “I am willing to tolerate some discomfort. There are bigger things at stake here. I want to see harmful patterns broken. I believe your intentions are good and you need help understanding the impact here so you can do better.” That’s what leads to real change.

I believe we need to create a culture in education in which we are open to self-reflection and can challenge one another to be our best. We need to embrace conversations about what’s best for kids and why we’ve made the choices we have in our classrooms. We need to recondition ourselves to see critical thinking as a positive thing because pushback helps us become better in our work.  

And I want your help in starting these conversations and shifting the culture in our schools. If you are feeling my passion on this topic and you want to create change, too, here’s what you can do.

Take the pledge to change the conversation

I’m challenging you to share this blog post or podcast episode on your social media channels and with your colleagues.

But I want you to share it with one teacher friend in particular: I want you to choose a person who you would like to partner up with to ensure that you are having REAL and HONEST conversations.

I want you to choose one person whose opinions and perspective you really respect–someone who’s an awesome teacher, does great things for kids, and gives you sound advice.

This is going to be the person who you can ask: Did I make the right choice here? Should I maybe do something different? Is this really working? Do I need to change some things in this area?

You’re going to pick a person who you trust to be honest with you and give you solid feedback in a supportive, constructive way. And you’re going to do the same thing for him or her.

Want to take the pledge to have real and honest conversations?

Enter your email address to get the pledge form & a PDF version of this post

  1. Use the sign up form above to download the free pledge and contract for you and your partner to sign, promising to show TRUE supportiveness to one another.
  2. Share this post with that teacher and take the pledge together.
  3. Leave a comment here (or email me ) and tell me how it went. Let me know how you worked through a challenge together, or a pitfall you ran into, or how it strengthened your bond, or how it had a positive impact on your kids.

I’d also love your help in naming this pledge. I’ve brainstormed with a number of other people on this and couldn’t come up with just the right thing. We’ve tossed out phrases like:

  • Growth Buddy
  • Teacher’s Keeper (a play on ‘my brother’s keeper’)
  • Raise the Bar challenge (which I like but I feel like many teachers feel like the bar is already impossibly high so that’s not appealing)
  • Spinach Partners (you know how only a person who really cares about your best interests is willing to make you feel uncomfortable by telling you that you have spinach in your teeth? This partner is going to function in a similar way for you)
  • The Teacher Truth pledge

But I don’t feel like the name for this challenge or pledge is going to become clear until it starts shifting the culture in schools, until teachers start feeling the transformation in their relationships and teaching practices because of it.

So, I’m going to turn this concept over to you now. Take this idea to your schools. Work with a partner to come up higher and let me know how it goes and what you all have informally called this agreement with one another. I’m going to take all the suggestions to heart and then choose one as the formal official name for this pledge. I’m also going to use your feedback to create more resources around this topic.

There’s a variety of resources I can make here, but I need to hear from you exactly what is needed. What can I do to make it easier for you and your partner, or for others in your school, to be open to critique, to be willing to be honest with one another, to self-reflect for the good of yourselves and your students?

I want to conclude by sharing something that my friend Tamara Russell off the Equitea podcast told me when we were brainstorming on this topic. She said:

It’s important to convey to teachers that the honesty comes from a place of love, not from a place of critique. It’s saying to your partner, “I am telling you the truth because I care about you and I care about kids. We are in this work together, and we are honest because we are in this together. We aren’t going to move forward together if we’re not honest. Because we love each other and we love the children, we are willing to move past the surface level conversations and think critically. Not because I want to tear down your ideas. I just care so much about you and your impact on children.”

That is the perfect articulation of my heart on this issue. I really hope you’ll take part in this pledge!

Challenging one another in our teaching IS an act of kindness. Take the pledge here: Click To Tweet

Discussion

10 Comments

  1. DEBRA NAUMANN

    My idea for the name of the pledge is “The Educator’s Gold Standard.” The gold standard was the foundation our nation use to have for its economy. Many are nervous about has happened or will happened since we don’t have it. Your pledge is the same. To fulfill the pledge is like the educational gold standard. It provides our foundation for growing as an educator and providing a learning environment for those entrusted to us.

    • Wayne Widdowson

      I like the link between the integrity of the pledge and what once lay behind the monetary gold standard. Gold never loses its value.

  2. Wayne Widdowson

    Thanks Angela. I agree with what you’re attempting to highlight. Being nice often comes at the expense of truth. However, also consider this…too many people have swung to the other extreme, namely ‘telling it like it is’. Donald Trump would be a good example of this. The end result is the same as being overly polite and nice. A lack of relationship and connection.

    It can be become a messy web, that makes you wonder what lies at the heart of it. And I wonder if it is fear and mistrust. We all have a need for respect, support, understanding, community and acceptance. But for these needs to be met we need to acknowledge that we have the needs in the first place, and the fact that if we need them, so do others. And to step into the middle of that breach, requires trust and love.

    Neither is easy in some of the school cultures around today. Better to stay safe.

    • Stacy

      I agree that we can absolutely take this too far the other way. No one wants to Trump this up…But the difference here is what Angela said at the end; this comes from a place of love. Having critical conversations with someone because we love them and genuinely want them to do better, and want them to encourage us to be better as well, is not the same as nastily “telling it like it is.” There would definitely need to be a high level of trust between two teachers for this to work effectively.

  3. Patty Cordonier

    Very thought provoking and timely! We definitely need to be having critical conversations with our colleagues, and we need to challenge each other to do what’s best for kids. School culture/climate is definitely a hot topic right now.

  4. Rebecca Edsall

    Our staff calls this “Creatve Friction”. We have the name, but the practice is something that we need to work on.

    I like the creative friction I felt when listening to this. A little dissonance and critical reflection on my practices (and of those around me) is a great thing. I belong to a PLC to learn more about co-teaching. I plan to share this. Thank you!

  5. Doug Robertson

    “Just do you”*

    *Unless you is not as helpful for the kids as you think.
    I like it, forces honest reflection. Find the balance between teacher you and you you.

    • Laura Spencer

      It’s fine to “just be you” when it reflects your eclectic personality and bad puns. But when it comes at the expense of the students learning or simply learning how to “just be them” … then it needs to stop.

  6. Sara Kaitlin Van Puffelen

    Good evening,
    Thank you for sharing! I think it is hard for younger teachers to share with older teachers. Often, I feel that they dismiss my feedback as just being young and then they stew. Help me here please if you have any advice.
    Thanks!

  7. Guadalupe Martinez

    As I was listening to this post, the words “Dare to Care” kept popping up in my mind. As I reflected after listening to the audio, I thought about “Dare to Care and Share” since we are collaborating with others in our learning community. Many times we as teachers feel threatened to go against what is common for fear of retaliation from administrators and co-workers. I feel it is daring to voice your suggestions and that in doing so, we risk being identified as negative people. So, yes, this podcast did hit the nail right on the head. I want to thank Angela for offering so much guidance and suggestions for my growth as an educator.

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