The Power of Positive Leadership


Positive reinforcement is the fuel that keeps the teaching fire going. Genuine appreciation and acknowledgment are critical for maintaining a thriving learning culture and accelerating schoolwide improvement. 

I was reminded of this while hanging with my family at home recently. My kids love watching the Netflix series “Brain Games”. (Okay, I enjoy it too.) The host leads social experiments to show how our minds work in the context of our social environments.

Two Experiments

In one experiment, blindfolded volunteers were either cheered or sympathized with as they shot ten free throws. It didn’t matter whether they made or missed the baskets. The individuals were selected randomly for the applause or “ahhs”. The result: those who were cheered on made more baskets.

In a related experiment, random people were asked if it was possible to accurately count all of the pictures in one magazine in less than ten seconds. They responded with either “possible” or “impossible”. What the people did not know was, in the middle of the magazine, a colorful visual was placed that gave them the answer (48 pictures total). Even though every person quickly glanced through the pages in the magazine, only those who said the task was “possible” got the answer right. The conclusion: because a person thought it was possible, they had a more open mind for the task.

Both experiments highlight what we should know in education yet often fail to put into practice: taking a positive stance toward our students and staff is effective in promoting more innovative and effective practices

Positive Leadership in Action

What should this mean for educational leaders?

• That we assume teachers are capable of making the best decisions for kids.

• That we look for what’s going well before we consider feedback for improvement.

• That we identify past successes as a starting point for future growth.

In other words, schools are not problems to be solved but communities that are waiting to achieve their potential. It’s about celebrating the teachers and students while fostering awareness and open-mindedness about what’s possible for the future.

Positive leadership is simple in thought - we are basically reframing the current reality - yet complex in the implementation. What strategies and tools are necessary for facilitating this change?

Strategies for Success

Next are five ideas for taking a more positive stance toward school improvement.

1. Create clarity around the goal. There are few things that can create more frustration in a school than a lack of clarity. Miscommunication about expectations creates mistrust and decreases the effects of collaboration. It’s hard to reinforce what is going well if we aren’t even sure what we are supposed to be working on. We are spinning our wheels instead of moving forward. By creating clarity around a goal, the positive reinforcement makes sense to faculty; they see the systems working together toward an ideal state. For instance, if reading comprehension is a focus, then time needs to be devoted to professional learning around more promising literacy strategies.

2. Make celebration a part of the learning community. This can happen before staff meetings, at the beginning of student assemblies, and during morning announcements. This is the easiest change to make because we don’t have to wait for permission to do it. Celebrations should be authentic and focused at least partly on the area in which we want to see future growth. For example, if reading scores are low, but teachers are starting to improve their classroom libraries, then be sure to note this publicly. School newsletters and social media work to highlight our current strengths. Leaders can also write personal notes of recognition when they are experiencing success.

3. Ask smart questions. What do questions have to do with being a more positive leader? Everything! When we become curious about our schools and student learning, we leave behind some of our biases about what teaching should be. Instead, we become interested in what teaching is and what it might become. We hold our assumptions at bay and allow instruction to speak for itself. To ensure questions are smart, we should analyze them first to understand if they open or closed, genuine or leading. For example, “What went well today?” focuses the teacher’s attention on the positive aspect of their reading lesson. “Why do you think Tommy refused to read?” might imply a judgment about the teacher’s classroom management. 

4. Keep the focus tight. If everything is important, then nothing is. We cannot attend to all of the work happening in schools. It’s not possible. Instead, we should first start where we were successful and then consider next steps. As an example, if our literacy intervention program is effectively supporting students in reading, what about the interventionists’ practices is making the difference? Consider investigating the same strategies these teachers are using with faculty leaders and discuss how they might apply to the context of the regular classroom. 

5. Track your positive actions. We tend to go where we feel welcomed. Yet every student deserves an excellent education. To help ensure equity in my classroom visits, I use a chart with all of my teachers’ and staff members’ names printed on it. When I leave a positive note in their mailbox, or I take more time to provide affirmation + feedback in a classroom, I note it on the chart. This helps in several ways. First, I am not unconsciously favoring one person or group over another. Second, I have documentation that shows I am making an effort to recognize all staff, in the case that someone might suggest I am not. Third, I hold myself accountable for this work. 

To be clear, we cannot always be positive. Sometimes we are required to follow up on poor performance or behaviors. Yet because I have invested in taking a positive stance toward more interactions with staff, I have built relational capital with them. I’ve earned their trust and subsequently the right to offer feedback or address concerns. The road to schoolwide literacy excellence begins with a positive first step forward.

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