How teachers can harness the power of positivity

Sometimes a few words of encouragement or a sense of responsibility can work wonders for students, writes Gregory Adam
2nd November 2020, 3:50pm


How teachers can harness the power of positivity
The Power Of Teacher Positivity

Believe and you will achieve. Well, that sounds cheesy and far too buzzwordy to be genuine, right?

But, for some reason, we all kind of know somehow that this is true, or at least it holds an element of truth - that moment when you suddenly feel filled with confidence and the task in hand will be accomplished no matter what…it's a powerful feeling.

Experience tells teachers that this is a motivational tool that should work wonders for pupils; that if we tell them we believe in them and they are motivated and confident they can achieve anything. But does it really work or is it just hot air?

Well, research would suggest that, yes, it does work - as would personal experience…

Showing belief in students increases their performance 

Pushing positivity on students to help them succeed is known as The Pygmalion Effect.

The research is consistent and has been documented in a range of subjects (including even behaviour management). Teachers were informed that a random selection of 20 per cent of the students in their class were exceptionally intelligent and were expected to have massive increases in their grades.

The students were tested again eight months later and they had improved significantly more than their peers.

This shows that teacher expectations and display of belief in students positively correlate with student performance in the desired areas - whether that's academic achievement or behaviour.

Of course, we all know that, when faced with a difficult student or a tough class, the idea of singing their praises and extolling the importance of being motivated can feel futile - but we must overcome such resistance and use this research to our advantage. 

After all, it is essentially saying that there are ways to improve student performance, quickly and effectively, with minimal effort and without increasing the time you are spending on preparation. What teacher wouldn't want to do that?

Easy ways to motivate pupils

There are a few ways that you can do this, and I have found these work wonders:

1. Sharing a good piece of work that a pupil has done with the class

You can use this in your practice by first of all ensuring you are encouraging and facilitating students to produce a great piece of work.

When they have done, you simply pause the lesson and show the class. This shows the student that you believe their work is exemplary.

2. Giving the pupils' leadership roles 

These can be team leader roles, material distribution and collection roles, lunch monitor and anything that could be relevant for your teaching context.

3. Telling them that you believe in them 

This has, for me, worked best right before a lesson starts. It lets them know your expectation and gives them a little positive boost.

Simply saying something like: "Do you remember that piece of work you did last week? It was fantastic. I already know how great your work will be today."

4. Explaining to the class about how your expectations for them are high

This is something I try to do every day during the morning time with my class. 

5. Not making work too easy or too hard

Think Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Get it right and children feel that sense of achievement and growth, but too far either side and they are left frustrated or bored.

How I have seen this in practice 

I have seen these tactics work with students on many occasions.

While working in Vietnam, I worked with a grade 2 class in a public school. There was a boy who needed my constant attention and eyes over him at all times, otherwise, he would be disrupting other children and not staying on task.

However, I noticed that when he was in the "team leader" role, his behaviour was immaculate, as letting him do something that required responsibility and trust improved his behaviour and, in turn, the effectiveness of my lessons. 

Another good example of praise working well was with a girl in my grade 2 class in China. Her work production was low, so I spent a lesson hovering next to her, encouraging her and ensuring she stayed on task.

At the end of the class, she had produced a lot of work, more than almost any other child. Since then, before every class I go out of my way to tell her how impressed I am with the work she has been doing; her work production issues are no longer present.

What's more, there is something fundamentally satisfying about seeing your positivity and motivation for a student pay off - much more so than behaviour warnings or the threat of sanctions.

What more can we ask for, as teachers, than student development and improved behaviour, all for the price of some words before a lesson starts?

Gregory Adam is a primary teacher at Nord Anglia Chinese International School in Shanghai. He released his first book last year, Teaching EFL, ESL & EAL: A practitioner's guide

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