When I first started as a leader, I didn’t truly understand the power of words and actions, and the ways they work together to shape a culture. I had always believed in the power of positive language instead of deficit-based language, but didn’t fully embrace this concept when talking about improvements to be made. Likewise, I knew everything I did sent a message; but I didn’t understand the extent or importance of the messages some subtle acts convey. I wanted to be an optimist that brought out the best in others, but over time found that I needed to be more mindful about my communication in order for the staff, students, teachers, and leaders I work with to be more fulfilled and as a result, accomplish better results.
One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do is learn how to change my “leadership” language so that being encouraging and empowering to teachers and other leaders on a daily basis became the norm. I realize that in order to see the type of teaching, learning, leadership, and support that I want to see in schools and across our district, I have to paint a portrait of what it looks like using expressive, asset-based language that builds upon the current strengths of employees and reinforces their existing foundation of knowledge and skill. Using clear, powerful, and uplifting language takes a great deal of practice and awareness, and doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me (I grew up in a culture where worrying and complaining were the norm). Therefore, I spend a great deal of time reflecting about my word choice in order to improve.
Positive language is a driving force in fostering a district community of teachers, leaders, and students that learn together, grow together, and provide support to one another. Positive communication lays the groundwork for making our District the best place to teach, work, and learn. And sometimes this positive communication exists outside of language, and is embedded in actions that are performed. As a leader, everything I say, and everything I do, communicates a message about my intention and what I value. As I work with others to build a culture of respect and empowerment, I have to be cognizant of all that I communicate, whether it is verbal or in act and deed; as everything I do sends a powerful message.
Below are a few of the ways I use positive communication in my role as Superintendent to empower leaders, teachers, and students:
- Choose Words Wisely: Language can be inclusive, or it can be off-putting and exclusionary. Words that serve to include and empower allow more opportunities to build mutual trust, and encourage reciprocal communication to occur more freely within the organization. For example, instead of framing the teacher’s lack of command with the new curriculum as a skill deficit, I offer up the need for our District to provide differentiated support to teachers in implementing the new curriculum. Similarly, instead of talking about ‘bad’ or ‘good’ students, I talk about the choices students make, and offer specific detail about the behavior I want to see instead of the perceived intent. For example, one can say to a student who is consistently horsing around, “I know you remember the rules about safety, and I appreciate it when you keep your hands to yourself.” This conveys to the students that you have faith that they’re trying to be cooperative, while you’re also reinforcing the expectation.
- Use the 3:1 Rule: I try hard to frame everything I talk about in the affirmative, and am relatively conscious about offering 3 positive statements for every 1 constructive statement I make about our organization and/or the work of individuals within our District. This takes practice, but it means there are ample opportunities for teachers, leaders, and students to be praised for their hard work. I believe that if I teach about this notion and actively model the practice, others will take the opportunity to revise their own language – and perhaps re-frame their thought process – to make teaching, working, and learning in our District a more meaningful and thoughtful process. School districts with the best performance are intentional about fostering positive communication. Their leaders understand that we can no longer increase the number of hours and stress loads that we’re putting on students, teachers, and other leaders to raise their level of performance. Instead, if we want to see what people are capable of achieving, it requires a more positive type of leadership, and new definitions of how we pursue a sense of well-being for ourselves and others.
- Convey Faith in the Ability of Others: When we maintain high expectations for the performance of others, coupled with language and tone that display faith in the intentions of teachers, leaders, and students, we demonstrate our belief in them. Communicating positively about their efforts helps the folks you work with fulfill, or maybe even surpass your expectations. For example, when participating in classroom walk-throughs, instead of conducting your quick observations with a clipboard or iPad in hand, go in hands-free. The clipboard/iPad sends a message that checklists and compliance are a priority for you. It brings back connotations of middle school PE, where the gym instructor evaluated everything you did and didn’t do with regard to the new skill, and marked it on a chart with the infamously dreadful red pen – you being compared to everyone else, including the world-class athlete… (You get the picture). By entering hands-free, you communicate your willingness to connect with the teacher and students, as well as with what is going on instructionally. This act alone can help you make great strides in conveying your faith in the teacher’s ability to teach, and your students’ efforts to learn. Connecting during classroom visits should be important to you and your District, as it provides another opportunity to learn about the folks you work with; it also offers up another opening toward earning their trust and respect.
As leaders (and as individuals in general), our ability to promote positive thinking produces an effect where improved chances of success are the norm. Positive people create an energy that pulls in other positive things (like friends and largely smoother lives). Good leaders take note of this phenomenon by employing positive communication in order to distribute positivity to those within the organization. It may feel like a no-brainer, but it’s important to be highly reflective to make sure our communication is shaping the organization in the ways we want. If the results aren’t there; then the messaging patterns need to change, because it all starts with communication.
How often do you communicate positivity, praise, and value for the things that matter most to you?
Do you feel like you’re accomplishing all that you can? What are the ways that you communicate optimism to the folks you work with?