According to John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, couples in a close relationship need to have 5 times as many positive interactions than negative ones for the relationship to remain stable. Couples for whom this ratio of positive to negative interactions is less than 5 are more likely to split up compared to those whose ratio is higher than 5. Apparently, 5:1 is the “magic” ratio that strongly discriminates between couples who stay versus split.
(Side note: I’m not a psychologist, but I suspect that one reason that so many more positive interactions are required compared to negative ones is negativity bias.)
That got me thinking…is there an equivalent idea that applies to our job satisfaction as teachers and the likelihood that we will remain teachers?
We teachers receive all sorts of messages every day about our work. We receive positive ones: successes when students learn something challenging, happy smiles from students, thank you notes from family members. We receive negative ones: those lessons in which you’ve poured your heart and soul that doesn’t seem to get results, students who are rude and hostile to you, parents who don’t notice your effort, administrators that stymie your ideas, an education system that is broken, a society that doesn’t honor and value teachers.
Oh wait… I have seem to have many more negative ones than positive ones….
That year I spent teaching high school in 2009-10 was one of the hardest in my life because I received so little positive affirmation about my work as a teacher. Many of my close friends prepared me before I started teaching high school not to take mean things that students say and do personally. It took a while, but I eventually learned to do that. But still, after learning to ignore those negative messages, the positive messages were too few and far between.
Perhaps, with time I could have become a more effective high school teacher such that I could have received more positive affirmations than negative messages about my work as a teacher. But, I still strongly suspect that many of my teacher friends struggle with the brutal reality of what it means to teach in challenging situations.
So, here are some suggestions for how to invert this balance and keep ourselves sane.
Cultivate a practice of looking for successes, no matter how small. I noticed that the practice of blogging during that year of teaching helped me be more aware about the successes that I had in my teaching. I didn’t blog every day, and in retrospect, blogging more frequently could have helped. Other ideas: keeping a journal, sharing those successes with a loved one every night, meditating regularly.
Savor those positive affirmations. I keep a folder of thank you notes and other mementos. I actually do this more because I can’t bear to throw those things away, but I sometimes return to that folder on a day when I’m down on my job as a teacher. This memento has lifted me up many times.
Encourage each other. Find people around you that will support you and get in the practice of encouraging each other.
What other strategies do you employ to persist in your work as teachers? What do you think your positive/negative ratio is right now and where do you think it should be for you to feel good about your work? I’d love to hear your comments.
2 thoughts on “The Necessity of Encouragement and Positive Feedback”
Darryl, this column struck a chord for me both personally and professionally. I had some terribly difficult early teaching years, but in more recent times, when I have made it a goal to SEE my students more clearly, I find that the positive interactions far outweigh the negative ones. Perhaps it is inevitable to some degree that as a new teacher, overwhelmed by everything the profession requires, we need to evolve to a more balanced view of our students as children who really need us, rather than as recipients of our knowledge who must learn to comply with whatever rules and restrictions our schools (and we) impose. I’m not advocating anarchy in the classroom, but I think how we perceive our students is at least half the equation. And, of course, peer and administrative support can make the professional environment tolerable, or not.
I work hard at noticing the blessings that I received or are able to give away with every interaction with students, teachers, parents and administrators.