At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.
Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
As described in previous posts on The Power of the Positive and Neuroscience, humans are naturally wired to scan their environment for problems or errors, and we often feel compelled to tell the whole truth – warts and all. However, we can be truth-tellers without telling the whole truth, and sometimes it’s really important that we do so.
Like so many things, I have learned this lesson from my students.
We were in the final week before the end of the first semester, and in the throes of finishing up final drafts of our Capstone papers. Students and teachers alike were feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and irritated. One day at the end of morning meeting, as we were transitioning to academic instruction, Nate pulled me aside, and asked, “Ms. Taylor, when are we going to do that thing where you tell us what we’re good at?” I knew immediately what he meant, but I had entirely forgotten that I had promised to provide it.
“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at.”
This was a practice that I had formally begun the year before at the conclusion of our Leadership Camp ceremony – a description of each student at his or her best. I had indicated that we would do something similar as part of our celebration of the fall or winter holidays, but I hadn’t gotten around to scheduling it.
Nate beat me to the punch by directly requesting what he, and the rest of the class, needed. It was time to show faith in our students, to demonstrate that we wouldn’t give up on them, and to encourage their positive contributions, no matter how small. Nate recognized the importance of telling them “what they’re good at” before I did, and I am profoundly grateful that he had the courage to point it out to me.
“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at” is a process akin to panning for gold. The first step is to envision each student with a singular focus. What is true about this child? The entirety of the truth is there – rocks, mud, silt, and all. Narrowing the vision, and selecting different lenses through which to see, is like running clear water over the muck and allowing the pebbles and dirt to be washed away. Eventually, only the golden nuggets are left behind. Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” The golden nuggets are “the good.” They are what remain after the layers of defenses, and shields, and mistakes, and poor choices have been washed away. Every student in every classroom has golden nuggets just waiting to be revealed. Some of them are easy to see; it is a joy to hold these students’ gifts up to the light and celebrate them. However, for other students, the golden nuggets can take effort to uncover. It is for these students that this process is the most important. For many of these students, a teacher may be the first person who has ever helped them to see themselves in a purely positive light – free of hidden put-downs, backhanded compliments, or veiled barbs. These “golden nuggets” may not be the whole truth, but that doesn’t make them untrue, nor are they any less true if they are described in isolation from the rest. These visions of possibility allow students to perceive their best selves. This can be a tremendously powerful experience.
So, when was I going to tell them what they were good at? It was a great question, and a great moment, and yet I almost missed it – this overt cue. Instead of acknowledging the import of his query, and providing him with a sincere response, I jokingly responded, “I don’t know. Maybe when I like you better!” Nate laughed. I laughed. The moment passed. But later that evening, upon reflection of my day, I recognized my error, and I immediately began planning how to incorporate this ritual into the tea party that was already scheduled for the end of the week.
It is tradition at Gamble for the junior high students to celebrate the end of the first semester with a high tea. Students and teachers dress up in fancy attire, we decorate the classroom, practice etiquette, and serve fancy tea and cookies. I decided to fold the individual strengths ceremony when I “tell them what they are good at” into this formal and celebratory occasion.
In preparation, I spent many hours filtering through what I knew about each of my students and sifting out the negative pieces. Ultimately, I was able to write a true and unique statement for each of my students, describing his or her “best self.”
The highly anticipated day arrived. Girls arrived in dresses and bows, male teachers helped the boys tie their ties, Each student group spread tablecloths and arranged centerpieces to convert our daily work space into a festive reflection of the season. We poured tea, served cookies, and then it was time.
To set the tone, I shared the following excerpt from Aspire by David Hall.
This story was told to Hall by an Indian shopkeeper:
“I grew up in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. Through education and hard work my family was able to break the shackles of poverty. My mother taught me many great things. One of the most important was the meaning of an ancient Hindi word. In the West you might call this charity, but I think you’ll find this word has a deeper meaning. The word is “Genshai” (GEN-shy). It means that you should never treat another person in a manner that would make them feel small. As children, we were taught to never look at, touch, or address another person in a way that would make them feel small. If I were to walk by a beggar in the street and casually toss him a coin, I would not be practicing Genshai. But if I knelt down on my knees and looked him in the eye when I placed that coin in his hand, that coin became love. Then and only then, after I had exhibited pure, unconditional brotherly love, would I become a true practitioner of Genshai. Genshai means that you never treat anyone small – and that includes yourself.” 
I explained to the class that as a component of not “treating them small,” I wanted them to see the “best self” version of themselves that their teachers saw in them. I wanted each of them to hear themselves, and each of their peers, described in this way because “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
Students will take these types of ceremonies seriously if the teachers work to establish a formal tone. To set the stage for this event, I placed each child’s “best self statement” inside of a gift box to symbolize that not only was this my gift to them, but that each of them was a gift to our community, and to our world. To prepare the space for the occasion, I ceremonially displayed the boxes in the front of the classroom, dimmed the lights, and played soft music.
While students truly love hearing about themselves and each other in positive ways, they need guidance and direct instruction on how to listen appropriately, so that they create a space that is emotionally safe for every member of the community. Feeling vulnerable is uncomfortable for most of us, and knowing that you are going to be spoken about publicly – even, or perhaps especially, when this is done positively – can often lead to laughter, or even inappropriate behavior, as a means to relieve the discomfort. Being directly instructed about how to manage themselves in this type of situation helps to dispel the nervousness and anxiety that many students may experience. They need to be reminded that we applaud equally for every individual, and that any comments that might possibly be seen as critical are a violation of the principles of community. They need to be provided with clear expectations about the importance of being quiet and attentive as each person’s individual statement is read.
After establishing all of these expectations for my students, the room was hushed and serious as I began the individual reading of the “best self” statements for all 50 students as well as the 4 staff people who were with us.
Together we recognized James, for whom sitting still and not blurting out answers is a constant challenge, but this statement is also true about him: “You are one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. You are conscientious about making sure that everyone is included, and you can’t stand it when things are unfair. I can’t decide whether I am more proud of you for trying to throw the game when you realized that the Outsiders impressionistic lesson was rigged, or for the encouragement and companionship you offer to Kim (a student with Down Syndrome) on every field experience. You are a gift.”
And Margo: “One of your most noteworthy character strengths is gratitude. You always remember to say thank you – even when it’s for helping you redo an assignment that has been handed back to you for corrections over and over again. You hate to make mistakes, but you must learn to be gentle with yourself. It is through mistakes that we learn and grow; we must embrace them! You are a gift.”
And Denise, who struggles academically more than any of our other students, and who tends to be discounted by her peers as a result: “You are often under-appreciated in our community, but where would we be without your ready willingness to help? From providing a pencil to someone who lost theirs, sharing your annotated reading with those who don’t have one, or taking on extra duties in the classroom, all of us lean on you. For all the times we may have forgotten to say thank you, well . . . ‘thank you’ from the bottom of our hearts. You are a gift.”
And on and on, until each student had been acknowledged and had seen his or her unique contributions to the group as a whole. This took the better part of an hour – a beautiful hour of student engagement, support, and attentiveness. After four months together of learning to follow expectations and procedures, figuring out how to interact with each other, and tackling rigorous academic content, like Algebra I and the Capstone Project, we were dearly lacking in energy, patience, and enthusiasm. However, in the space provided by that hour, we came together in the final moments of the semester to celebrate and recognize the progress and growth that each student had achieved individually, but that had truly been accomplished in conjunction with each other.
I knew that I had taught them well, when after the last statement had been read, many students immediately noted that I had not received one. Two young ladies took it upon themselves to write a “best self” statement for me. Their statement mirrored my tone and verbiage, ending with “You are a gift.” How powerful it was that, as a group, students understood that when we do things as a community, it is imperative that all members are included. It was unacceptable to them that anyone was left out – including me.
Did these “best self” statements reflect how students always behave in the classroom? Most certainly not. Negative behaviors attract our attention readily. The 4:1 positive to negative interaction ratio is much touted as being critical to student success, but it is so hard to achieve. Even when providing positive feedback, it can be so tempting to temper praise with “the whole truth”, or what I call, “the but”. “The but” can take many forms; in each, the positive feedback is subtly turned into a partial criticism. This strips the compliment of all of its intended power. Listen closely to yourself or others when positive reflections are provided; you may be startled by how often the tribute is undermined by some version of “the but.” Sometimes, the recipients – children and adults alike – will even add “the but” themselves. We are so uncomfortable with our own goodness. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Providing “best self” statements helps each of us to fight against the temptation to focus of faults and flaws, and to reinforce the importance of those things we do best.
Managing a classroom requires frequent behavioral redirection. Making academic progress requires the pointing out and correction of error. Students regularly hear teachers reflect on what they are doing poorly. It is important that they also have opportunities to hear themselves described in their most positive light. It provides them with a possibility to live into, invites them to see themselves in this way, and engages them in the process of their own growth and development. It sends the message that they can be successful, that the adults in their life believe in them and their ability to succeed, and that we won’t give up on helping them to become their best selves.
Students absolutely love seeing themselves through a wholly positive lens; it is profound to see how much stock they put in this, and how often the words we give them re-emerge later as a way in which they describe themselves. As teachers we hold tremendous power in influencing how students view themselves. This is a weighty burden, and a responsibility that we must not take lightly. Don’t forget to “do that thing where you tell them what they’re good at.” It will likely mean more than you will ever know.
 Hall, Kevin. Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose through the Power of Words. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print.