By Lisl Foss
Any job may wear us down over time, and teaching can be especially challenging in this regard.
Teachers who experience fatigue, boredom, uncertainty or frustration and who feel overwhelmed at work are at risk. And if a teacher is not enjoying his or her job, it is unlikely that pupils will reach their full potential in the classroom. Stressed, harassed teachers are not good for children. The science of positive psychology, which conducts research on what makes it possible for individuals and organisations to thrive and improve, suggests that a strengths-based approach can provide a solution to this problem.
What are the effects of a strengths-based approach?
Current research indicates that when we develop and employ our strengths, we are at our most productive, fulfilled and energised. People who use their strengths are happier and more confident, with increased self-esteem. They experience less stress, have higher levels of energy and vitality, as well as being more resilient. Often they are more effective at developing themselves and growing as individuals, and they are more likely to reach their goals and feel fulfilled.
A strengths-based approach in the classroom will also contribute to enhanced performance. Helping pupils to identify their own particular constellation of personal strengths, and encouraging them to use these more frequently, will lead to better results in all areas of school. Research conducted by the United Kingdom (UK) Corporate Leadership Council in 34 countries, with nearly 20 000 workers across seven different industries, indicated that managers who focused on strengths when giving feedback managed to elicit a 36.4% higher productivity from their employees. On the other hand, when areas of weakness were emphasised during performance appraisals, employees’ productivity declined by 26.8%. It was also found that when people used their strengths at work, they reported greater levels of engagement and energy.
What is a strength?
A strength can be thought of as a naturally occurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied. Strengths are part of our basic human nature. Every person is born with a particular constellation of strengths, which may recede or come into greater prominence, depending on the context. One of the easiest ways to recognise a personal strength is to notice which thoughts, activities or feelings energise us when we engage in them. When we are good at something but doing it drains us, we are using a learned behaviour and not a strength. Strengths may also be discernable in past achievements that made us feel proud, or in the things we most look forward to doing in the future. It is also possible to undertake a psychometric assessment to identify one’s own personal strengths, learned behaviours and weaknesses.
What prevents us from using our strengths more frequently? Most of us find it difficult to name or talk about our strengths, and we feel uncomfortable with positive feedback. Part of the reason for this is that we have adapted via evolution to be vigilant for problems and weaknesses, but to overlook instances where things are going well. In the classroom, this emerges as a focus on improving areas of deficit, as we mistakenly believe that it is in overcoming our weaknesses, rather than by developing our strengths, that we will reach our full potential.
Many of us grow up with a ‘Protestant work ethic’, which suggests that if something comes easily to us, then it is somehow of less value than if we struggled and persevered to achieve it. Social norms further dictate that we retain some modesty. We are taught that saying what we are good at is inappropriate or arrogant. Freely acknowledging our positive attributes might further place us under unwelcome pressure to always excel in a certain area.
We usually have a vague sense of what our particular strengths may be, but until the advent of positive psychology, there hasn’t been an adequate language to name or describe them. Sometimes we are put off by proponents of the strengths approach who promote an unbalanced view of things, persuading us to ignore our weaknesses and to ‘focus on the positive’, instead of taking both sides into account. All these things might explain our reluctance to focus on what works, and on what went well, rather than on what needs to be improved.
What about weaknesses?
Having a strengths-based approach does not mean that we ignore our weaknesses or pretend that they don’t matter. If a boat has a hole in the bottom, it will sink unless attention is paid to that trouble spot, just as our weaknesses may jeopardise our performance if unchecked. However, merely fixing the hole will not move the ship forward, just as paying attention to our weaknesses is not the same as building our strengths. To progress efficiently, the boat sails need to be rigged too. Our strengths are like these sails, giving us added energy and performance when we apply them to a task. Research shows that when we increase the use of our strengths, we have the energy and confidence to tackle the areas that we are not so good at. We can therefore best compensate for our weaknesses by utilising and developing our strengths.
Remaining inspired and competent
The evidence suggests that knowing our strengths and using them more frequently will enhance every dimension of our lives, and that a strengths-based approach is one of the best ways to remain an inspired and competent educator. In life, we get more of what we focus upon. If we habitually focus on our weaknesses and on those of our pupils, we will struggle to perform at our best and could face burnout. Conversely, when we are aware of our own strengths and apply these at work, we will enjoy our teaching more, feel fulfilled and engaged, and transmit this enthusiasm to our pupils. It would seem, then, that engaging our strengths is one of the quickest ways to remain energised and effective in our role as teachers.
Lisl Foss is a counselling psychologist who works as a lecturer and student counsellor at Rhodes University and as a part-time private practitioner. This article is based on a presentation she gave at the recent TEACH! Conference, hosted by Kingswood College in Grahamstown.
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