The Substitute Teacher Guide to Positive Expectations in the Classroom (page 4)
Why is it So Important to Have Positive Expectations?
Children have a remarkable ability to “read” a teacher’s attitude. They can size you up instantly. Your tone of voice, your body language, the way you walk, and the way you look all contribute to your image. If the image you project is positive, your students will pick up on your confidence, warmth, and acceptance and respond in kind.
Positive expectations establish a positive classroom culture. You expect the students to do their very best. You are so sure of your positive opinion of the class that there is no question that the students will perform well for you. And because the students know that they’ll be rewarded for good work (even if the rewards are only a smile and a kind word), they’ll try hard to earn your praise.
How Can You Show Students that You Have Positive Expectations for Them?
There are specific things you can say and do that lead to a positive expectations culture. Two vignettes might help illustrate.
- A colleague, Jan McCoy, once told me that on the first day of school she always told her fifth-grade class, “Right now, you all have an A in every subject! All you have to do is to keep it that way, and I think you can!”
- Another colleague, Carlos Aguilar, took a long-term subbing assignment for a middle school math teacher. One of his students, Andrea, came up to his desk one day during study hall.
“Mr. Aguilar, I’ve always hated math, and geometry was impossible for me. But since you took over our class, I’m sort of getting it. A little, at least.”
Carlos smiled. “Well, you’re a very smart girl, Andrea. I think you’re going to do very well in geometry. In fact, I know you are!”
In the first vignette, Jan McCoy could have said the usual things, “you’ll have to work hard to get an A.” Or worse, “only the very best students get A’s in my class.” But she didn’t. Instead she let every student know that they were A material (even if they weren’t) and implied, without ever saying it, that an A grade was theirs to lose and that hard work would allow them to keep it.
In the second vignette, Carlos Aguilar used positive expectations in a very effective way. But before he could do that, he had to project a positive attitude that convinced Andrea he liked her. He was always helpful, never critical. As a consequence, and in order to please a teacher she liked, Andrea studied her geometry each night. Carlos called on her often, and Andrea liked the response when she gave the right answer! The praise that she received built up her confidence.
Earlier I mentioned that one of the most gratifying aspects of being a substitute teacher is that you can give each student a “fresh start.” This is particularly true for those students who feel no connection with the classroom teacher. By using positive expectations, you can let these students believe that you are genuinely interested in them. They will eagerly rise to the occasion.
How Can You Be Positive When the Students are Negative?
Although there are no easy answers to this question, there are strategies you can use when you encounter a negative class. There will always be a few students who deserve your positive response. Initially, focus on them, giving praise and voicing approval. At least some of the negative students may modify their attitudes quickly so that they can get some of your “positive vibes.” Then broaden your focus to include these students. And the students who just won’t come around? Manage them, but expend your energy on those who want to learn.
Thank the students who are listening. Reward good behavior whenever possible, and ignore negativity. After some time passes, negative students will recognize that they cannot get your attention or upset you with poor performance or behavior. In many cases, the negative behavior will cease.
A confident substitute teacher praises often and points out negative behavior rarely. If you find yourself correcting students more than you are praising them, you should rebalance the scales in favor of praise.
What is the Best Way to Praise Student Conduct?
Whenever you praise a student, try to praise in an authentic way. This implies that you do more than say “good job” or “nice work.” Authentic praise is warm and caring. It comes from the heart, engages the students, and encourages them to want to answer questions, behave well, and work cooperatively.
When you want to praise an individual student, you should try to use specific praise. For example, let’s assume that you’re teaching social studies and you ask for the definition of a peninsula.
A student, Ryan, raises his hand and responds with, “A peninsula is a piece of land that projects into water but is connected to the mainland.”
You nod, smile in approval, and say, “Thank you, Ryan, you’re right! A peninsula is a piece of land that projects into the water but is connected to the mainland. You must have been studying last night!”
You’ve used specific praise by using Ryan’s name and repeating his answer for reinforcement. You added a personal comment (“studying last night”) to add warmth and make the praise authentic as well as specific. You sounded interested in Ryan’s answer and appreciative of his intelligence. But you’ve also done something else. You’ve encouraged other students to participate, knowing that they might get a positive response like Ryan did.
This same technique works for student conduct. When you see someone behaving in a positive manner, walk over to him and thank him, using his name. State what you have seen.
For example, “Leshaun, I see you had your book out and were ready for the lesson to begin. I appreciate that, and I will be sure to leave that information in my note to your teacher today.”
Why is it Important to be Positive With Your Colleagues?
People enjoy working with professionals who have a positive outlook on their job and on life in general. People tend to avoid someone who is always negative. So even if you’re having a bad day, keep a smile on your face and project a positive image. Staying positive has no downside. Why not be an upbeat, positive person?
Every school is like a large family that is protective and sensitive to criticism. You would be wise to keep critical comments to yourself. It’s in poor taste to bite the hand that feeds you. If you complain about your classroom assignment, the course content, your students, or other teachers, you may have guaranteed that you will not get another invitation to teach at that school.
Some teachers love to complain and gossip about administrators, colleagues, parents, and students. Listen politely, but don’t engage in this kind of negative (and unprofessional as well as ethically dubious) behavior. Being positive, whether it is with students or colleagues, is a state of mind. Look for things to praise, no matter how small. Be a good listener. Be understanding. Never be judgmental about a colleague or a parent. If you do those things, you will have achieved the key characteristic that is exhibited by all good teachers.
If you expect good things from your students and encourage them with praise at every opportunity, good things will happen in a classroom. To establish an atmosphere in which positive expectations work to your advantage, follow these guidelines:
- Project a positive attitude every time you walk into a classroom. Students have a remarkable ability to read your tone of voice, your body language, the way you walk, your entire persona. Be sure that you project confidence, warmth, and acceptance.
- Be helpful and positive, never critical. Before students perform for you, they have to feel some personal connection. If you create a warm, nurturing atmosphere in which good work gets high praise and even average work (but with sincere effort) gets a positive comment, you establish a classroom culture that will lead to academic excellence.
- When most students are negative, focus your attention and praise on those few who are positive. Over time, broaden your attention and praise to others who are trying. Always remain positive.
- Use authentic and specific praise. Whenever you praise the class or an individual student, make sure you mean it. Be warm and encouraging. When you praise an individual, use her name, indicate why her work is praiseworthy, and add a personal touch.
- Be positive in your dealings with other teachers and administrators. Even if you’re having a bad day, keep a smile on your face and project a positive image. It can only work to your benefit.
Students respond best when they encounter a teacher who has positive expectations. You can be one of those teachers. You know—a teacher that students remember years afterward. Be positive!
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