Words Matter. They become part of our story.
There was a time when I was afraid to give a compliment. I was uncertain about how it would be received, and I wasn’t sure what would happen if I gave someone else (who at many times was my competition), words of encouragement.
There are too many times in my life that I have not said anything. I used to think that by pointing out what someone else did well, would take away from what I had accomplished. I also wondered if it was really necessary.
When I first started teaching, the number of years spent in a district was virtually the only thing that determined whether or not a teacher would have a job. In those early years, I saw a lot of amazing teachers. I saw beautiful classrooms, well put together lessons, and coaches as well advisers who were down right amazing! But, I was not intentional about speaking up to recognize the good in others. I did not know if my words really mattered.
It wasn’t until I was I was a fourth year teacher in my fourth school, that I really saw someone who was focused on building others up and being generous with compliments. Our media center specialist Rachelle, showed me what it looked like to let other people shine. If she realized that someone was doing something well, she told that person, and she told other people what a good job this person had done.
Her praise was always authentic and specific. She spoke well of so many people (fortunately I got to be one of those people). Rachelle never worried that it would make her look like less of an educator if she talked highly of someone else’s ability. She was truly a dot connector. When she found a resource that would help someone out; she would share it. Her goal was to bring people along with her.
At the end of my year working with Rachelle, I was called back to my home district to work in our alternative school. One of the best gifts I was given during my four years at Riverview East High School was a close staff that really worked together. For the first time in my career I did not feel competitive among other staff members. For the most part, besides a class or two others taught; I was the English teacher. I was my own department, and everyone else was his or her own department. As a result of these dynamics, I was able to really get to know other staff members and be excited about what they were doing.
The school culture was one where everyone had your back, you mattered, and everyone was in together. This went for the students and the staff. When we focused on school improvement, we set goals and accomplished things by looking at teacher’s strengths. The conversations were always directed in a non competitive, but rather collaborative way.
We focused on which students did well with which teachers. It was exciting when we sketched out which teachers were exceptional mentors to certain kids. Because we focused on the good, these meetings were full of energy. We made sure that each kid was covered, and nobody was going to fall through the cracks.
Compliments among staff were constant, and I think our students could tell that we really liked working together as a staff.
I left Riverview for a Dream Job working at my local middle school. While the staff is much bigger, I have an opportunity to work with an amazing and fun group of people of whom I am able to connect with on so many unique levels.
As a result of teaching each grade level, and moving rooms multiple times, I have been able to really get to know many staff members over the last nine years.
When I first started at the middle school, I was still concerned about my job security, and overwhelmed when I had to teach something new. Instead of being my own department, I was one of many English teachers. At times, I reverted back to not focusing on other people’s strengths. My goal was to try and be the best at my craft; and as a result of my limiting beliefs I did not bring anyone along with me. My mindset was safe and comfortable.
Recently, I have started taking more risks and am becoming more generous with my words. I realize more than ever that choosing words to build people up really does matter. The Positivity Project our school participates in has definitely made an impression on me. If I am asking my students to highlight the good in others and cheer them on, I need to make sure that I am willing to step outside my comfort zone, and take a moment to applaud the good in others. Our administrators do a nice job with hand written notes to tell us that we are appreciated. I have started writing more notes, and am so excited about the opportunities I have to empower others with encouraging words. I recently read a tweet from Dr. Brad Johnson who said,
“Some may think constant praise, compliments, and appreciation is not necessary for adults. But, remember its not just that you are praising your staff, but you’re also saying I am present, I’m paying attention, and I am in this with you. Can this really be said too often?”
I am also reminded of Lea Water’s book, The Strength Switch Lea does a fantastic job illustrating the message that we should approach everything from a point of strength. By starting from a place where someone is successful, it is a lot more effective to inspire someone to push him or herself. I know I respond better after a compliment rather than criticism.
Being a parent has definitely made me a better educator. Having a 7th grader at the middle school gave me new insight into some of the amazing things that teachers were doing. When I listen to my son practice his trumpet at home, and then surpass my wildest expectations at a band concert; I have to make sure I tell our band director how in awe I am of his work and dedication. When my son tells me he is learning more in his math class then he has ever learned in a year; that is a compliment I need to make sure a teacher hears. And, when I see one of our history teachers dressed up in costume leading her class outside to reenact historical events, it is important to highlight the strength of that teacher.
Focusing on the strengths of teachers I work with has given me more energy. I don’t necessarily want to conform to the style of each teacher I work with. But, I can always find something good to notice about what a staff member is doing. It certainly makes work more fun. I love it when I have the opportunity to praise another teacher during a conversation with a student. And I know my eyes light up when I take the time to compliment a student.
Compliments are not just for the classroom. When I pass a fellow runner that I know during a morning workout, I find that I automatically slap hands with him or her, or if it is someone I have not gotten to know, a nod is given. There is an automatic sense of respect and joy for the person being passed. A high five or a fist bump is a compliment. It is really exciting to see someone else in his or her element.
Imagine a school where everyone we passed in the halls was given a “high five” out of respect for the journey that we know he or she is on. Imagine hallways exploding with smiles, high fives, and compliments.
Sometimes one compliment can be enough to transform your world. A week ago I received what might be one of the best compliments I have received in a really long time. It was exactly the right combination of words from a source that I valued and trusted. A runner that I have a lot of respect for, asked me about what I eat before running in the morning. He said that he was interested in hearing my answer since I was a, “Badass Morning Runner”. While I am internally motivated as a runner, and do not need a lot of praise for my favorite hobby; a perfectly timed complement certainly rocked my world. These three words have become part of my story.
For the remainder of the day, each time I looked at that those three words in print, I could not help but get excited. I was inspired as a runner in a whole new way.
Those three words continue to stay with me. When I struggle during a run, I visualize, a “Badass Morning Runner”, and ask myself what she would do at this point in the run. Now that I realize how much a well timed, authentic, personalized compliment can matter: I am even more inspired to be generous with the compliments I give. I am realizing it is a lot more fun to bring out the best of the people around me. I can still focus on being the best wife, mom, teacher and runner that I have within me, and yet bring out the best in others at the same time. The world has a lot of space for excellence.