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School Desk Blog: Focusing on Our Strengths

Focusing on Our Strengths

As an educator, I often focus on ways to help students improve. One way to do this is to look for weaknesses or areas that need improvement, so they can be addressed. Another is to focus on strengths or areas where students excel, so they can be reinforced.

I wouldn’t say one way is right and the other is wrong, but I do believe our outlook determines our happiness to a large degree, and if we spend a greater percentage of our time concentrating on our strengths, we’re more likely to be happy.

I’m not suggesting we pretend we have no problems, no weaknesses, nothing to improve upon. However, having read the book StrengthsFinder (Amazon’s bestselling nonfiction book ever), I am convinced that spending all our time focused on the negative is a big mistake.

At a recent conference a presenter reinforced this perspective. She asked everyone to close their eyes and create a mental picture of the people we care about most deeply (I pictured my three children). Then she asked us what we wanted most for them, and I was flooded with the desire for them to be happy, and secondarily, to work hard.

As the Superintendent of Ukiah Unified School District, I’m really interested in our students’ academic success and their wellbeing; and I think reinforcing the positive rather than immersing ourselves in the negative can have a profoundly positive effect on students’ academic performance and their self-image.

As a society, we’re surrounded by negativity. As adults, we need to be careful not to overwhelm our children with it. I check myself when I step on a school campus to leave the negativity behind and be in the moment. Are our students perfect? Of course not. But are they amazing? Yes, they are. Every time I visit a school campus, I am reminded of the goodness, enthusiasm, amusement, and growth that happen there.

When I visited Eagle Peak Middle School recently, I came across a big display that said, “How do you want to be remembered?” Seventh graders posted their responses with hand-written notes on colorful paper that included descriptions such as funny, nice, helpful, fun, warm, responsible, strong, and friendly. It was such a positive, uplifting thing to see.

The best way to teach children how to live positive, fulfilled lives is to model the behavior we want them to adopt. As adults, we can focus on our strengths more often than our weaknesses. Certainly, we need to remain aware of ways we can improve, but honestly, there are things I will never be good at and I’d rather not spend all my time and energy trying to make progress on them. Instead, I recognize that we all need a group of friends, family and colleagues that allow us to use our strengths to their best effect.

At work, I am a big picture person. I like to see how today’s actions will affect the future, not just tomorrow and in the months to come, but next year and even a decade from now. On my team, I have people who are amazing at responding in the moment. They are tuned in to the emotional and practical needs of a situation and can balance compassion and consequences, so students have the best opportunity to learn and grow.

It makes me think of the story of the principal who sent a note home to parents encouraging them to allow their students to be who they are. The principal implores parents to remember that in every classroom there’s an entrepreneur who doesn’t care about history or literature, a musician whose chemistry scores won’t determine their acceptance to Julliard, and an athlete whose physical fitness will serve them as well or better than their physics class.

Of course, I want students to do well in school. However, I recognize, that every student has unique talents and gifts, and I hope we, as parents and educators, can focus on helping our students work hard with the understanding that their efforts may be best spent enhancing their gifts.

Let’s keep encouraging our kids to do well academically, while remembering that they can live long, happy lives whether they understand the brilliance of Shakespeare or how to use the quadratic formula to solve for x.