Start with Strengths

Posted by Stanley Communications on 1/19/2023 3:00:00 PM

Susannah Marais was at lunch with her class when one of her students asked her, “Who’s your favorite in the class?” Susannah responded, “All of you are my favorite for different reasons.” Naturally, one student asked, “What’s your favorite thing about me?” Susannah replied that she loved that they were friendly to everyone. Curiously, another spoke up, “But, what’s your favorite thing about me?” Susannah shared that she loved that they liked to make their friends laugh. Susannah spent the rest of lunch sharing her favorite thing about each student.


While January is a time when we often focus on our shortcomings, making resolutions to improve ourselves, at Stanley we believe that one of the most powerful choices we make as teachers - as people - is to start with our strengths.


Elena Aguilar, in her book Onward, writes, “Focusing on strengths, assets, or ‘bright spots’ is an extensively researched approach in psychology, organizational change management, and neuroscience - and researchers in all these fields agree that focusing on the positive not only feels good but also works when you’re trying to change or you want others to change.”


Stanley teachers know that starting with strengths is about more than just supporting change. As K-1-2 teacher Emily Sprayregan explains, “Every single person wants their strengths to be seen. It just naturally makes you feel good and makes you a little more open and vulnerable.” 


For Stanley teachers, starting with our students’ strengths is at the heart of our relationships. It is how we build trust and see our students for who they are. Katie Russell believes that starting with strengths comes back to storytelling. She notices that our teachers continually ask, “What story are we focusing on – what are we telling ourselves and others about the person or situation in front of us? Are we helping learners find and tell stories about their strengths?” Stanley teachers notice and articulate students' strengths to guide our teaching and to help students recognize and use their strengths.


The way we scaffold and differentiate for learners builds on our students’ strengths. Our teachers know what each student needs to be their best selves and we adapt lessons or expectations accordingly. We might write for a student who has a passion for words but has challenges putting their vision on paper. We might help a student who has a vivid imagination visualize, and perhaps diagram, a math problem. Or, we might help an energetic and passionate student focus by asking them to take a lap before beginning a project. We not only support learners in accessing their strengths, we draw upon these strengths in the classroom when we ask our students to teach others. Our classrooms do not have one or two teachers; they are filled with thirty teachers!


Our teachers encourage learners to lean into their strengths to overcome challenges. We know that when we help learners see the impact of their actions from a place of strength, we are empowering them. We are showing them that they have agency. Peter Johnson in his book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, explains, “Drawing children’s attention to their successes and showing them how their decisions and strategic actions were responsible for them increases children’s perceptions of their ability.”


Ultimately, we believe that it is important to start with strengths because it honors the students in our care. 3-4-5 teacher Jon Gottesfeld reflects, “Maybe we’re not told enough about these wonderful gifts that we have. In the end, where we lean into our lives is into our gifts.” British Primary teachers believe that knowing our strengths allows us to contribute to a cohesive whole that we help create, whether it’s in our classroom, or in the world.


Chris Belanger and Kelsey McGuckin have created a lovely birthday tradition in their 3-4-5 classroom. They begin by asking all the other students in the class to share positive qualities, talents and strengths of the birthday child. This student watches as hands wave in the air. They watch the board fill up; the student is a Lego-builder, passionate about animals, an inclusive friend, they notice when others are hurt . . . Once the board is covered, the class reads the list aloud altogether and ends by loudly proclaiming, “And so much more.” 


Starting with strengths changes us. It impacts how we see the world, and ourselves. Let’s resolve to begin 2023 by loudly proclaiming our own strengths and the strengths we see in each other so that we can enrich our relationships, confidently face challenges, and ultimately change how we see and live in our world.