George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Focus on Your Strengths: A Strategy for Thriving in the Fall

October 15, 2015
Photo credit: F Delventhal via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The late fall can be a hard time for teachers, especially new teachers. As the excitement of the beginning of the year wanes and the Thanksgiving break seems too far away, teachers can hit a low point. It's not just the exhaustion of having worked so hard for several months, but also the fact that we haven't yet seen the results of our efforts in the form of significant student learning. This is the optimal time of year to reflect on and focus on your strengths.

Confronting Imposter Syndrome

One thing that gets in the way of feeling successful for new teachers -- and coaches and leaders -- is imposter syndrome. This is the voice in our minds that says we're not good enough, we don't belong here, and that one day everyone will find out that we're a fraud. This voice can keep us in a place of fear, on edge, and holding back. Every time I begin a new adventure, I have to combat imposter syndrome.

One way to manage this tendency is to find and focus on your unique contributions, strengths, gifts, and assets. We all have them, but many of us keep them buried; instead, we channel energy into putting put up a front. Our energy is drained and our strengths stay hidden from ourselves and from others.

So what are your unique skills? What do you know about from your life experiences and learning? What are your commitments and passions? Do an asset-search in yourself to remember what you bring to your work.

Find Your Strengths

We have more potential for growth when we focus on developing our strengths rather than on fixing our deficiencies. As you direct your energy into maximizing and applying your strengths, you'll find that you let go of the tasks, ideas, and projects that don't play into your unique strengths. You'll feel more energized.

What happens to those areas of growth that you might need to work on? First, there's what I call the spillover effect. The energy you gain from feeling successful, accomplished, and inspired from investing in your strengths -- the reminder that you do things well -- creates fuel for you to tackle the areas that you need to work on.

Here's an example: When I started teaching, I quickly discovered that I effectively designed engaging learning activities for my second graders. They involved multiple modalities, were collaborative, and were creative -- and they led my students to mastering the day's objectives. But a few months into the school year, I looked around at my classroom and saw the stacks of papers covering every surface, the crusty materials from a science experiment done weeks before, and the spilled paints and puddles of dried glue. My classroom was physically chaotic, which didn't come as a great surprise as organization has never been my strength. Furthermore, as it was report card time, I realized that my system for organizing student work and assessment data was also chaotic; truthfully, it was non-existent. I felt embarrassed.

Creativity is one of my strengths. I worked hard at keeping the imposter syndrome at bay, and while I continued to pour my heart into designing lessons, I also looked for where I could use those strengths at lesson design into organizing my classroom and systems. In my first few months of school, my confidence in design had increased, and as the school year progressed, I intentionally transferred this to build in the area I needed to refine.

I use that language intentionally -- an area to refine -- as opposed to an "area for growth or improvement." It may seem trivial, but there's a subtle and powerful difference in our minds. "Refine" connotes it's already strong, it's good, it's there, and it was. My classroom was messy, but no one was in danger of physical harm. Focusing on strengths gets us anchored in our unique contributions. It gives us mental and emotional fuel to direct at our areas for refinement. It allows us to be honest with ourselves about areas that we can build upon.

The Neuroscience Behind This Approach

It's useful to understand why an assets-based approach works; it has to do with the way our brains are wired. When we're focusing on what we're not good at -- our deficiencies and areas of struggle -- negative neural pathways are reinforced: the pathways that produce self-defeating statements like, "I'm such a failure. This won't work. I know I'm not good at X, and I've been trying to get better for many years. What's wrong with me? Why am I so bad at this?"

Take just a moment to think about something you've tried improving in -- perhaps eating healthier or getting more exercise -- and notice how that internal dialogue amplifies. The majority of us are well aware of our areas of weakness, and casting more light on them creates distress. This decreases our ability to take action, learn, and see possibilities.

It's not that we can't learn when we focus on areas for growth, but there's more struggle. We're at odds with our brain. Focusing on our strengths bypasses some of these brain challenges.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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