About Sarah Sorge

A high school science teacher, Sarah Sorge has taught in private, charter, and public schools in grades 7-12. Her areas of interest include neuroscience, education, and problem-based science instruction. Recently, Sarah was awarded the distinction of New York State Master Teacher.

PositiveTeacherHow many of us can be considered “charismatic?” Are you the sort of person from whom others derive strength? As teachers, we are often faced with instances where we are asked to be the wellspring of inspiration, drive, and positive attitudes for others. One of the discussions at the Learning and the Brain Symposium at Columbia University this April addressed this very idea. Dr. Robert Brooks gave a speech regarding mindsets and resilience in students and how we can help them to achieve resiliency.

All of us begin with certain mindsets: the assumptions and expectations we have for others and ourselves. In turn, these guide our behaviors. In terms of the impact of our preconceived notions of others and how we expect them to act and function, there can be disparate results that can leave us frustrated and ready to quit. This can have a large impact on how we affect our students in the classroom. If we give off the sense that we expect a particular student to fail, chances are that student will fail. If we give students the sense that they can succeed, then we empower them to make it happen. As teachers, we are given the chance to be “charismatic adults,” as Brooks called us. We have to believe that our students have the capacity to become hopeful and resilient themselves. All teachers know the importance of modeling behaviors in the classroom. It would come as no surprise, then, that positive thoughts and actions would lead to positive thoughts and behaviors from our students.

In his article “You Get What You Expect,” Brooks states clearly:

“if you expect children to succeed, you will behave in ways to reinforce this expectation even without being aware of doing so.”

Consequently, Brooks encourages every teacher to model positive mindsets around our classrooms and our colleagues. First, Brooks suggested that we eliminate the words “lazy” and “unmotivated” from our vocabulary. If we call a student that, he explained, we have already given up on the student and written them off as not worth the effort. Every child has the capacity and desire to learn, and our attitudes within our own schools can often be a prescription for failure, a kind of self-sabotage. In essence, we set ourselves up to fail before we begin, and as a result our students set themselves up for failure.

The fundamental question, then, is how to we create a positive mindset within the classroom such that we create an environment of success and empowerment for our students? First, Brooks suggested that we be knowledgeable and passionate about our content and our role as an educator. Students will not be passionate about what we teach unless we show our passion as educators. We have to show ourselves as lifelong learners committed to bringing ourselves to excellence before we can ask our students to do the same. We should never brand our students as “lazy” or “unmotivated.” We have to ask ourselves what is causing the student to exhibit avoidance motivation. All human beings behave (or misbehave) for a reason; all behavior has a motivation. If a student is behaving such that we get the impression that he/she does not want to learn or to try, then it is our responsibility to find out what will reach that student and motivate them.

I found Dr. Brook’s lecture enlightening and inspiring to say the least. Enough so that I immediately obtained the book The Power of Resilience after he concluded his talk. His book, co-authored with Dr. Sam Goldstein, describes how we possess “negative scripts” in our minds that lead us to think and behave in self-defeating ways. I strongly believe that this should be required reading for all teachers regardless of how long he/she has been in the profession. Our negative behaviors in the classroom are an avoidance motivation of their own, keeping us from being the best teachers we could possibly be.

It is possible to model better mental behaviors from our students so both students and teachers can be better prepared to deal with the up’s and down’s of academics. Too often we hear students declare that they are “stupid” or “not good at this

[subject].” We have the ability to change their mindsets and, as a direct result, their motivations. We can also change how our colleagues view their roles as charismatic adults from whom their students draw strength and energy. First and foremost, however, we have to find the ability to change ourselves.
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