How to start out as a positive teacher

Focus on the positives – don’t mention the road!

Treat someone as if they were the way you want them to be.

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain as he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and what he could be, he will become what he ought to be and what could be.”

It is amazing that we can look back to the late 18th century to find Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expounding on one of the absolute fundamental principles of what he would never in a million years have called Positive Teaching.

If you treat a student as a ‘bad’ student, that is the mantle they will assume. Treat them like a ‘good’ student, and, given time, that is who you will find sitting in front of you.


How NOT to do it

A few years ago, I remember a teacher telling me proudly how he read up on students before they came into his class.  Great, I thought – absolutely what you need to do. The he told me how he would identify those students who had what he would called ‘a chequered past’ and draw them aside just before the start of his first class.

“Zach,” he would say, wagging his finger in the student’s face, “I know all about you. A quick word to the wise: don’t mess about in my class or I’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks.”

My face fell. Before Zach had even entered the class for his first ever lesson with Mr G, he knew what the game was. Battle lines were drawn. Game on.

So let’s forget Mr G’s approach and focus on what is a good starting point for establishing mutual expectations between students and teachers.

How to do it

You’ve prepared thoroughly. Your classroom is set out as you want it, and the display is attractive and resilient, fully relevant to this unit’s learning. You’ve researched the students – there won’t be any surprises, you’ve tailored your seating plan to fit your recently acquired knowledge about the newcomers. You’ve looked at the photos on the school system and there are a few names which you’ve taken in.

So you have written your learning objective for the first lesson on the board, you’ve got your piles of textbooks labelled and ready to give out, your exercise books and your stampers and rewards, and you’re ready!

First impressions count

You go to the door and, if you’re lucky enough to have the space to allow it, you urge them all to get into a line. You ask for silence, and then you wait for it. When all is silence, with a smile you invite the students into the classroom. As each one passes you, you try to get eye contact and greet them, adding some small personal exchange with any students whom you already know.

You have already communicated several things:

  1. You are someone with high expectations
  2. You are friendly and not suspicious of any of them
  3. You treat them like individuals
  4. You remember important things, personal things.

As those students walk in, you have a chance to make your mark.

Setting expectation of the students and for the students

Many teachers set out their expectations during their first lesson, and this is obviously a very good idea. However, in many cases this expectation-setting tends to take the form of a list of rules that the teacher has laid down, and is heavy on the “what happens if you don’t comply” side of things. I worry about this, as it indicates an expectation that what rules are outlined will not be adhered to. It also overlooks the expectations which the students can, and should, have of the teacher.

As they are, in the end, the customers, perhaps it would be wiser to spend a little more time talking about the mutual contract, about what happens in the classroom and why, and why the way you have set things up is the way in which everyone in the class can achieve their own objectives: the teacher is able to teach effectively so that the students are able to learn effectively. The classroom expectations are simple: the student expects to be able to learn at a pace appropriate to them, without undue disruption, able to take learning risks without fear of put-downs or humiliation; the teacher expects to be able to teach, safely, without undue disruption and able to work to each individual’s best advantage.

So a Strictly Positive teacher might introduce the students’ classroom expectations as follows:

  • the class will learn or practise something new or useful in every lesson
  • the teacher will work with them to help them achieve to the fullest of their potential
  • the teacher will encourage and motivate them
  • the teacher will try to ensure that the classroom environment is conducive to learning

They might not use the word ‘conducive’, but the inclusion of that last point sends out a positive message – that disruptive behaviour has no place in this environment. This is a place of learning, and the majority can expect steps to be taken to ensure that no one is permitted to spoil their learning chances.

In the interests of ensuring that students’ expectations are met, the teacher then outlines her expectations of the students. These are positively phrased to avoid any negative words.

 Positive language – don’t mention the road!

Parents will recognise the wall/road analogy. When a parent starts walking with their tiny charge to the park, or playgroup or a playdate, the absolute terror is that they might dart onto the road, between the cars to meet a nasty fate. Their instinct will be to shout nervously “Don’t go onto the road!” because the road looms large in their mind. This is obviously because the risk, the road, is what they are thinking about. But small children don’t hear the “don’t go onto the…” in that sentence. What they hear is the key word –ROAD. And so they look at, and gravitate towards, the road. Much better, from a neuro-linguistic processing point of view, is to say “Walk next to the WALL/FENCE/GRASS,” so that the keyword signals what they should be listening out for and thereby directed to.

Frankly, by the time they get to secondary school, let alone primary school, they haven’t changed much. In all my years I haven’t evolved much. If someone were to say to me “You shouldn’t eat pizza,” all I hear is PIZZA. If you were to say instead “You need to eat more SALAD,” I can see a plate of salad. I never thought about the pizza, so the salad looks delicious.

So you can set out your expectations. We all know what they’ll look like. They go something like this:

  • I will always do my best
  • I will complete all work to the best of my ability
  • I will show respect to my fellow students and my teacher
  • I will think carefully, but I will ask for help whenever I need it

At this stage there should be no mention of any sanctions. You are utterly confident that all will go well.


There might be one slightly braver student who will put his hand and say:

“What if we DON’T do our best or we DO distract people?”

Of course, you should pre-plan your own response to this, which is a blatant attempt to set the teacher up in opposition to this student, and by extension the class, and thereby get some sort of vicarious control. However, I would urge you strongly not to fall into the trap of negativity. My habitual response, and one which I use in probably one out of every three encounters with a new class is always the same. I smile broadly and look directly at the questioner and I say:

“You will.”

And then I immediately turn away and talk to someone else.

The Strictly Positive behaviour management model of public praise and silent sanction needs more than one post to do it justice – next time I will go through that in some detail with illustrations and practical examples.

Teach something in that first lesson.

One final thing: do not allow the expectation-setting administrative tasks to take up the whole of the lesson, which is admittedly difficult if you have a 35 minute lesson, but instead plan to include something which your class can say they have done in your lesson.

Then once your students are standing in silence and have tidied up any mess which has been created, go to the door and say goodbye to each one, one by one, meeting their eyes and smiling. Leave them with the impression of a clear and understandable classroom environment where everyone will work together to the benefit of all. This is a cooperative endeavour and we all have our part to play.

I’m not going to pretend that this will carry through an academic year, but it’s a very good place to start!



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