• Sherry St. Clair

Accentuate the Positive



With everything educators have had to juggle in recent months, strong instructional leadership is more important than ever. The following practices have proved effective in the past, but in a year like this, they can provide antidotes to stress while supporting student and teacher growth.

Coach With Compassion

Compassion activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body and mind for giver and recipient alike. One of the easiest ways to show compassion is to start every interaction by asking teachers how they’re doing and show a genuine interest in the response. Empathize with teachers’ concerns, and ask them how you can support them.

Before beginning coaching work, praise the teacher for a recent success. The recipients of positive feedback typically perceive the person offering the feedback and themselves as more collegial and competent. While negativity causes anxiety and clouds cognition, positivity improves teacher response and coaching’s productivity. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid honest conversations about areas in which a teacher needs improvement; it just means you should frame feedback constructively, then turn the focus to solutions.

Observe and Engage Students

When it comes to evaluations, we mainly observe teachers. When it comes to promoting student and teacher growth, we should also observe students. Visit classrooms—virtual and otherwise—to find out if students are doing the work. Review assignments in order to gauge how challenging they are and students’ ability to meet high expectations.

At the start of each year, conduct a listening tour. Dedicate about two weeks to speaking with people in key stakeholder groups: teachers, administrators, students, parents or guardians, and community members. A listening tour will reveal issues that are impeding teacher and student growth, which you can then address with targeted solutions.

If you don’t have sufficient time for a full listening tour, talk at least to the students. Many are returning to school with significant learning losses, and in observing and engaging them, you can help teachers pinpoint those losses before they worsen and support them in creating personalized instructional plans to close learning gaps.

Celebrate Wins

As an extension of leading with positivity, celebrate every win. Share student and staff successes, small and large, on social media, in school newsletters, and in PA announcements. If you celebrate someone overcoming a challenge, emphasize the relevant SEL skills (resilience, collaboration, courage) that played a role in their success.

You carry an unusual burden right now. But leading with compassion and positivity can alleviate your stress. Leaders who seek connections with those they lead are not only more effective, they are also more fulfilled.

Work to create a culture of positivity in your school. It is sorely needed.


Sherry St. Clair is president of Reflective Learning LLC and the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth.


This article was previously published in National Association of Elementary School Principal's Principal, September/October 2020. Volume 100, Number 1.


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