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  • Writer's pictureSherry St. Clair

Inspiring Growth Through Powerful, Human Stories

How positive instructional leaders lean on past successes to motivate future successes

When I was in fifth grade, a high school guidance counselor visited our class to discuss college. I’d been looking forward to his visit because college had already become a dream of mine. Unfortunately, it did not shape up the experience I hoped it would be. Because at one point, the counselor said to me, “How are you going to be able to afford college?”

As an adult, I wonder if he might have been nudging me to begin thinking about different options to pay college. But given that the value of money and cost of college were, at that time, beyond my grasp, that is not how I heard it. With high school degrees, my parents worked tirelessly to provide as much as they could for my siblings and me. When that counselor asked me that question, I took it to mean college was out of financial reach for my family. With one confusing comment, my college dreams were dashed, and I was crushed.

I went all the way through junior year of high school assuming my education would end with high school. Until a fortuitous meeting with a different high school guidance counselor, who saw my potential and was determined not to let me squander it. At the start of my senior year, he mentioned he needed help organizing the guidance office and asked if I’d spend a few hours there each week doing so.

Every week, I organized the college brochures. As I did, the counselor would ask me questions about the colleges literally in hand. I’d scan pamphlets and share information about different schools. And he’d say things like, “Do you think that’s a college you’d be interested in attending?” Or, “I think you could get into that college. What would you study if you did?” Or, “Have you considered a loan for college or working at the school to help cover tuition?

Just in time, this man resuscitated my college aspirations—and introduced me to various paths to afford school. He single handedly redirected the course of my life.

As a coach to instructional leaders and coaches, I’ve had the honor of speaking and coaching all across the world. I have only shared this story once—even though it is among the most important stories of my schooling. Decades later, it is still an emotional story for me. It reminds me how close I came to not achieving a dream I held dear because for so many years I had believed it was unattainable.

Where one educator inadvertently caused me to close a door, another helped me see my future is whatever I believe I can achieve and work hard to do so. This story fills me with gratitude and also reminds me how lucky I got. It’s painful to think some kids may not get as lucky, but instead move through school believing they are incapable of realizing their dreams and ambitions, whatever they may be—because they think they aren’t smart enough. Or they have been led to believe it’s not possible for them because of where they’re from. Or it’s too competitive, so why bother.

My story, which I revisit every day to remind myself why I do the work I do, is one of millions like it out there. For every distressing story of an educator letting down a student, there are countless more of educators lifting up students and setting them upon better, optimistic paths.

These are the human stories we must tell if we are to encourage our educators to grow and change in the name of students.

Positive Change Can Only Come From Positive Leaders

When we coach teachers, the goal is not to give them new knowledge, tools, or even skills; these things are an effect of our work, but they are not the purpose. Our goal is the same goal we have for students—to unleash educators’ unlimited growth potential and guide them to be lifelong learners who can, in time, direct their own learning.

Many schools tap me to help them achieve this goal. Their leaders are confused and frustrated as to why their coaching has yielded only small teacher or school growth gains. Most of the time, stymied growth is due to two things: 1) Instructional leaders are focusing only on coaching teachers and not simultaneously on growing the school system to support teacher growth. And 2) The school is focused on solving problems rather than looking for what’s working and launching change efforts from strengths.

I call instructional leaders who simultaneously lead growth on both the teacher and school levels, as a means of unlocking growth potential, coaches redefined. Central to this idea is that instructional leaders understand that they are, in fact, leaders. They might function as coaches, but they must engage with educators from the mindset of leaders. This vital mental shift positions coaches to grasp that ultimate goal of their work—to lead educators on the path of lifelong learning. It also positions them to grasp their power and obligation to inspire and motivate those they coach.

When I work with instructional leaders, we discuss the responsibility and significance of learning leadership philosophy in addition to staying informed of the latest instructional strategies and tools. To do this, I turn to the world of business, from where most leadership research and lessons come.

Much has been studied in the business world about the power of positive leadership. Positive leaders seek out what’s working and start conversations about what can evolve from there to realize even more success. Positive leaders know not to focus on problems. Where positive leadership implies that educators’ efforts to date have been effective in certain ways and that new initiatives are meant to capitalize on this success, problem-focused leadership implies that educators have failed and their efforts have been a waste. Positive leadership allows growth to start from optimism and confidence; problem-based leadership does the opposite.

Research validates the impacts of negativity vs. positivity on learning. Negative news and pessimistic feelings can impair one’s ability to think clearly, learn, and retain information. By contrast, receiving positivity from another person can cause the receiver to believe that they and the person conveying positivity are more competent and cooperative; positivity can then allow for greater productivity.

Given my deep belief in the power of positive leadership, I was thrilled to discover David Cooperrider, an organizational behavior professor who has written extensively about how to apply positive psychology to leading and motivating employees. Cooperrider is most known for creating Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which he defines as:

Appreciative inquiry focuses on an organization’s capacity for positive change through inquiry into its positive change core—the body of stories, knowledge, and wisdom, often undiscussed, that best describes the organization’s life-giving forces and the organization when it has been and is at its best…It changes the internal dialogue of the organization from problem-oriented, deficit discourse to possibility-oriented, appreciative discourse.

Positive Leaders Tell Positive Stories

Cooperrider reminds us of an important point: when organizations launch growth and change initiatives, their success rests on employee enthusiasm. When organizations frame the need for change with past mistakes or failings, enthusiasm evaporates. AI is designed to offer an alternative path that is rooted in the positive and creates new successes from past successes.

Storytelling is a fundamental feature of AI. While data is essential to revealing trends and opportunities, data does not inspire. Stories do. Cooperrider says leaders should unearth positive stories to serve as the impetus for change. Positive stories give meaning to our work and remind us why we do what we do.

When consistently told throughout the year, positive stories also offer proof that growth efforts are working, which is a pathway to Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE). John Hattie identified CTE, with its 1.57 effect size, as the number one most impactful influence on student achievement. Hattie explains that CTE is often misunderstood as simply a shared teacher belief in their capacity to boost student achievement. This is half the story. The other half is merging this belief again and again with evidence of its truth.

Storytelling is a powerful way to convey this evidence. While data must play a role in sustaining CTE, it is not enough and fails to connect on an emotional level. Positive leaders never stop telling positive stories. As your teams implement growth initiatives, track positive stories as they unfold. The point is not to gloss over areas in need of improvement but always to balance them with the positive to keep educators engaged, motivated, and hopeful. Share positive stories through multiple channels to achieve that crucial component of CTE—presenting evidence those efforts are working.

Unearthing Positive Stories & Starting Change Initiatives From There

The “inquiry” in AI refers to the process of seeking out an organization’s affirming stories. It is looking for what’s working so change can start from strength and positive momentum. When completing AI, Cooperrider suggests balancing inquiry into three areas. For each, I’ll include questions to ask your teams, as well as ideas to unearth positive stories related to each area:

  1. Novelty: possible innovative actions an organization can take.


· If yours could be the greatest school in the country, what would it look like? What would it prioritize, and what would it shed?

· What’s the best lesson you’ve ever observed and why?

· Which lessons both make you excited and a little scared and why?

Ideas to unearth positive stories:

When I was an administrator, we applied for a grant to visit some of the country’s highest-performing schools. As we observed them, we discovered novel ideas we could replicate. Notably, we also learned we already had many of the same practices in place, which was a confidence boost and also allowed us to approach novel ideas from a place of strength. With today’s technologies, such school visits can be completed virtually. It’s as simple as intentionally reaching out to leaders at schools you admire and want to learn from.

2. Continuity: any processes or practices an organization wishes to maintain as it reaches for continued growth.


· Why do we work so hard for students? What is it we hope for their futures?

· What are our most important organizational values?

· What must be in place to create/maintain a positive culture of learning and growth?

Ideas to unearth positive stories:

I assure you that, among your staff, there are hundreds of stories similar to the one I shared at the beginning of this article. Seek them from your team and, with their permission, share them with all stakeholder groups (staff, students, family, community) as needed to inspire dedication and commitment to ongoing growth.

3. Transition: practices or processes that will benefit from change.


· Where are staff members saying they want more support or resources?

· Are we holding all students and staff to high expectations and providing the support to that end?

· Do students know why they are in school and why they are learning what they are learning?

Ideas to unearth positive stories:

Key to successful change initiatives is starting from a place of strength. Identify things your staff has done well; from there pull a kernel, no matter how small, of that success that relates to what needs to change. Doing so allows you to launch change initiatives with positive momentum and evidence that staff can repeat past success.

Cooperrider says, “The case for change comes through the discovery, dream, and design of positive possibilities that are so inspiring that they energize and provoke action in their direction.” The stories that AI can unearth are powerful currency when looking to motivate people to dig deep, do hard work, and be better for themselves and students. They can help a learning organization stay grounded in their core values while pursuing meaningful growth transitions.

When positive stories are routinely shared and celebrated, positivity becomes bedrock to your culture. It changes mindsets, language, and self-perception. Over time, collective teacher efficacy will influence students' own self-efficacy. Your positivity will rub off on them. And more and more of them will achieve what we hope and dream they can achieve: belief in their unlimited potential and the capacity to achieve their dreams.

Sherry St. Clair is the founder of Reflective Learning LLC, and works with schools across the country, creating specialized instructional leadership and coaching services for school administrators and educators. She is the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth.

Connect with Sherry:

Facebook: Sherry St Clair

Instagram: Sherryst.clair

This article was previously published on the Instructional Coaching Group's Radical Learners blog.


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