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  • Sherry St. Clair

Leading with Positivity: How Coaches can Improve Moods to Enhance Learning

Updated: Aug 5


Just recently, I came across a striking statistic. According to research from Arianna Huffington and Michelle Gielan—author and positive psychology researcher—three minutes of negative news in the morning can lead to a 27 percent higher chance of having a bad day.


Not only was I struck by how rapidly an entire day’s outlook can tilt towards the “bad.” I also wondered how that percentage might change when we are surrounded by negative news. In 2020, escaping frightening information is nearly impossible. We are all feeling its toll on our social and emotional well-being.


Given how easily and swiftly mere minutes of news can contribute to a negative day, it is my belief that coaches have a responsibility—and a unique ability—to counterbalance the negative each time we hold a coaching session with a teacher or lead a professional learning session. We have a responsibility because abundant research shows that negative feelings and anxiety can impede cognition, memory, and learning.


Coaches are leaders first. The most effective coaches—that is, those capable of eliciting the greatest growth gains from teachers and their students—recognize and embrace their primary role: leading educators on the vulnerable path of change and improvement. The operative word there is “leading.” Doing this work requires that we earn teachers’ trust so that when we point out learning opportunities, they are willing to hear us and follow our lead towards growth. Where the mechanics of effective instruction is the work of coaches, earning and leveraging trust is the work of leaders. We must lead before we can coach.


Of all the schools of leadership thought, the one I teach to coaches—and the one I work to embody—is positive leadership. Positive leadership seeks to do three things:

  • Intentionally experience, model, and enhance positive emotions.

  • A simultaneous and aligned pursuit of employee development and organizational goals.

  • Promote high self-awareness, optimism, and personal integrity.


Alan Mullaly, former CEO of Boeing and Ford, is famous for his positive leadership. Multiple times in his career, he was tasked with turning around failing companies into successes. He credits his leadership success to positivity.


Mullaly understood that positivity is galvanizing, and negativity is alienating. He also knew a company could not turn around if its team was fractured by the negative. He leveraged positivity and existing strengths to unite teams and motivate them towards meeting goals, however small initially.


The same practices apply to individuals and coaching. At this moment, where we find ourselves surrounded by negative news, the value and opportunity of positive leadership cannot be understated. Five steps follow that you can take to embody positive leadership and help turn more educators’ days from bad to good.


1. Approach each session with compassion: First and foremost, enter into every coaching session from a place of empathy and kindness—especially now. fMRI brain research shows that when employees work with unkind or un-empathetic leaders, there’s more activity in the parts of the brain associated with avoidance and negative emotion. When leaders are compassionate, activity in this part of the brain reduces. Visit my blog post on leading with compassion for practical tools to this end.


2. Set a positive tone: Before diving into the nuts and bolts of the coaching session, identify and praise something positive—an achievement, progress towards a goal, etc.—you have seen the educator do recently. This sets the tone of your time together. Emotions are contagious. Those who receive positive emotions from others perceive themselves and the other person as more cooperative and competent. Positivity directly impacts the productivity and outcomes of your coaching sessions.


3. Start from strength: Starting from a positive entry point is a core tenet of positive leadership. Alan Mullaly understood that if you try to start growth from weakness, it will almost always end in blame, scapegoating, or impasse. He cared less about the ambition of early goals and more about identifying a strength from which the team could start work towards a goal and achieve an easy win. Starting from strength means starting with momentum at one’s back. As you and a teacher build on this strengths-momentum, soon you will find you can transition towards tackling larger goals and addressing a teacher’s weaker spots—even still from a place of strength. With each educator, identify something they are doing well and effectively today. Then link it to how they can start working towards a goal. For example, if the goal is to increase student engagement and the teacher is implementing cognitive engagement strategies successfully, then connect this strength to the work of practicing emotional engagement strategies.


4. Celebrate strengths as a team: In Coaching Redefined, I explain that an ultimate goal of instructional coaching is to create a culture of learning such that the school becomes a learning organization. The idea is to put in multiple learning systems that teacher leaders can, in time, manage and grow on their own. In a learning organization, strengths are naturally and frequently celebrated. If you haven’t yet established a learning organization, you can still develop a practice of celebrating strengths with the team—perhaps through a weekly email or a Zoom to share something positive each teacher achieved that week. I like to use a tool I called “The Awesome Applause Award” at the end of a professional learning session. I will ask participants to reflect on a person in the group who has helped push their thinking forward. They will fill out the form and then share it with the person they wrote about. Such practices in and of themselves will begin shifting your school towards a culture of learning, in that it will reinforce learning as a priority and a source of pride for all.


5. Remind your teachers to lead with positivity, too: Where negativity and depression can impair cognition, positivity can do the opposite. fMRI research out of Stanford found that when students with a positive attitude completed school work, the parts of their brains associated with learning and memory showed more activity. Leading with positivity is an inroads into promoting students’ social-emotional well-being, which we know is not only invaluable to students’ learning and development, but it is also sorely needed in this stressful time. Remind your teachers that they, too, can follow these steps to help turn more of their students’ days from bad to good, especially as we continue our collective efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus.


Lead with positivity. It will yield the highest results in your coaching and make you feel better too.


Thank you, coaches, for your important work and dedication to educators and students, especially in this challenging time.


How can I help you?

Please connect with me so we can learn about instructional coaching together.  


Website: Reflective Learning, LLC

Twitter: @Sherrystclair

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