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Is Positive Psychology Being Used Appropriately in the Staffroom?

05 Sep 2019

The Positive Thinker versus the Critical Thinker Debate

One of the core skills we all want our children to leave education with is the ability to think critically; we want them to be able to analyse, communicate, problem solve, and be creative and adaptable. We want them ready for the challenges of the adult world. And yet, these are skills we are struggling to model within the profession as many of us have been trying to be more positive under increasing workloads or to take less time asking questions and spend more time acting. 

There has been a recent redefining as to what a perfect member of the staff team seems to be; many are being encouraged to be more positive and less critical, happier and less cynical, optimistic and less pessimistic. 

Positive Psychology is being used to boost wellbeing and it is becoming increasingly less fashionable or ‘productive’ to be seen to be questioning the systems under which we work under the new banner of ‘needing to be more positive’. However, Positive Psychology is not a replacement for traditional approaches; it does not advocate ignoring what is ‘wrong’ and focussing on a positive solution in isolation. This is where its greatest misunderstanding is taking place and where institutions like schools are misunderstanding the benefits of Positive Psychology and how it operates.

Positive Psychology works to complement the traditional deficit models whereby what is ‘wrong’ is identified and the solution grows from this understanding. It also does not aim to provide a blanket response to myriad problems. Individual needs should be considered in tandem with a larger structure of support. 


Positivity Psychology

In my experience as a teacher, I witnessed a largely ineffective co-opting of the mindfulness and Positive Psychology movement to be: ‘Be the ‘yes’ person in your staffroom’. Many members of senior leadership love this ‘yes’ person. Many fellow staff members love the energy that emanates from their colleague who is an upbeat dynamo of optimism. However, take a whole staffroom full of ‘yes’ people and there are some dangers.

Many large organisations use ideas borrowed from Seligman’s theories on Positive Psychology to promote wellness and to create a positive working environment. Schools are no exception, particularly with the ever-growing demand for teacher retention. However, not all institutions are using positive psychology in the way supporters of this movement would approve.

The Positive Psychology Institute argues that the four major aims of Positive Psychology are: ‘rise to life’s challenges, make the most of setback and adversity; engage and relate to other people; find fulfilment in creativity and productivity; look beyond oneself and help others to find lasting meaning, satisfaction, and wisdom’ (Keyes & Haidt, 2004).

Teaching involves many challenges and it is clear that the correct application of Positive Psychology could have a major impact on teacher wellbeing. However, when ‘rising to life’s challenges’ means ‘grit your teeth and move on’ or ‘find fulfilment in…productivity’ means ‘work lunchtimes, break times, mealtimes and push bedtimes later to get your marking and prep done’, it is hard for teachers to apply these aims to their reality. Moreover, that ‘yes’ person who has taken on planning an event or is covering a colleague’s interventions becomes exhausted will find it hard to ‘engage and relate to other people’ and ‘look beyond [themselves] and help others’.

Instead of challenging staff members to be more positive and take part in one-size-fits-all wellness programming in schools, a more nuanced approach is required, addressing individual needs. A neglect or disregard of those things that make teaching challenging will not eliminate these issues. As one writer put so succinctly, ‘People need better working conditions, not yoga’ (Davenport, 2019).


What Should Schools Be Taking from Positive Psychology?

Making the most of setbacks and adversity – adapt and learn from the challenges faced in school rather than persisting with the same (possibly outdated) methods. When identifying areas for training, look at what hasn’t worked. This isn’t being negative; it is addressing the heart of the matter. Instead of pointing the finger, look at how a new model or new approach can work for staff. When a staff member is daring enough to try a new approach, remember that any setbacks are not failures but learning points on a journey to finding the right solution.

Engage and relate to other people – the classroom can feel like a lonely place sometimes and it is key that we are creating opportunities to come together. A non-judgemental and supportive atmosphere is key; we want colleagues to share those vulnerable moments like when their class’ behaviour degenerated or when a lesson fell flat. Connecting over these vulnerable moments will strengthen the relationships within the staff team and their ability to support one another will improve. Staff need to not fear the consequences of admitting their shortfalls.

Fulfilment in creativity and productivity – redefine what it means to be ‘productive’ and encourage a balancing of this with rest and play outside of work. Productivity may actually look like a conversation between two team members in a hallway about a tricky class or productivity may look like a teacher tidying his workspace in order to feel calmer in his classroom. As for creativity, its greatest enemy is comparison; find a way to celebrate the individual talents of those in the staffroom rather than comparing their lesson observations, tidiness or their classrooms or their marking.

Look beyond oneself and help others – in my experience, it is this very drive to help others that brings many of us to the profession. Make time for colleagues to support one another and return to the reasons they came to the profession. Intertwine the wisdom of some of those who have been teaching for years and the knowledge and fresh perspectives that some new teachers provide. Ensure that teachers believe in what they are delivering by involving them in the decisions that impact their children and what they will be doing in the classroom.

A Positive Outlook

A positive outlook does not ignore the challenges that are faced in the classroom and staffroom; a positive outlook involves holding the duality of a profession which has as many challenges as it does rewards. Many of the challenges we face are all the more rewarding when they are overcome. What is needed is a reframing and redefining of what it means to be critical and positive. A critical thinker is uniquely able to identify how to make the workplace a more positive place for all; we might just need to start listening.


Claire Hincks works at Twinkl HQ as a Content Editor. Before joining Twinkl, she worked for over 10 years in schools and in environmental education with children of all ages. She loves her work at Twinkl, making resources and supporting practitioners to help children develop a lifelong love for reading like she has!


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