Promoting Positivity, Choice, And Reflection

These three simple practices can make school a place where teachers and students want to be.

By Marvin Marshall

Originally published in Leadership Magazine by the Association of California School Administrators – Vol. 34, No.5, pp. 28-30

How to Champion A Positive Learning Climate

No student comes to school with the deliberate intention of failing or getting into trouble. Similarly, no adult enters the teaching profession with the intention of not being successful or not enjoying it. Yet, the profession loses fifty percent of its new teachers within five years and a rapidly growing number of students are demonstrating irresponsible behavior.

This article describes three simple practices that foster positive school climates—where both teachers and students want to be.

Let’s begin with a recent communication from teacher William Funkhouser, 2003-2004 Humboldt County Teacher of the Year:

“It is almost painful to reflect on who I used to be. I was so caught up in getting students to obey that I lost sight of the humanity of this profession. I was overpowering them rather than being flexible, understanding and compassionate.

“Here is an example: I have a student who doesn’t do his homework and who struggles in the class. Last year he would have had several detentions from me and a failing grade. I would have forced him to come in to do his homework and we would have been in a power struggle. This year I purchased several school supplies for him and have always had a kind word for him. I recently found out he is actually homeless and that he and his dad are living in a cheap motel.

“Recently, he has started spending his break time in my class, by his own choosing, doing his math homework. He also drew me some pictures on binder paper that he wanted me to have. It breaks my heart to think of all the opportunities I have missed for this type of relationship with students.”

 Three practices were instrumental in keeping this dedicated teacher in the profession. However, any administrator, teacher, supervisor, spouse or parent can implement the practices. Those who do can significantly increase their effectiveness, improve their relationships, promote responsibility and create positive and pleasant environments. The practices are positivity, choice, and reflection.


Cognition prompts emotion. Someone compliments us and we feel good; someone criticizes us and we feel bad. First comes the cognition; the emotion follows. The importance of understanding how positive emotions are critical to learning is reinforced every time I ask attendees in my seminars what the conversation might sound like after a child comes home from the first day at school. The child inevitably is asked, “Do you like your teacher?”

We intuitively know that if the student has negative feelings about the teacher, the education will never be optimal. This is particularly pertinent to minority groups in poverty where relationships are of paramount importance. Consider that even the slowest salesperson knows enough not to make the customer angry.

Yet, schools strive for obedience rather than promoting responsibility. We rely on rules, and when not obeyed, the person in authority dons a blue suit with copper buttons to enforce them. Unwittingly, teachers set themselves up as cops—rather than as encouragers, empowerers, coaches, facilitators, mentors, and role models. Simply stated: obedience does not create desire.

A good habit

One principal—Mary Lou Cebula, from Warren, New Jersey—related to me how she decided to start by waking up each morning and telling herself to think and act in positive ways.

Each morning, she greeted her staff and students with a smile, wished them a happy day, and tried to think of ways to state comments to students in a positive manner. She practiced saying things like, “We walk from the bus to the classroom” instead of “No running!” In the lunchroom, she called clean-up time, “Quiet clean-up” instead of “No talking!”

She said, “As the idea of positivity began to become a habit with me, I started to notice how good it felt. People responded to me in the same way I interacted with them. I also noticed when other staff made statements in negative terms. It began to bother me. I hadn’t noticed before how often educators speak to students and others in negative terms. I decided to have conversations with my staff about their styles of interacting with children.”

Offering Choices

The principal continued with the second practice, the empowerment of choice. “In the meantime, I began to experiment with giving choices to students. This was an easier change for me because I had used this strategy to some degree in the past. I have always felt that children should be active participants in solving problems and resolving conflicts. When speaking to students about their behavior at recess, in the lunchroom, or on the bus, I would try to elicit from them what choices they had and how they could make better choices. If a consequence were needed, we would talk together about some of the choices.

“I would usually start with, ‘What do you think we should do about the situation?’ When I was satisfied with the student’s choice, I would say, ‘I can live with that.’ The process worked every time and I would wonder at its simplicity.”


It is a simple fact of life that no one changes another person. People change themselves. Although we can control others by imposing some activity or consequence, we cannot change how another person wants to think, wants to behave, or will behave after our presence is no longer felt.

Our usual approach to changing others is through obedience and coercion; yet, these are the least effective approaches. The most effective approaches are by establishing expectations and by using noncoercive approaches.

Here is how Cebula concluded her communication with me: “Finally, I began the hardest part of the three principles to practice: reflective questions. This is especially challenging for educators because we feel we are not doing our job unless we are constantly teaching or telling children what they should do, when, how and why.

“Actually, we are doing children a great injustice when we do this. Who is doing all the thinking and reflecting? Certainly not the children! When reflective questions are asked, the student is prompted to think and respond.

“The end result is so effective that I will never go back to being who I was before. Was it easy? No. Was it worth the effort? Yes! The new me is a happier, more positive person and administrator. Living the three principles made all the difference in my personal life, my professional life, and most importantly, the lives of the staff and students.”

Three Steps to a more positive school climate

Step 1: Practice positive self-talk: For the next two days, mentally note every time you think something negative and turn it around so that your self-talk is positive. For example, change, “I have to submit that report today” to “I get to do the report today.” Restate, “I need to meet with Mr. Brown again” to “I get to share a new idea with Mr. Brown.” After you feel fairly comfortable in making your self-talk positive on a consistent basis, start becoming aware of your communications with others. Every time you are about to say anything that will be interpreted in a negative way, phrase it in a positive way. You will recognize negative communications if it blames, complains, criticizes, nags, or threatens.

Step 2: Share the technique with staff: After sharing your experiences with you a few staff members, ask them to do the same for two days—first with their self-talk, then in their communications with others. The practice requires conscious focus but is easy to implement. For example, rather than a teacher’s telling a student, “No running in the hallway,” instead say, “We walk in the hallway.” If a student is talking during study time, saying, “This is quiet time,” is much more conducive to learning than exclaiming, “Stop talking!”

Step 3 Share with students: Ask staff members—especially those working directly with students—to share their experiences with students. Have them encourage students to self-talk only in positive terms for two day. After two days, have students communicate with others only in positive terms for two days. The key phrase for students to remember is, “Only positives are spoken here.”

Exercises for students

We think about what we lack more often than we think about what we have. The following exercise combines positivity, choice, and reflection. Hal Urban has conducted this exercise with his classes for 20 years with amazing results.

  • Have your teachers instruct their students to conduct themselves for the next 24 hours without complaining.
  • Tell them not to stop the experiment even if they do complain. Just have them see how few complaints they can make in one day.
  • Give each student a 3 x 5 card. This makes it convenient to note each time a complaint comes forth and each time they catch themselves about to complain.

The next day, ask: What was the purpose of the assignment? What did you learn from doing it?

Students will have discovered the frequency and smallness of their complaints. Then, have students label a paper, “I am thankful for,” and make three columns:

1) Things (They list all the material things they are glad they have.)
2) People (They list all the people they appreciate.)
3) Other (What will emerge will be freedom, opportunity, friendship, love, intelligence, abilities, health, talents, peace, faith, security, learning, experiences, beauty, kindness, and the list continues.)

Instruct students to review the list four times within the next 24 hours: in the afternoon, after dinner, before going to sleep, and before school the next morning.

When attention is given to the positive, when the option of choice is recognized and when reflection is used, life is conducted more successfully and with greater pleasure. These three principles are the keys to establishing and maintaining positive school climates—with one stipulation: They must be practiced.