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Author: Ryan Sharp, PhD, and Kenneth L. Alford, PhD

teaching to your strengths
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hink of the last time you had a masterfully planned class session fall completely flat. If you have been teaching for more than a week, you’ve been there. How did you react? Did you blame the students, the time of day the class meets, or come up with some other reason that absolved you of any responsibility? Did you vow to never try it again? Okay, now what should you do after a lesson falls flat? While weeding his rose garden. Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of positive psychology, realized that his five-year-old daughter Nikki was skipping around and scattering weeds all over his yard. With some impatience, he yelled at her, and she dejectedly walked away. But that didn’t last long. Shortly thereafter she stormed up to him and demanded, “Daddy, I want to talk to you!” She reminded him that she used to be a whiner. However, “when I turned five,” she declared, “I decided I wasn’t going to whine anymore. And that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And Daddy, if I can stop whining, you can stop being so grumpy.” (Lopez and Snyder, 2001) Seligman’s experience became the genesis for the positive psychology movement after he realized that his role as a father was not to focus on weaknesses but to foster strengths. (Nikki, after all, had corrected her behavior on her own volition.) Likewise, we can successfully identify, develop, and play to our strengths. Approaching individual professional development from a strengths-based perspective helps to ensure that teachers maximize their unique capacities to provide students with meaningful learning experiences. Additionally, this approach may improve a teacher’s job satisfaction and sense of fulfillment. Let’s briefly explore how it works. Identify your strengths As teachers develop, they often recognize areas in their performance that merit improving.  Standard practice suggests that we should begin by cataloging our weaknesses. If there are glaring issues in the classroom, we are correct in thinking that they need immediate attention. But some teachers spend too much time focusing on flaws, real or perceived. Alternatively, positive psychology argues that teachers are better served if they spend an equal amount of time focusing on developing their strengths. Does this mean that you should never addresses your weaknesses? Certainly not. Just don’t focus exclusively on them. Avoid the comparison trap Much has been written regarding the value of classroom observation in professional development. Watching other teachers teach can provide valuable insights into the structure and organization of content, student engagement, and practical classroom management techniques. Such opportunities can offer fresh perspectives on the overall classroom experience as you seek to analyze not just what went well but also why. Classroom observation can be a double-edged sword, though. Some teachers fall prey to a comparison trap. They observe their colleagues effectively employing teaching skills and techniques, which they try to implement in their own classroom—only to have them fail. After observing a master teacher in action, it’s natural to want to replicate what he or she did so well. While observing, identifying, and implementing successful pedagogical practices can be beneficial, failure to adapt them to how you teach and who you are can be counterproductive. Look inward first. Start with a clear understanding of your teaching strengths, then borrow from others and adapt what they do. Use your strengths to thrive Organizational behavior scholars have spent decades trying to understand job satisfaction and work engagement. Gretchen Spreitzer, from the University of Michigan, has observed that in order to thrive, an optimal professional experience must involve both a sense of energy and a commitment to learning (Poreth et al. 2012). New teachers often demonstrate great energy initially, but over time it diminishes without frequent opportunities for additional learning and growth. A strengths-based approach to professional development encourages teachers to tap into both elements of thriving—energy and learning. Spending time thoughtfully examining your strengths can lead to a journey of self-discovery and application in the classroom. We are heavily vested in our teaching. That makes it challenging to assess personal strengths.  All of us have blind spots. Our vision can become clearer when we involve others who know us well. One proven way to gain needed clarity is through what Spreitzer and her colleagues refer to as the “Reflected Best Self Exercise.” (Roberts et al. 2005).  Here’s how it works:
  1. Identify respondents and ask for feedback: Contact 10-20 people (from your personal and professional life) who know you well. Ask them to write 1-2 paragraphs about a time when they felt you were performing at your best.
  2. Recognize patterns: Make a list of the common themes that appear in their responses and look for potential implications.
  3. Create a self-portrait: Using those themes, distill a profile of who you are and what you do when you’re at your best.
After you have created your portrait, consider how you might improve. Here are some suggestions: The next time a classroom activity falls flat, remember that teaching is both an art and a science. It is the “art of teaching” that provides opportunities for you to maximize your impact on students by identifying and playing to your strengths. References Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (2011). Oxford handbook of positive psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Porath, C., Spreitzer, G.M., Gibson, C., & Stevens, F. (2012). Thriving at work: Toward its measurement, construct validation, and theoretical refinement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(2), 250-271. Roberts, L.M., Spreitzer, G., Dutton, J.E., Quinn, R.E., Heaphy, E., Barker, B., (2005). How to play to your strengths. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Business Source Premier database. Ryan Sharp is a visiting assistant professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. Kenneth L. Alford is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.