Positive Psychology and Minding the Person in the Profession

29 Apr 2020
ICEPE Europe
Category:Wellbeing and Resilience
Positive Psychology and Minding the Person in the Profession

We spoke in a previous blog about how mindful teaching involves observing, reflecting, drawing on signature strengths and being authentic.  Authenticity involves being congruent (doing what you say you’ll do), full disclosure (being open about agendas and expectations), responsiveness (adapting to the needs of students) and personhood (being human). 

However, it is a delicate balancing act for teachers to give enough of themselves but not divulge too much that they are left feeling too vulnerable.  Teachers need a great deal of focus and concentration as well as an ability to bounce back from the daily hustle and bustle of teaching in order to manage their stress. 

What's going right

Positive psychology suggests that when looking at the causes of stress – we have been asking the wrong questions.  What we should be asking is how can teachers maintain their effectiveness & reduce their stress?  What is it that makes some teachers more resilient?  What are the positive traits that buffer some teachers from adversity and make them more effective?  This involves looking at what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong.

Various studies have shown several different factors that are present in teachers that cope well:

  • Grit – passion & perseverance for long term goals, often in challenging circumstances
  • Life satisfaction – happy people experience frequent positive moods which enable them to work towards goals.  They are in possession of past skills and resources or positive emotions that they have banked over time.  This translates into energy, positive attitude and ability to shift the entire mood of the classroom
  • Optimistic explanatory style – this is one which is external, local and specific.  When an optimistic teacher encounters a difficulty, they see it as something outside of themselves, as a transient aspect of the day, and it has a limited impact on them
  • Agency – the ability to reflect on negative or stressful incidents, not feel guilty if they felt they had acted appropriately, acknowledge those events where they could have acted better but depersonalise them and move on
  • Strong support group – these teachers have strong support from partners, leadership and colleagues, regular debriefings and good systems in place for dealing with misbehaviour.  Allowing time for discussion of what is working is also a valuable activity for staff
  • Competence and sense of achievement – these are interlinked.  If you are competent you can forge relationships and order in your classroom, so the work gets done and the students achieve.  Mentoring was also seen as a useful tool for increasing resilience and reducing stress as this gives teachers the opportunity to see themselves reflected in someone else’s eyes.


Unfortunately, some teachers feel that they need to cope with all aspects of their students on their own and not ask for support.  This can be incredibly stressful and lead to burnout.  There is a group of techniques that can be helpful for teachers as well as students, i.e., cognitive techniques.  Cognitive techniques are concerned with changing how you think, catching thoughts, rehearsing new thoughts helps re-write the internal script.  There are several different interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Rational Emotion Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. 


In order to change how you think, and reduce your stress levels, you first need to identify your thoughts.  Stopping in the moment or mindfulness is a good step.  Mindfulness involves a heightened sense of situational awareness and conscious control over one’s thoughts and behaviours relative to that situation.  This can be difficult to do with twenty-eight students!  Siegel suggests a wheel of awareness, with its rim (our attention), its spokes (feedback to the brain) and its hub (the processing of information in the brain). 

If we engage in mindfulness, we stop for a second and take an inner account of what is happening, we focus on what it is we are giving our attention to.  Ask yourself, why I am choosing to focus on this?  Can I focus on something that will help me stay calm in this situation?  Can I stay in the negative emotion and just sit with it?  If you focus on some small starting point and stay in the moment it will get you on your way to your final goal.  This can help bring you to a calm place, to stay in the present, and not think about the future or the past. 

Mindfulness avoids bias, allows us to teach with hope and optimism, with emotional objectivity – in the present we are liberated from bias, from preconceptions and from prejudices.  One technique we can use to improve our mindful awareness is associate with a natural prompt in the school environment such as a school bell or students taking out their books.  You could incorporate mindfulness into the class where you ask students to sit for two minutes and allow thoughts to drift past in silence.  Ask them to think about something they are grateful or something that made them happy that day.

Feelings are just feelings and thoughts are not facts.  We choose what we focus on and we choose what we think.  We can choose to focus on other aspects of an experience, and we can choose to think differently.   We can catch our thoughts before they cascade.  Do a quick body scan.  Where am I feeling stress?  What is my body telling me?  What aspect of awareness am I focusing on?  What one helpful thought can I use to calm myself down?

To begin disputing negative thoughts, ask yourself the following:

  • Am I confusing a fact with a thought?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Am I concentrating on my weakness and forgetting my strengths?
  • Am I condemning myself totally because of one thing?
  • Perhaps I am blaming myself for something that’s not my fault?
  • Am I predicting the future?


Next check:

  • Have I got all the information?
  • Am I magnifying the situation?
  • Am I minimising good aspects or benefits of the situation?


Nurturing yourself:

Have you identified the “up activities” that nourish you and the “down activities” that drain you?  Think of your self-care activities, what support you have and what beliefs might be holding you back from looking after yourself.  Common beliefs include: I’m not worth it, as a mother I’ve to put my children first, if I don’t keep up I will fall behind etc.

Do you have a mood booster list of activities that you can draw on?  This could include laughing out loud, acknowledging small gains and achievements, identifying sources of support, increasing pleasurable activities, taking a moment for mindfulness etc.

Barbara Fredrickson listed items for a positivity toolkit including:

  1. Be open – this allows for flexible thinking and learning
  2. Create high quality connections – both personal relationships at home and a strong network of support in school
  3. Cultivate kindness – give a little to get a little - the students who are the most needy and troublesome are often the ones in need of the most kindness
  4. Develop distractions – get your mind off your troubles and have a set of activities that you can do to stop ruminating
  5. Dispute negative thinking and do not allow a negative spiral to take hold
  6. Learn to apply your strengths, both in and out of teaching, to increase your satisfaction
  7. Meditate mindfully – take control over what you focus on in your wheel of awareness
  8. Ritualise gratitude – being grateful once a week can have a positive impact on our resilience
  9. Savour positivity and surround yourself with positive people
  10. Visualise your future – picture what it will look like and take the first step towards that goal.


And finally remind yourself every school day –

teaching is the greatest source of Optimism (Colleen, Wilcox, US Educator).



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