Affirmation. But from whom?

Affirmation: Definition. a declaration that something is true.

We all appreciate affirmation from others. Confirmation that what we are doing is correct. Reassurance that we are on the right track. It helps our self-confidence, builds our motivation and allows us to take pride in our achievements. In education, it isn’t just pupils who appreciate this affirmation, but teachers and leaders. But whom do we seek reassurance from? And when does it become problematic?

We all hope our young people will value the feedback from a teacher and we hope that the affirmation they receive will buoy them; allowing them to continue to thrive. I recall my primary 1 son telling me excitedly one evening that Mrs McDaid had told him that P1b were the best class in the WHOLE school. Imagine that affirmation for a 6 year old! Positive reinforcement, which if said enough, might just be believed. Fast forward 10 years, and analyse the impact of a teachers’ encouraging words on a 16 year old. Is this affirmation still sought, and if so, is it just as influential?

I would argue that it most definitely can be, but only where a positive relationship has been built up and the conditions for receiving feedback have been well-established. And the converse of this is true. Where the relationship hasn’t been nurtured; where there isn’t trust or respect between learner and teacher, there is very little chance that the affirmation will be sought or indeed land with the intent desired.

Likewise, where affirmation of a particular negative trait of a pupil is shared with them, intentionally or unintentionally, this can have hugely damaging and detrimental impact. Especially if this is reinforced by others. Additionally, there often exists a tension between the affirmation from a teacher and the endorsement from peers. During adolescence this is a hugely challenging conundrum. How as teachers do we ensure learners are more interested in the stamp of approval from their teacher, than pleasing their peers? Creating a school or classroom culture where success, achievement and learning is celebrated and the social norm is to be motivated to learn, seeking affirmation from teachers goes some way to support this.

Teachers often seek affirmation too. From our students. From our colleagues. From our principal teacher. From leadership. From parents. Think back to being a student teacher and receiving affirmation from a mentor after an observed lesson. Positive comments on the lesson can be a real confidence boost. But how worthwhile is it, in helping teachers move forward? The feedback, needs to be directive and honest, and as a result is more likely be a real catalyst for improvement rather than an affirmation of the status quo. As Kim Scott discusses in ‘Radical Candour,’ ruinous empathy may be the positive affirmation we crave, because in the short term it massages our ego. But in order for affirmation to be challenging and productive, we need words which which are honest and true, yet which are caring and compassionate.

And it’s important to recognise that affirmation comes in many different guises. It may not be a professional conversation. Instead it may be the reassurance of positive behaviour or pupil engagement in learning. Exam results may provide some sense of affirmation that pupils have performed as predicted. The ethos within a classroom. Parental comments. Inspection reports. League tables. But like everything, affirmation from outwith comes with a health warning.

‘’Affirmation from others should be a supplement to our self-worth, not the basis for it. When the opinions of others hold too much power in our lives, our worth becomes dependent on how they perceive us. We could end up at the mercy of others’ opinions to maintain a positive self-image. Read more here

So we need to be careful of how we receive affirmation. Important as it is, we can’t let it become the be all and end all. Especially if our sole purpose becomes the affirmation from others. It’s often the case that negative feedback is ill-informed and lacks context. Is it truly affirmation if it is not accurate, and instead a perceived reality of others? We need to examine what is affirming and what is not. What might be accurate and therefore provide something we can learn from, and what needs to be brushed off?

In the age of social media, anyone can pass comment on a school without direct experience. Therefore, it’s important to call out when we recognise ignorance and react in a dignified way, because it can be detrimental to the whole school community. Remember, say it enough and they’ll believe it. Positive or negative.

The people who really know what is best for a school are those who are part of it – pupils, teachers, leaders and parents are those who can truly affirm the school experience. They live and breathe it. So let’s all assume the positive, in the affirmations we give and receive.

Have a great week.

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