When We Are Positive, Do We Mean It?

This is a post that I’ve been thinking about writing for a very long time. Recently, I heard the This Week In Ontario Edublogs VoicEd Radio Show, which led me to Paul McGuire‘s post on feedback. Paul inadvertantly gave me the gentle nudge to figure out how to write the post that maybe I was too sad/worried/mad (you decide) to write before.

Unlike with Paul’s experiences, my focus here is not on digital feedback. And it’s also not about negative feedback. It’s about those positive comments that seem a little less positive, the more that you dig into them.

As many of my blog readers know, I’m a strong advocate for play and a positive voice behind Ontario’s Full-Day Kindergarten Program. I’m also a proud “curriculum nerd,” and as someone who’s taught every grade from Kindergarten to Grade 6 in some capacity, I’ve had many opportunities to read many different documents. So while I speak strongly about the importance of play and what play can look like in a kindergarten classroom, I do so through the lens of our Program Document.

I share all of this because in my past five years of teaching Full-Day Kindergarten, I’ve heard variations of the following statements more times than I can count:

  • “You do things differently.
  • “Some people might like to see that ‘play thing’ you do.”
  • “Our kids are different, and we need to respond to them.”

On the surface, these comments might not seem negative. Thinking about the Norms of Collaboration that I learned in my Teacher Leadership Course last year, maybe I need to presume positive intentions. I will admit that I’m trying to do so. And yet, sometimes I want to reply with these questions:

  • “Is different a bad thing?”
  • “Considering the Kindergarten Program Document’s message, isn’t play something that we should all be doing? What does play look like in your room?”
  • “If we’re choosing a play-based approach, does this mean that we’re not being responsive to kids? What makes your kids different?”

I’m not going to pretend here that I’m perfect and don’t question other approaches just as others question ours. I will admit that most of my questions though stay in my head, but does this make them better? Maybe by giving a voice to the questions, there’s also  an opportunity to start the conversation and find out more.

  • What might be the stumbling block(s) for trying a different approach?
  • Is it the students or is it us that’s holding us back?
  • What could be a possible starting point for change?
  • What can we learn from each other?

Here’s the reality though: words can hurt. Negative words in positive clothing can hurt too. As educators, we’re trained on making judgements. When these judgements are directed at us though, we realize how hard they can be to take. Is there a way to change this educational feedback reality? In 19 years of teaching, my skin hasn’t quite grown thick enough. Maybe it will at some point. Maybe I’ll get better at speaking up. Or maybe I’ll take to my blog and hope for some advice on what to do when even good words might not be that good after all.


10 thoughts on “When We Are Positive, Do We Mean It?

  1. Feedback is a funny thing. We can talk about it comfortably from the outside, but really struggle with it on the inside. Even though it seems straightforward and productive, as humans who care we lead with our hearts. So we feel first. I’ve been thinking about how to shift this reality for many years now and am no closer to an answer. I think your meditative questions are a key to starting this process. When we are brave enough to poke a hole in a barrier to learning, there is a chance to affect change. This makes me think about Katz and “Intentional Interruption”.
    On the flip side, just having people notice what you’re doing and the way that it’s working for kids is a big win. When people acknowledge there is a difference in your classroom, they are taking a baby step toward considering trying something on in their own. Keep the faith. Be you. Be brave. I’d love to spend a day in your classroom. Just to breathe the air.

    • Thanks for your comment, Krista! I think that your point about “leading with our hearts,” might be key here. It’s hard not to feel, and I’m not sure that I would want to. I think that there can be something positive about strong emotions, and it’s often our passion that also pushes us to make positive changes.

      I really appreciate your kind words, and you’re certainly welcome to visit anytime. I love learning from you online, and it would be amazing to connect with you in person. Your second paragraph though makes me think about a comment that a principal once shared with me (now I’m probably going to misquote this, so I do apologize). He was talking about his observations of different classrooms, and how “our practices are often reflective of what we believe.” As passionate as I may be about play-based learning, others may be about different approaches. Maybe there’s a way for these differences to co-exist, but maybe there’s also a value in reflection and change. But it’s having these open conversations about pedagogy that can be challenging, as how do we not take comments on our strong-held beliefs personally? Hmmm …


      • I just finished reading Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. She talked about a lot of the things you touched on in your post. One thing about being able to accept the feedback we get is to have a connection with the person giving it. Just like we need to build a connection with our students, comments from those we don’t know, leave us wondering about the intent. She also talks about whose feedback is important. There is a quote in there but I am bad for remembering quotes, and it talks about getting feedback from the cheap seats versus the ones who are also in the trenches trying everyday. At this time in our careers, we are getting a lot of feedback and criticism from strangers who presume to known us and what we do. It is hard.

        • Thanks for the comment, Laura! It sounds like I really need to read Brown’s book. The connection piece resonated with me, as I see this is my conversations with Paula. We openly and regularly give each other feedback, but we also have the strong relationship to make this so much more possible. Maybe we both know the intent of the feedback, which does make it easier to hear and respond to. I will say that the feedback I’ve received over the years has all been from fellow educators. They are in the trenches. They do get it, I think. But maybe a different approach makes the comments happen more. This was also true when I taught other grades and heard comments by fellow educators questioning my different approaches then too. Could “different” be what inspires the comments the most? I have to wonder. Thanks for adding to this discussion!


  2. Sometimes I wonder about this: I get very emotionally tied to my work. I spend a lot of time organizing, thinking, planning. Then I get excited about how I’m going to make the world a better place (at least for my students) and when another person comes in with feedback that is less than perfectly positive I’m emotionally wounded. I want their enthusiasm to match mine! However, after some time I start to consider what the person said, especially if repeated feedback seems to never match my interpretation of my work. Sometimes it pushes me to further improve my practice. Sometimes it becomes a Self Reg moment and I end up feeling sorry for the person because they can only see things their way, have so much trouble considering change, etc. I try to ask “Why would that person say that to me now?” See the feedback from their point of view. That’s something I think about. 🤓

    I also find that doing things differently than “everyone else” can be a big cognitive stressor and social stressor. I have to consider if what I’m doing that is so different (for me it’s Writer’s Workshop and constructivist math) should be what I’m doing. Then I start to think maybe everyone else thinks I’m the weak link in the education chain. Then it’s an emotional stress again!

    And I cycle through all of that whenever I get feedback like you’ve described. “Oh? Your classroom library isn’t levelled?” Or “Well, I know you do math differently but I think they need…” That kind of feedback used to put an abrupt end to my sleep for days! lol But I’m getting better.

    You’re doing something really special in your class. I wish you and I could spend a few days in each other’s classrooms. I had an “Aviva” kind of instructional day on Thursday. I love them! We were building for science, played with cars for science, lots of relaxed play based learning. I just don’t know how to do that every day AND meet all the instructional requirements. Anyway…I’m heading down a side road here. LOL

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Lisa! As I read the first few paragraphs, I thought, “Boy could I relate to this!” I think we’ve heard many similar comments and had many similar experiences. There is certainly a Self-Reg connection here, and it’s interesting to see the stressors from our point of view as well as others. As much as I don’t want to let all comments bother me, the emotional connection to our work and what we do, makes that hard. I can let go of things eventually, but continue to work on not taking everything so personally. Maybe that’s the hard part in teaching, as so many of our values and so much of our pedagogy, is wrapped up in what we do and how we do it.

      I so wish that we could have some time in each other’s rooms. I feel as though we would learn a lot from each other and see things from some different perspectives. Your “Aviva day” last week made me smile. 🙂 Maybe this is where our blog posts are helpful to see into each other’s spaces and push each other’s learning in different ways. This makes me think that as much as there can be negative feedback out there, or even passive aggressive feedback at times, there can also be wonderful feedback that cause us to wonder and reflect more as I often find through blog post conversations like this one. Thanks Lisa! (Glad you went off on a bit of a tangent. 🙂 )


  3. That’s an interesting premise here and I’m glad that Paul inspired you to write about it. Often, there is a release that blogging has on things like this. Without it, it stays bottled up inside.

    I don’t know how you should treat this passive aggressive approach any differently from the person talking being outwardly negative. You need to consider the message – is it truly negative, do they have problems expressing themselves, are they jealous, are they being critical friends, are they trying to be helpful? There are so many things that come to mind and the interpretation depends upon the situation at the moment. At least outwardly negative messages are easily identified.

    How you resolve it will be up to you. One approach is to challenge the assertations and ask for clarification. Another is to ignore. Another is to consider the whole environment about how the comments were made. Obviously, if it’s your principal or superintendent, there probably is a call to action that requires your effort. If it’s a colleague, things may be different.

    One of the best things that I ever did for myself was learn how to be a peer coach and I was so fortunate to have a person who worked with me and I worked with them. We still do so today. One of the premises is that comments are value judgements but rather questions that help with deeper understanding.

    At the end of it, you need to go home and be satisfied that you’ve been true to yourself and your profession. If you are, then any issues lie elsewhere and it’s someone else’s issue to come to grips with. If you’re not true to yourself, then you might have some work to do.

    Some pretty deep philosophy for a Saturday morning.

    • Thanks for your comment, Doug! Blogging was definitely cathartic, and I’m grateful that Paul (and your recognition of Paul’s post) gave me the nudge to do so.

      You bring up some interesting questions here. I think that every comment that people make cause me to stop and think. I do stand behind our program and how we support learning, but I also know that there is always room for improvement. Your comment about “peer coaching” has me thinking about my connection with Paula. As much as we agree on, we also have great, deep conversations because of our ability to push each other. We’re able to ask questions, share theories, and explore changes because of this critical friend connection. I don’t know if this is exactly peer coaching, but it is valuable. What I didn’t say in this post, but I will say in response to you is that Paula and I actually discussed this post on the picket line yesterday. We had a lot of back and forth about what to say, what we’ve experienced, and what different messages might be implying. I’m glad that we could work this out together before I blogged. Since working with Paula, there are a huge number of blog posts that we talk about before I write them. I’ve never had this connection before, and I’m glad that I do now.

      I think that at the end of each day, I do try to be “true to myself and my profession,” but comments still hurt. Am I too sensitive? Probably yes. Am I reading more into these comments than I should? Maybe so. But maybe both of these things are also what cause me to reflect more, and for that, I’m grateful. Thanks for pushing my thinking more on this Saturday morning.


  4. The comments have been as thought provoking as your post, Aviva. We’ve probably all received some negative positives/back-handed comments. I’m with Doug, being true to yourself and your own beliefs is my way of handling this, and Brene Brown helps too. As a Spec Ed teacher, different isn’t just good, it’s everything. It shows growth, willingness to take risks, to be open to opportunities… Perhaps someone who tells me I do things differently means it as a positive negative, but I take that comment as a total positive.

    • Thanks Ramona! I love the comments here and the thinking that they’ve inspired. Your comment about Spec Ed has me thinking, as my background is in special education. I started teaching with this background, and have always been looking for those different ways to ensure that every child meets with success. I wonder if it’s the “different” that I embrace — as do you — that can sometimes cause discomfort in others. I’m proud of our differences, but sometimes, I wish that I didn’t always overthink them with every comment that I hear.


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