Positivity: Cutting Through the Negative and Discovering Our Collective Efficacy

By Emily Strickland

Negativity is not a stranger to anyone. I can say that with certainty. Some might be more accustomed to positivity than others, but most of us are painfully familiar with the “oh no” statements – and these favorites: “I can’t believe it” “If they could just …” “What a shame…” “What is wrong with the world?”

I hear these comments often, especially these days. And yes, by and large I agree. What is wrong with the world? Everyone is angry over something and who is to say it’s not warranted? Whether it’s politics or the impossible boss you just can’t seem to get through to (not me anymore, luckily, but believe me, I’ve been there).

Negativity seems to be the first thing on everyone’s mind when they wake up and the first thing out of everyone’s mouth when trying to connect. There’s no faster way to strike up a conversation with someone than beginning with a “can you believe…?”

Negative work spaces are hard to overcome too. I was almost swallowed whole by one. The negativity wasn’t just from the top either. It seemed all anyone else could talk about or focus on was how negative the leadership was, and that focus became an infectious disease. Sometimes there is nothing else to do in a situation like that but remove yourself from it. In a place where positivity is not welcome, productivity will suffer.

And then there’s the negative talk about schools

I’ve also noticed that while answering questions about my new position as ABPC’s Program Coordinator to friends and family and strangers, upon hearing “improving education in Alabama” I am greeted 9 times out of 10 with a sigh and a head shake followed by a negative statement like “Well it needs all the help it can get.”

While I don’t disagree that it needs help – that’s why we’re here – I’ve also grown tired of this response. A response I have probably been guilty of giving somewhere along the way. I’ve learned to just smile and tell people that there are plenty of positive things going on in Alabama schools that they just don’t hear about – especially in schools where faculties have achieved collective efficacy.

Believing we can do it together

In the few months since I joined the ABPC staff, I’ve learned lots of new terms (and acronyms – lots of acronyms). I think one of the most eye opening so far is “collective efficacy.” The very first Key Leaders Network meeting I attended, I began to learn more about this phrase and what it really means in schools (and how it might be applied to outside life).

In her book, Collective Efficacy, Jenni Donohoo explains that “Collective teacher efficacy refers to the judgments by teachers in a school that the faculty as a whole can organize and execute the courses of action required to have a positive effect on students.” It sounds trite to liken this to a “can do attitude” but thinking about the potential impact when everyone starts believing they can achieve the same thing is surprising. And encouraging.

I went on to learn how she defines collective efficacy differently than personal teacher efficacy. “Collective teacher efficacy differs from teacher efficacy in that collective teacher efficacy refers to expectations of the effectiveness of the staff to which one belongs, whereas teacher efficacy refers to expectations about one’s own teaching ability.”

This is where the concept grows beyond just a ‘can-do attitude’ and into more of a shared culture. It made me think back on my own experience as a student and wonder if my teachers had collective efficacy, and if they did not, how it would have affected me if they had.

Several effective teachers from my past came to mind. And several others came to mind for the opposite reason. I found myself nodding when Donohoo wrote, “If educators’ realities are filtered through the belief that there is very little they can do to influence student achievement, then it is very likely these beliefs will be manifested in their practice.” And, “Where efficacy is present teachers raise students’ expectations of themselves by convincing them that they can do well in school (1.44).”

So how is collective efficacy built?

Later, at my first Powerful Conversations Network meeting, I watched teachers come together to create and assess commitment statements. This statement-making process is aimed at helping teams identify weaknesses, strengths, and places for improvement in their schools. It’s part of building a foundation for action, as they consider how to fix some of these weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths.

In fact, this exercise allows them to move toward having a collective efficacy. Teams might say “this is our problem – we are not sufficient here” or “we do not do this one thing very well.” I watched these identifications mold into a commitment statement. Instead of saying “We should fix that” they said, specifically, “We commit to making a better effort to communicate everyone’s roles and expectations more clearly.”

Saying this empowers them and gives them the framework to strive together toward a common goal. They’ve built the track, and now they can begin to build the engine.

McBride Elementary School, Muscle Shoals City. Thanks to Cheryl Lockhart! (Click to enlarge)

Positivity is catching, too

While negativity is contagious, the same is true of positivity. I’m not talking about delirious positivity – the kind that makes other people smile carefully and slowly back away, making no sudden movements. This kind of assured positivity can come about just by changing the perspective on a problem.

Jenni Donohoo’s big idea is not just for teachers, either. I cannot stop finding places where collective efficacy would help. I am excited to learn more in our future meetings and to watch problem solving play out in front of me.

I think it is safe to say that in my short three-month tenure here, the committed Alabama educators I’ve met have given me a lot more hope for the state of the world. And what I’ve already learned in this short time has given me something positive and meaningful to say to those people who only offer negative comments and head shakes about our schools.

The next time I hear something negative, I am going to do my best to take a cue from Jenni Donohoo and the PCN teachers and try to build on it. Instead of simply agreeing or adding to the heap, I can try to find the positive questions in the negativity. I can ask “how can we change that?” or “what do you think would improve that?” I can share some of the collective efficacy I’m witnessing in my new job and what it can accomplish.

It’s not an easy response and won’t work for some – but it’s a starting place.

Emily Strickland is ABPC’s new Program Coordinator. A native of Montgomery, she attended Saint James School from kindergarten through graduation and still talks to her best friends from primary school every day. In 2012, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Auburn University and has worked for nonprofits for the past five years. Reach her via email at Emily@aplusala.org.