It seems like long ago that I had visions of being a teacher and what that looked like. The picture of what I was hoping to become as a teacher came from many different places. As a student, my best teachers were always models of what I wanted to become. My mother was a teacher, so in some ways, I spent my life emulating her. And of course there were teachers from movies or books that enticed me to envision myself as one of them.
The truth is, when I finally did become a teacher, I realized that as hard as I tried, I could not really be exactly like those models, great as they were. I taught in ways that were most natural to me, understanding that I needed to make adjustments for each student’s uniqueness. After some trial and error, I became more comfortable in my own skin as a teacher, but I always felt like I had never quite reached the apex of success when I didn’t “look” like other teachers I had known.
It wasn’t until I learned about the concept of strengths and talents that I realized how I could become the best teacher I could be and how successful teachers were able to have the effect they did on their students’ lives.
Teachers who make a difference with students seem to be more aware of their innate strengths.
When teachers learn to teach using their innate talents and strengths, it is like Independence Day for them. They finally feel what it is like to be in the zone, and they can teach powerfully, with authenticity, and with the joy that keeps them focused and engaged. Rather than wasting time trying to be like someone else, a strengths-based teacher can use her own talents to develop strengths that will take her to greatness.
But how can you figure out your natural talents to hone your strengths? There are five clues to talent that help you develop your strengths:
1. Yearnings reveal the presence of a powerful talent, particularly when they are felt early in life. A yearning can be described as an internal force, an almost magnetic attraction that leads you to a particular activity or environment time and again.
2. Rapid learning reveals other traces of talent in the context of a new challenge or environment. The speed at which you anticipate the steps of an activity, acquire a new skill, or gain new knowledge is a telltale clue to the talent’s presence and power.
3. Flow happens when you become so engrossed in an activity that you lose track of time. It may be because the activity engages you at a deep, natural level — the level of great talent. The activity may be new, but you instinctively know what comes next.
4. Satisfaction is felt during those experiences where the emotional and psychological rewards are great. Typically, these are the activities you get a kick out of doing. Satisfaction is not merely a momentary pleasure; it forms your intrinsic motivation.
5. Glimpses of excellence are flashes of outstanding performance that you or others have observed. In these moments, the task has tapped into some of your greatest talents and directly displayed your potential for strength.
Gallup’s work in identifying a person’s specific strengths is based on more than 30 years of research that started by studying outstanding individuals in various roles. Gallup then classified these individuals’ talents into strengths that the Clifton StrengthsFinder® measures. Out of 34 possible strengths, one can identify one’s signature strengths and begin to name them, claim them, and put them to real use toward greater success.
The following example will help clarify how one might use a particular strength as a teacher or teacher librarian. Let’s say you have the Futuristic® strength, but you are not sure how that works day to day in the classroom as a teacher. You are always asking yourself, “Wouldn’t it be great if. …” You are the kind of person who loves to peer over the horizon. The future fascinates you. As if it were projected on the wall, you see in detail what the future might hold, and this vision pulls you forward into tomorrow. While the exact content of your vision will depend on your other strengths and interests, you are certain to energize others by helping them see your vision of the future. Often students need pictures that can raise their sights and thereby their spirits. You can paint a picture of the future for those students — one that they would not always see themselves. The inspiration you provide from describing a better tomorrow can catapult a student onto a completely new motivational path.
As a teacher with a Futuristic strength, I recently asked a student to find a box — any ordinary box — and put her best in it from school, work, or just notes about things she has accomplished or is proud to have done. I told her that one day — maybe five years from now — she could open that box and look at all those tokens that paved the way for her future. She loved the idea and now tucks away all of the best of herself into that ordinary shoebox. And when she opens that box, she will look at the contents and understand that they were the building blocks for her life as a successful and happy adult.
Teachers who make a difference with students seem to be more aware of their innate strengths. Teachers who are not naturally in tune with their strengths may benefit greatly from assessing them. What they might learn is that their most effective teaching styles will be largely defined by who they are and what they do most naturally. And, these teachers will find that the more they work from a strengths-based approach, the more engaged they will be in the classroom. Gallup’s research on engagement has found powerful linkages between strengths, engagement, and outcomes — not the least of which is the outcome of student engagement.
Our complex world asks more of teachers now. Every day, I read more about teachers who are not engaged in their work. Gallup’s research shows that when people use their strengths at work, their likelihood of being engaged significantly increases. This is why it is important for teachers to be aware of their strengths. Awareness, however, is just one small step. You should always take time to create a deeper awareness of your strengths and then apply those strengths so that your brand of teaching becomes one that not only sustains you, but also has a significant effect on your students.
We all know that teachers who used their strengths made the greatest difference in our lives by allowing us to use our own unique strengths and talents. Those teachers understood us, who we were, what was important to us, and what made us different. They celebrated our strengths. Those teachers gave us opportunities to learn and grow, and they recognized and celebrated our successes.
If we know that the teachers who made the most difference in our lives were those who allowed us to soar with our strengths, then why would we not want to do the same in our classrooms? We need to use our unique set of strengths to be sure that every student learns and grows every day and feels like a real human being.
Further reading: Teach with Your Strengths - How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students (Gallup Press, 2005).