The Key to Efficacy: Don’t Forget to Look for the Successes

May 2, 2023
Michelle Gill
Centennial School District
The Key to Efficacy: Don’t Forget to Look for the Successes

“Yep, you have your hands full here. We can talk about a few ideas for managing those behaviors. But first, what have you noticed that’s going well in the classroom?”

This was the beginning of a pivotal conversation that has impacted my work with students and teachers ever since. I was meeting with our school district’s SEL coach to debrief an observation she had done earlier that day in my classroom. 

To be honest, I remember thinking, “NOTHING! That’s why you’re here!” I knew what she was getting at with her question, so I am sure I said something about how we got through the objectives for the ELA lesson.

What I remember vividly is her response: She asked me if she could share some of what she noticed that appeared to be supporting student learning and success. I nodded. She read from her notes:

  • “All students appeared engaged in the opening for the whole group lesson, which involved a think, pair, share strategy. Twenty-seven of 29 students talked or waited appropriately while you spoke with two students to redirect their behaviors. Your redirecting language was brief, neutral, and effective. The students’ behavior changed as a result.”
  • “The students who are English Language Learners have visual cues and an app that they appear to be using to access directions in their home language during the application phase of the lesson. Using those tools, they were able to begin working within three minutes of their peers.”
  • “During the small-group instruction, you warmly greeted the students who sat down, and started by asking how they were doing, checking in with one student individually who appeared disengaged, which seemed to help them engage more for the remainder of the lesson.”

“None of these successes would have happened without the efforts you and your students have put forth since the first day of school. I have a few suggestions for some of the behavioral and instructional challenges you experienced. But first, have you noticed those strengths?” 

I felt tears spring up in my eyes and replied honestly, “No.”

She continued, “Michelle, it’s really easy to get stuck seeing only problems, but we build on our strengths, and so do students. An awareness of what is working and an understanding of how that is contributing to students’ success builds a sense of efficacy, which is a key piece of personal and collective resilience.

“I’d love to work with you on developing a greater awareness of what is going well and aligning that to student outcomes. Doing so honors the sometimes incremental changes that lead to growth. While there are challenges and problems we can also work on improving, if all we see is what’s not working, we will burn out.”

One suggestion was that I start by setting a timer for myself and when it went off, simply observe what was happening in the class for a moment. It felt awkward at first, just seeing and noting what was going as expected. Through this, I learned to use reinforcing language, speaking to individual students or to the class to let them know what I saw and how it connected to our class norms, and asking them how it was impacting their learning: 

With the class: “Pause for a moment—you all have been focused on the math challenge for five minutes already. That is an example of our class norm ‘try your best’ in action. How is that focus helping you and others with your learning right now?” 

With an individual: “Serge, I noticed you listening really respectfully as Erika shared her opinion of the article. How did listening that way help you as a learner? How do you think it felt to Erika?”

Over time, consistently noticing what was going well and connecting that with student growth data helped me develop a sense of efficacy that lifted a feeling of frustration and ineffectiveness I had been carrying with me. Looking back, I see that when colleagues and I prioritized this in our meetings, we were strengthening a shared belief that we were capable of improving students’ social, emotional, and academic learning outcomes. We were co-constructing a powerful sense of collective efficacy. 

If we were to lift the veil on the hidden processes at work as my colleagues and I developed a habit of noticing and building upon what was going well, we’d find adult SEL competencies. Self-awareness and social awareness became more fine-tuned as decision-making habits shifted; a growing sense of team member belonging and a new lens of curiosity became conduits for our team’s continued growth.

To this day, I can’t walk into a classroom without seeing all the things that are working. This doesn’t mean I ignore problems or subscribe to toxic positivity. There are problems in classrooms and schools and across systems that need to be acknowledged and addressed, especially after the turmoil of the last few years. Yet amid that, teachers and students are creating moments of success every day that go unnoticed, and educators are running dangerously low on feelings of efficacy and resilience. 

Teachers, don’t wait for your leaders to make this a priority for you! Create an efficacy movement with a colleague or within your department. Prioritize and normalize time at meetings to share what is going well, look for growth indicators in student data, and celebrate incremental changes you see along the way. 

Leaders, you are so good at recognizing and fixing problems, and we need that. But beware of the trap we can fall into where all we see are problems and all we do is react to them. Does your school have a system for individuals, teams, and the whole staff to routinely notice, celebrate, and replicate effective practices and the associated student growth? That system doesn’t need to be an entire student and teacher of the month assembly. A simple routine at meetings that includes time for authentically sharing what’s working and how we know it’s working could be enough to begin building a culture that prioritizes efficacy.

Experiencing individual and collective efficacy can contribute to thriving school cultures brimming with resilience, especially when trust and positive community are also present. I invite you to join me in disrupting the pervasive focus on deficits and problems within our schools. Tune your awareness to what’s working. Be curious about why it’s working, and how that shows up in student growth data. Leverage what’s working to address some of what isn’t working. Invite students and families into this process so they can share in the growing sense of collective efficacy.

But first, start small. Pause for a moment. Look around. What do you notice that’s going well? 

Michelle Gill serves as the Coordinator for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning in the Centennial School District and is a member of the CASEL SEL Fellows Academy. Prior to these roles, Michelle spent 14 years as a teacher in K-12 public school systems and six years supporting educators, schools, and districts through design and facilitation of SEL professional learning.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.


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Ramona McCullough

What a positive and powerful message that creates a pause not only in the educational field, but in personal lives. It is easy to focus on faults instead of strengths. May the wisdom of this article create an abundance of celebrations that foster personal and professional growth as well as inspire others to achieve great heights.

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