When an aspiring fighter visits a boxing gym, the potential coach does not start teaching him or her all the techniques. The first thing a wise coach will do is say, "get in the ring and show me what you got." The coach will carefully examine what the fighter can already do, then design a training regimen to build upon those strengths.
I'm interested in taking a similar strength-based approach with the emerging teachers I work with each week. I want to know what natural strengths and talents they already possess and what he or she can build upon. For instance, a pre-service teacher might have an affinity towards communicating with students or designing creative, engaging lessons. From this position, I can help the teacher capitalize on these abilities as we work to compensate for weaker areas. It's not that we ignore areas of concern; we know that a teacher who lacks competent classroom management skills, for instance, will certainly be impacted in other areas. However, the strengths-based approach allows supervisors, principals, and others tasked with training new teachers to approach the endeavor from focusing on what works, and use that as a bridge for what's not working so well. Tschannen and Tschannen (2011) write that when "conversations are deficit-based, the weaknesses of the teacher have the upper hand" (p. 15). Consequently, this approach shifts the responsibility to the coach, who supposedly knows best, rather than the teacher. On the contrary, under a strengths-based approach, no matter the situation, there is always something that works. Coaches can help teachers identify these strengths, and thus, come up with a plan for improvement. "By discovering and developing their strengths, teachers can transform their weaknesses without having to tackle them head on" (Tschannen and Tschannen, 2011, p. 16). Likewise, Glickman (2001) posits that supervisors can help new teachers identify their strengths based on theories espoused by Gardner, who proposed multiple intelligences, and Sternberg, who developed a triarchic theory of intelligence. Used as a framework, these learning theories can support efforts to assist teachers in building on what they can already do. Like the boxer in the gym, this approach also can save us time in teacher education. Rather than "start from scratch" with beginning teachers, thinking we have to teach them every facet of the profession, we can take an assessment of their current abilities and strategically develop them.
What does this look like in practical application? Let me offer a recent example from my interactions with elementary pre-service teachers I supervise. While working with one teacher, I noticed she grew up in the neighborhood, where she was interning, and had gone to school at the very same location. Without realizing it, she had already begun using her background knowledge and Spanish-speaking skills to help communicate with families at the predominately migrant-workers' children school. Her strength lied in her advantage of being able to serve as a bridge, a liaison, for the families. After our conversation, in which I pointed out these ideas, she recognized her now-apparent strengths and excitedly decided to build upon them. This brings up another point. Sometimes, it is difficult to recognize our own strengths, and we need the help of others, an outsider, to bring them to light.
As we engage in teaching and encouraging others to develop the skills needed in the profession, we can ask several questions to guide us in assuming a strengths-based position:
Coming from this place of strength, I believe, can make a major difference in the development of teacher talent. Let's start working with what we already have, nurturing it, developing it, rather than looking for what's missing.
Glickman, C. D., Gordon, S. P., & Ross-Gordon, J. M. (2001). Supervision and instructional leadership: A developmental approach. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Tschannen, B. & Tschannen, M. (2011). The coach and the evaluator. Educational Leadership, 69(2), 10-16.