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Always Strive to Be a Better You

The Power of
Positive Phrasing

When my daughter was born, it was 4:06 in the afternoon. Thats a magical number for baseball fans: Legendary Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941, and no batter has topped .400 since. In military time, 4:06 p.m. is actually 1606 hours, and when a certain mathematical savant columnist adds the digits 1+6+0+6 he gets 13, which many consider to be a lucky number. Of course, I also invite black cats to cross my path as I walk under ladders. The point is, the kid rocketed off to a good start.

Anyhow, my daughters a gymnast. During her second season of competitive gym, her balance beam routine included a cartwheel. For those of us who cannot execute a cartwheel on a basketball court with spotters, the prospect of flipping upside-down on a six-inch-wide beam four feet above the ground makes our feet sweat, our pulses race, and our knees buckle. However, this is a maneuver my daughter had completed in practices, so there it was in her routine.

[content block] Five meets that season, five cartwheels on the beam, and five falls later, my distraught offspring and I shared a conversation after dinner at IHOP, and we determined that the falls were no longer physical. They were constructs of her mind. She had talked herself into falling because prior to every meet she had told herself, Dont fall off the beam.

Just as we might focus on the word worry when someone says Dont worry, or on the words stressed out when a well-meaning friend implores Dont be stressed out, my daughters focus was on the fall off, not the dont.

Well get into the details of how the brain ignores the dont part of that request in a minute, but for now suffice it to say she was focused on the wrong part of her routine. She needed to focus on sticking the landing on her cartwheel.

In the final meet of the season -- the State championships no less -- she nailed that cartwheel like she was on the gym floor with spotters. No fear. No hesitation. Not even a wobble of the knees!

In our post-meet embrace, she told me this: Dad, for the past two weeks, since that last meet, Ive been telling myself, Stick the cartwheel, stick the cartwheel. And I did.


We educators can learn something from this. As much as I am thrilled that my daughter stuck her cartwheel, Im even more convinced that the idea of positive phrasing works. On a variety of different levels, we experience more success and harvest more positive results when we harness the power of our words.

To support that idea in school leadership, please welcome Mrs. Galen Hoffstadt, a National Distinguished Principal from Corpus Christi, Texas. Galen is perhaps one of the most positive, motivational, inspirational individuals Ive had the good fortune to meet, and shes a staunch advocate of positive phrasing. Everything she says has a positive twist to it, and one cant help but smile and think optimistically when in her presence.


As a school leader, Galen must rally her troops toward a vision of the future -- in a positive way. When asked about her students in the year 2014, for example, she might say Our scholars thirst for knowledge, see from different perspectives, and bring their necessary tools.

Since our unconscious brain filters out words like dont, no, and not, Galen is wise to avoid saying Our scholars dont get lazy, arent self-absorbed, and do not arrive unprepared.

See, theres a big difference in the way we phrase things, even though the intended meaning may be identical.

Think of all the times weve engaged in a conversation with a teacher, a student, a parent, a superintendent, or a local business leader. The images we portray, the energy we emit, the confidence we exude, and the responses we elicit are predicated entirely upon the way we present ourselvesin particular, our words.

Here are a couple of simple ways we can ensure that our words are uplifting and inspiring:

We tend to get more of what we focus on -- so lets focus on what we want to happen.

Use positive phrasing. Words matter. Words are powerful. Words can lift, or words can destroy. Lets use the power of our words for good, not for evil. We tend to get more of what we focus on -- so lets focus on what we want to happen. The next time youre chatting with another school person, reflect upon the objective of your conversation. Then, realign your thoughts and spoken words on that intended outcome. One of your teachers, Mrs. Howard, says she wants her student, Mikayla, to stop blurting out and disrupting the class discussions. You can help Mrs. Howard realize that what she really wants is for Mikayla to speak at appropriate times and respect the classroom discourse. This can steer a conversation away from punishment and frustration -- and nudge us towards teaching and guidance, which are, after all, two of the pillars upon which weve staked our professional claim.

Dont do this. We learned this in teaching school: When we create classroom rules, we want to avoid telling students what not to do. Rather, wed like to provide them with clear expectations of what to do. Try this:

Dont think of a ring-tailed lemur.
Goodness, you just got an image in your head of a ring-tailed lemur, didnt you? Even though I told you not to -- imagine what a naughty column-reader you are!

Now try this:

Think of an erupting volcano.
Great, you did it!

Try this: Dont think of a ring-tailed lemur.

Imagine the possibilities if we told students Please walk instead of Dont run, if we asked our teachers to Please make every effort to engage your students in your lessons instead of Dont just lecture and hand out worksheets, and if we asked our parents Remember to attend parent-teacher conferences next week instead of Dont forget next week is conference week.

If itll help, keep tally-marks on how many times you advise folks not to do something -- with the best of interests, of course -- over the course of a week. Then turn it around.

Embrace optimism. When you find yourself staring at a glass, focus your energy on the half that is full. Henry Ford once said, Whether you think you can or whether you think you cant, youre right. Every situation presented to us affords us the chance to choose. Our choice can be to proceed with optimism, believing were on a winning streak and we can overcome any obstacle in our path, or to continue pessimistically, pointing out all the pitfalls and potential failures that might befall us. Odds are, the choice we make will be the reality that follows. Some call this a self-fulfilling prophecy; I dont believe in prophecies, so Ill submit that I believe it is reality. We determine our own fate, we control our destiny, and we influence our own reality -- so lets emphasize the limitless possibilities within ourselves, aim for the stars, and give a big bear hug to that beautiful entity called Opportunity.

Then, lets hop onto a six-inch-wide beam, four feet above the ground, and start cartwheeling.

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World