• Alicia Assad

3 Science-Based Qualities of a Life-Changing Teacher

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela

Can you think of a teacher who shifted your perspective and therefore changed your life?

Maybe it was a small word of encouragement that helped you grow or overcome an obstacle?

Or, is there someone who stands out because they went the extra mile for you?

In my lifetime, I have had many teachers who in different ways have helped me succeed. When I reflect upon their influence and note the ripple effect of positive change they initiated, I find a very deep sense of gratitude for educators.

The school year has come to an end for my older children today, and I am filled with a mix of emotions ranging from excitement to melancholy. While my children are growing and I am proud to see them move on, they are leaving the classrooms of life-changing teachers.

Last day of Kindergarten and Second Grade! (photo bombed by toddler in shades)

I set out to write notes of gratitude to these teachers, and in the process I noticed a few similarities between my daughter's second grade teacher, my son's kindergarten teacher, and the educators who have positively influenced me throughout my life.

Gratitude has inspired the analysis you will find below about how I believe the teachers I revere can so greatly influence a student. Based on the science of positive psychology, here are three qualities that make a teacher "life-changing":

A life-changing teacher is positive.

“Positivity doesn't just change the contents of your mind...It widens the span of possibilities that you see. ” ~ Barbara Fredrickson

Research tells us that even the smallest moments of kindness, love, and humor enrich our mind. Specifically, it is Barbara Frederickson's broaden-and-build theory tells us that micro-moments of positivity accumulate over time and put people on a trajectory of growth by broadening their awareness and building their resources for survival.

If we take this notion and apply it to a classroom setting, we can say that a positive learning environment will allow students to be more open, attentive, and creative. Positive emotions allow our minds to expand and grow much like food nourishes our body. I can easily see how the micro moments of positivity my children were exposed to not just in the classroom but throughout their school contributed both to their wellbeing and academic growth:

A high-five from the principal.

The nurse who helped my son dry his clothes when he fell in a puddle.

A teacher who insists a test is really a "Party on Paper."

An aid who helped my daughter solve a playground conflict.

The music teacher who noticed my daughter's vocal talent and encouraged her to perform.

Point being, the small moments of positive connection are more abundant in an environment that supports them, and I am grateful for the school, teachers, and staff who nourished my children with positivity this year.

A life-changing teacher focuses on strengths.

"If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all and no one lacks it all." ~Christopher Peterson

The argument in favor of a strengths-based model of teaching, suggests that children can do more than just survive school; they can actually thrive. In fact, data from Gallup tells us students in strengths-based programs are absent less and have higher GPAs, greater confidence, and more hope.

A Kindergarten teacher who views her students through their strengths.

By managing weaknesses and focusing on talents, a teacher can foster resilience, confidence, and flexibility in children.

While the VIA Strengths Survey will help us hone in on our strengths, I'm not sure that a life-changing teacher needs a survey to tell her about the gifts of even her most difficult student - because she naturally sees every child for their strengths and knows how to nurture their best qualities.

As my son's teacher handed over his Kindergarten certificate yesterday and posed with him for a photo, she was gushing over his strengths of empathy, justice, and kindness. While taking the photo to the right, I got all teary-eyed in thinking how my boy started the year shy and timid, but ended it so confidently other parents were commending his bright presence on stage. I believe this growth has a lot to do with a teacher who not only saw him through his strengths, but showed him how he could shine.

A life-changing teacher fosters a growth mindset.

"Test scores and measures of achievement tell you where a student is,

but they don't tell you where a student could end up." ~Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck's research tells us there are students who love challenges and believe their abilities are yet to be developed: this is a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset assume they have a fixed amount of intelligence and get caught up in tragic and catastrophic thinking.

Studies show that growth mindset is the key to academic success, and the students who don't naturally have this mindset can learn it. I believe Dweck's conversation about "The Power of Yet" might give hope to every student, especially those who are struggling.

Dweck tells us, "The meaning of effort and difficulty is that is when neurons are making new and stronger connections." The means struggle is what makes us smarter, and my daughter's second grade experience might exemplify how:

As common core math became more complicated, my daughter started saying,

”I can’t”

“It’s too hard.”

“I’’m not smart.”

“I am not good at math.”

A Second Grade Teacher who insists tests are a "Party on Paper" and teaches growth mindset.

Throughout the year, there were tears, and there was failure. But there was also a teacher who gently encouraged her to adopt a growth mindset with:

"You can do this."

"I will help you."

"Keep trying."

"Good effort."

"Look how much you improved!"

"I am so proud of your hard work!"

While there are a myriad of ways I can measure my daughter's growth this year from social to academic, let's just summarize it with the fact that she went from failing math to coming home with 100% on her final and most complicated test of the year.

Of course, I am proud of the grade, but more than anything else, I am grateful for the powerful lesson of "yet" this teacher instilled in my daughter. She now asks for extra math work saying,

"Can you give me more equations to do?"

"I think math is fun now."

This right here - her desire for challenge and love of learning - is perhaps the greatest gift a teacher can ever give her student, because it means their truest potential is always "yet" to be discovered.

Savoring the impact of a life-changing teacher.

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."

~William Arthur Ward

Not every teacher will meet my children with positivity, always see them for their strengths, or teach a growth mindset. Since we hit the teacher "jack-pot" this year, I felt it was necessary to stop and savor the blessings we have received because gratitude is a powerful tool.

Researchers are finding that expressing gratitude can literally change our brains for the better. Since the effects of gratitude increase well-being, and my kids have a lot to be grateful for, I sent them off to school for their last day with the insistence that they say, "Thank You!" to the life-changing teachers they had this year.

A simple thank you, or even my own written expression of gratitude might not capture the magnitude of influence these teachers have had....

But when I remember it's the micro-moments that matter, these small expressions of gratitude just might help nourish the teachers who have changed my life and the lives of my children.