Dr. Jennifer Chastain and Dr. Kevin Kopp
“When good teachers understand their talents, then build on those talents to create strengths, they become even better with students.” This statement comes from Liesveld and Miller’s book Teach with Your Strengths. Nixa Public Schools (NPS) is discovering the power behind strengths-based teaching and leadership. When focusing on improvement and shoring up gaps, schools tend to emphasize weaknesses that need “fixing.” Such a deficit-minded approach can be very limiting; when educators take a strengths-based approach, becoming self-aware and recognizing their innate talents, an explosion of growth is possible.
3 Keys to Identifying Strengths
So how are we uncovering the diamonds that exists in our district?
- First, nearly all of our teachers and administrators have gone through strengths-based training, which includes taking a self-assessment of strengths. Strengths Based Leadership and Teach with Your Strengths are two great resources that we use for training, and each book comes with a code for self-assessment. A focus of this training is understanding your own strengths, understanding the strengths of others, and collaborating on ways to combine the strengths that exist on your team.
- Second, NPS believes in the power of feedback. We place great emphasis on our leaders providing specific and meaningful feedback that enhances the talents within the district. This feedback is quick and meant to be non-evaluative, instead focusing on strengths.
- Finally, we place a huge emphasis on reflection. Educators do not take enough time to reflect because we are always up against the clock. Whether it’s a lesson, a conversation with a parent, a faculty meeting, or one of countless other things that warrant our attention, building time into the week for reflection is very important to our district. Every Friday, students are released early so that teachers and administrators have that time for collaboration and reflection.
What Are the Benefits of Focusing on Strengths?
NPS teams are functioning at higher levels because of a deeper understanding of each other's strengths and tendencies. Our leaders are investing in strengths and are excited to operate within their own wheelhouse instead of following the latest “leadership fad.” But perhaps one of the greatest benefits...our teachers are becoming experts who want to share with others in and outside of the district. We encourage our teachers to present at local and national conferences.
An Innovative Professional Learning Model
John Thomas School of Discovery, a STEAM magnet school within NPS, has taken professional learning to new heights. With limited funds for additional teacher training, JTSD has created STEAM-U, a consulting company within the school. The school hosts monthly on-site trainings for a small fee and all of the money earned from trainings goes right back to the school’s professional learning account to provide additional training to their teachers. The trainings, offered to teachers from within and outside of the district, are led by the teachers, instructional coaches, and/or principals and include a tour of the school to showcase specific teaching strategies in action. For example, one of the trainings is on project-based learning. Trainees hear about how JTSD plans and incorporates PBL and then they go into a classroom to see it for themselves. After seeing students actively engaged in a PBL activity, trainees meet with classroom teachers to follow up on any questions they have. This is a real hands-on type of professional learning.
The creation of STEAM-U came from JTSD’s strategic planning process. The idea was generated by teachers and the program is led by teachers. Recognizing that all schools within Nixa Public Schools have unique offerings, the professional learning department expanded this concept to create Nixa-U. Each of the 11 schools within the district now has the opportunity to provide training to district and area teachers as well as to host online offerings. While this program is in the infancy stage, it has great potential to impact the professional learning of teachers throughout southwest Missouri.
When educators are willing to share their expertise and strengths it makes them become more aware of those talents and inspires them to take on greater challenges. Teachers are more vibrant in their craft when they are spreading the best practices of teaching that they love. And the benefits are far-reaching, impacting students from all those schools and districts that are touched by the expertise at NPS.
What is a sure fire way to enhance learning? Tap into your strengths and unleash the experts in your district!
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Dr. Stephen L. Kleinsmith, Superintendent of Nixa Public Schools, will be presenting at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 25–28.