A rite of passage, it seems, for any toddler, is earning the oohs and aahs of an audience by raising one’s arms in response to the familiar prompt, “How big is (insert toddler’s name)? Soooooo big!!!” My nephew’s parents, perhaps longing for a slightly less cliche toddler call and response, would instead say, “Finnie, strong man!” in response to which Finn would clench his fists, flex his biceps and pecs, and scrunch up his facial muscles until he looked like a cross between Popeye and a member of the Lollipop Guild.
I like that little anecdote because it reminds me of the importance of celebrating strength. Too often, when invited to evaluate ourselves, our friends or colleagues, our schools, businesses, or other organizations, we default to our weaknesses, directing our energy toward fixing deficits rather than identifying and building on assets.
As many of you know, we have been experimenting with dedicated advisory programming this spring. This past Wednesday, we invited students to take a character strength survey (the paper version) sponsored by the VIA Institute on Character. The instrument is designed to help students identify their dominant character strengths. This particular survey, for example, suggested that my strengths included humor, kindness, fairness, gratitude, and leadership. Not a bad list of strengths upon which to build.
And all of our students have their own lists of strengths upon which to build. Their list may have included any of the other 25 strengths for which this particular survey was mining: teamwork, creativity, bravery, self-regulation, love of learning, curiosity, or zest to name but a few. As they uncovered them during advisory, students were invited by their advisors to discuss any of the following questions:
What is character?
Is there a relationship between character and scholarship?
How does a person’s character impact a classroom discussion?
Did your results resonate as true for you?
How does/could the school help shape the character of young people?
How does one become a better person?
While character development has always been a part of a Falmouth Academy education, advisor sessions are part of our broader effort to move from intuitive to intentional.
In an article entitled “Keeping the Focus on the Positive,” Nina Parish cites research that “points to teacher support and the identification of positive personal characteristics as the strongest predictors that students will feel a sense of belonging at school, which is essential to their well-being.” In focusing on the positive, she suggests that teachers can foster better academic and personal outcomes for students. After searching for strengths, talents, and interests, Parish then looks “for a way to connect what a student struggles with to a skill they already possess.”
As my first year at Falmouth Academy comes to a close, I am reminded of my stated intention first to mine for my new school’s many strengths. And as we look ahead to the coming strategic planning season, it is critical that we see this process as building on and adding to the school’s many strengths, lest we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Are you, like me, one of those people who scours a survey or professional evaluation for what you are doing wrong or poorly, skipping by or minimizing your many strengths? Rather than taking the time to celebrate your strengths and think strategically about how to leverage them, do you jump the queue and attempt to tackle your weaknesses all at once and in isolation? Or do you consciously seek places and spaces that need your strengths? Do you look for people whose strengths complement and supplement your own?
Perhaps all of us, no matter our age, could use a parent, peer, or teacher to urge us on occasion with a simple two-word prompt: “Strong man!”