Sam Thompson

The importance of a positive learning environment

It helps to think back to my own past school experiences.

One thing that really gets me in any environment is negativity — something I’m guilty of exhibiting myself from time to time. 

That said, nobody wants to be around the negative Nancy in the office, and I would argue that especially in a school, it can be downright hurtful to kids still growing into their personalities. Even when I’m having a bad day, I do my best not to let that negativity pass on to students, aside from the odd sarcastic remark — although that’s the expected norm anyway.

Positive colleagues

I’ve been lucky to have been around largely positive colleagues (for the most part) during my teaching career thus far; even those that are negative tend to put on a good show in the classroom. To me, there’s nothing that turns off a student more than having an instructor that doesn’t want to be there; if I’m honest, that’s likely why I don’t like math today, as I remember a few not-so-happy teachers from my high school days. 

Let’s just say, as a kid I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with teachers that tried to force “learning” for the sake of it — yet for those that quite obviously enjoyed their jobs, I always went the extra mile. Passive aggressive? Definitely, but it seems to be common sense, doesn’t it?

It’s quite common in some schools, depending on many factors, to have a strict structure and to enforce that with consequences: negative reinforcement. To me, though, this is just counterproductive; human nature is generally to rebel against what is forced upon you — especially in the case of teenagers — and it seems a far lesser endeavor to work with someone than to push against. Isn’t it the same in the “real world”?

A fly in the ointment

I bring this up because I’ve been noticing a colleague (superior, actually) constantly berating a group of kids recently, and I just wanted to shout back at him: what are you trying to accomplish? I’m all for tough love, and I genuinely think that this age of health-and-safety and overblown child [and adult] psychology has sometimes gone too far; I’m reminded of George Carlin, the comedian, and one of his routines picking on overbearing and over-protective parents and adults:

“Here’s a bumper sticker I’d like to see: We are the proud parents of a child who has resisted his teachers’ attempts to break his spirit and bend him to the will of his corporate masters.”

How true. I often feel — especially in international education — that we’re failing kids as we baby them too much, making their own part-of-growing-up mistakes lose their learning value, and essentially providing an idealist education void of any connection with reality. 

Achieving a balance

But can’t we meet in the middle — instead of negativity, why have you failed, you’re a waste of life, blah blah blah, how about a positive approach? What have you learned from your failure, how can you work to be better, look at the big picture?

The frustration is understandable, though; every now and then I’ll get a group that just doesn’t click with me, and it can be frustrating to try to get kids that just aren’t interested in engaging to make any progress. While I try my best to be patient and positive at all times — remembering my own past teachers — sometimes it’s just all a bit much. I just have to keep reminding myself to put myself in their shoes. Hell, to put myself in my OWN shoes, all those years ago. How would I [and did I] react to various teacher temperaments?

Call me an idealist, but each time I see a teacher whose negativity and/or negative reinforcement tactics are obvious, the Pink Floyd music video plays in my mind. “Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone…”


Superficial people often confuse a critical nature for negativity.

In my opinion, the worst teacher is the one that doesn't want to be there, but says nothing - and does nothing.

They slip in late, long lunch, leave early. Never involved in activities unless under duress. Avoid any real work like the plague. Their clothes are as tired and sad as they are. Their exams and courses are a disaster. Don't invest a satang in their wardrobe or to better themselves. Repeatedly receive borderline evaluations. The school just hopes they quit each year. They have no clue how to behave around professional adults. Their work if done at all is late. These are the negative teachers that wear me down.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (13th May 2018)

"I bring this up because I’ve been noticing a colleague (superior, actually) constantly berating a group of kids recently, and I just wanted to shout back at him: what are you trying to accomplish? "

If the colleague is actually your superior, you should not be questioning anything he says or does. However, I think you meant to use the word "senior", a common mistake.

By steveC, Bangkok (25th April 2018)

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