The importance of thinking slowly in schools

What are the parents like at your school? Amazing.

They really are. After 12 years of teaching and throughout my first year in an administrative role, this is overwhelmingly the answer. Unfortunately, it often takes some time to remember this if someone asks me.

Recently, I’ve gone back to reread the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann. The general outline of the book is to point out how we think as humans, and the fact that our actual thinking is flawed in many ways. One way Kahnemann points out is something he calls the availability heuristic. Through his own studies and the evidence gained from many other studies, it is clear that our brains often answer questions with a particular focus on what comes to mind most easily. While this may seem like common sense (it felt even more so as I wrote those words down), it is of critical importance to recognize.

Kahnemann’s gives an example using plane crashes to illustrate how flawed our thinking can be. If, for example, you see media reports of two plane crashes within a short time frame, it will “temporarily alter your feelings about the safety of flying.” You may then overestimate the chance of being in a plane crashes and avoid a long trip, despite the fact that you drive every day, which is statistically more dangerous. Everyday choices can be greatly impacted by flawed thinking.

Within the framework of a school, this flawed thinking can also take hold. I wish I had some hard data, but I would estimate that at least 90% of my interactions with parents or students are positive or neutral. The small percentage of negative interactions, however, can have an overwhelming impact, similar to the plane crash example.

About five years ago, when I was teaching, my friend from Australia was visiting the states and I asked him to stop in and talk to our class. He connected to our geography unit and they asked jokes about the ‘funny’ way he said things. This group of students was particularly challenging and it was in the middle of winter, which can feel particularly exhausting for teachers (and parents and students I’m pretty sure) as the days feel longer and time outside is harder to come by. I was feeling a bit frustrated with the group as a whole at that point. When the day was over, my friend remarked how these students were “really good kids.” It was a reminder I really needed. If someone had simply asked me how my class was that year, I would have quickly thought of the most challenging moments that day or week and stressed the negatives. Hearing about these students from another perspective reminded me of all the great things that had happened in our classroom.

Parent interactions can be similarly problematic. Even in my administrative position, in which I often see students following their most challenging or disappointing moments, the follow up conversations with parents are often followed by messages of gratitude for the thoughtfulness with which we have approached the situation and their child. Occasionally, however, what we perceive as our best intentions are met with anger and frustration. These come in the form of emails, whose tone is impossible to truly decipher, or phone calls that can turn into venting sessions. These are mostly outlets the parents need in order to move toward a resolution. And within those frustrations are incredibly valid points about the children they love and need to protect that help us reach a meaningful way forward. Difficult, but clearly moving toward the positive. Some interactions, however, can feel like a punch to the gut and taint the rest of your day or week. These, unfortunately, are often the interactions that first come to mind when I think about school parents.

So when someone asks me what the parents are like at our school, it might take me a second to check my thinking. I have to skip past the most available – the most difficult interactions – and consider all the interactions with parents that I’ve had that day or week.  Then, I remember all the smiles in the hallway. Then, I can replay the conversations about their child’s amazing experiences. Then, I remember how hard it can be to let your kids go for a whole day, only to hear, “Good,” and, “I don’t know,” as the response to most of your questions on the car ride home. Then, I can recall the email that said thanks for helping my child through that difficult moment.  Then, I realize how spectacular they are.

For teachers who are reading this, please use this as a reminder to send a positive message home about your students. If parents are only hearing from you about school work or friendships gone wrong, their thoughts will quickly jump to the negative.

For school leaders, we need to find more and better ways to share the amazing things happening every day in the building with our parents, because students can’t be the only ones to share these messages. We also have to share these with our faculty, because we know how hard it is to teach after receiving that angry, frustrated email.

For parents, please know how much teachers and school leaders appreciate the messages of trust and confidence you send our way. The candy during holidays is great, but the emails, thank you letters, and even passing comments in the hallway are worth so much more.

Being positive is not just about feeling good for a moment. It’s science. (The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor is another great resource.) It’s about training our minds to think differently. It’s about helping others trend in that direction as well. It’s about moving past what is easiest or first in our mind and toward something a little more challenging, but a lot more valuable and rewarding.

Here are two parent messages I’ve received to pass along to everyone at my school:

“I saw a teacher working through a conflict with two students today and it was amazing. I absolutely love the way you all talk to children. Thank you.”

“I just want to say how amazing this school is. My children are lucky to be here. Every time I see a teacher I try to make sure you know what a great job you are doing for all of the children.”

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