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Shaping your story one tailwind at a time

It was a normal day.  I was walking from my classroom to the English office.  The hallways were bustling with the ambient hum of laughter and typical teenage chatter.  

And then I heard it.  

Above the hum, as if it were spoken through the PA system, ”Shut the frick up!” Only it wasn’t “frick”... My attention shot toward a couple of students, one playfully reacting to the other. Totally friendly. But I couldn’t let it slide.

“Excuse me. Can you please watch your language?”  

They glanced up at me, annoyed that I was interrupting. One shrugged.  “Oh, yeah...sorry man.” Then they continued their conversation, completely unphased.

I was shocked by their indiscretion and cavalier attitude. If a teacher had caught me swearing in the hallway as a teenager, I would have been mortified! But they didn’t seem to care much at all.

I continued into the office and shared the story with some colleagues who responded with something like, “Brian, quit being so naive. Kids swear all the time. That’s just normal for them now.”

But something didn’t feel right.  

The swearing itself wasn’t what bothered me. It was more that for days thereafter, when I walked through the hallways, I couldn’t help but notice every curse word, every inappropriate conversation, and ultimately, every teacher who complained that kids were “different” now.  It was as though my entire concept of my students was changing before my eyes! Was I really that naive? Had kids really changed that much, and I was totally oblivious to it all? It was driving me crazy!

After 14 years of teaching, I was at a crossroads that seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was causing me to question my previously held assumptions. I had always believed that over the generations, kids had remained generally good-natured. Sure, there were some students who, for a variety of reasons, acted out or misbehaved, but by and large, most students had good intentions.  

I had to choose which story to tell myself:  the one where most of the teens I taught had changed and were now disrespectful, or the one where kids’ behavior and intentions had remained constant over the years. It was a choice I had to make because the stories were conflicting, and I knew they needed to be reconciled.

Coincidentally, a few days later I was listening to a podcast episode (“Why Is My Life So Hard?” Freakonomics Radio), and something caught my attention. Psychologists Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich discussed a phenomenon they call the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry”.  

The research suggests that people pay closer attention to the negative barriers in their life (the “headwinds”), while the positive forces (the “tailwinds”) go mostly unnoticed. The reason for this is quite simple. We have to overcome the barriers, so they require our attention; whereas, the benefits we enjoy don’t necessarily require any action at all, so we ignore them. The result is that we perceive our lives to be much more burdened than they really are, which can lead to a number of additional negative consequences (unhappiness, poor self-concept, depression, ingratitude, etc).  

Educators perceiving the kids they teach as largely foul-mouthed and disrespectful? I’d say that’s a headwind. But where were the hidden tailwinds? I set out to find an answer with a simple trick: deliberately notice them.

Over the next few days, walking through the hallways, I challenged myself to seek out at least five students having positive, mutually supportive conversations; I wanted to deliberately notice students’ positive interactions, instead of focusing my attention on the negative ones.  

From my classroom to my office is about a two-minute walk. When I focused on the “tailwinds” in the hallways, figuratively speaking, the walk seemed to take only seconds. I set my goal at five, but I found that almost all of the kids I passed were having really positive conversations: music, sports, classes, upcoming tests, etc. They were just waiting to be noticed. It was uplifting and refreshing!

Let me be clear, my goal wasn’t to ignore “headwinds” in the hallway; nor am I suggesting that the path to professional happiness is to do so.  As Gilovich points out, it’s normal to notice the barriers because they need to be addressed.  But what I am saying is that we cannot forget to notice the tailwinds too.  

After taking this new approach, it's helped me to shape my story about who my students really are: young adults who occasionally make mistakes, as we all do, but who are generally wonderful young people. The greatest impact of reshaping my story has been that it often helps them to shape their own story about themselves. And seeing them recognize their own tailwinds has made it worth facing any headwind that may follow.

Brian's post is part of CTQ's July/August blogging roundtable on the power of story. Join the discussion by commenting on this blog and checking out the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to chime in on social media.


Jessica Cuthbertson commented on July 24, 2017 at 7:39pm:

Love this!

Hey Brian,

As someone preparing to return to the classroom I've already heard some rumblings from colleagues about "this group of 8th graders," and their behavior. I love your post and think looking for tailwinds at the beginning of the year can set a great habit to remember tailwinds all year long when the "honeymoon" period is over :). 

Loved this quote: 

"I had to choose which story to tell myself:  the one where most of the teens I taught had changed and were now disrespectful, or the one where kids’ behavior and intentions had remained constant over the years. It was a choice I had to make because the stories were conflicting, and I knew they needed to be reconciled."

We all have a choice about the stories we tell ourselves. I made a lot of connections to Dweck's work and growth vs. fixed mindset when thinking about tailwind vs. headwind stories. 

How might we not only keep this in mind as practitioners but also encourage and support our colleagues to seek out, notice and name tailwind stories in our schools? 

Wendi Pillars commented on July 26, 2017 at 8:45am:

Not just for students

Hi, Brian,

Reading your post, I couldn't help but think how necessary it is to look for the tailwinds in each other as teachers, too, just as Jessica mentioned. You're so right about not ignoring the headwinds--as they can be informative about ourselves and others--but shifting focus to the positive can flip our thinking in myriad ways. 

The beauty of this strategy, Brian, is that anyone can do it, with any student (or colleague). Even with one particular student, the ramifications can have a positive domino effect. And students are watching. They notice when you're finding the positivity.  As you so astutely noted, they're waiting to be noticed.

To do so, it doesn't take a lot of time, especially considering the resultant rewards. Thanks for making the choices you did to change your thinking about students, because yes, there are far more positives to be discovered. 


Tricia Ebner commented on July 28, 2017 at 10:59am:

It's all about the focus . . .

I really love this because it's such a great reminder of where we need to pay attention. So often what we hear, whether in the news media or in the mail rooms of our schools, is the negative side of education. There are so many problems, not enough time, not enough money, not enough [fill in the blank]. Yet we so rarely take time to reflect on what's going WELL. 

This is definitely something I will keep in mind as our school year begins, and I will encourage my colleagues to also look for those tailwinds and listen to those stories, too. While we can't ignore the challenges, we certainly shouldn't ignore the successes!


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