Engaging Students: 5 Powerful, Positive Teaching Practices

Ignacio Lopez, Ed.D.

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5Are the pressures from administrators, parents and life outside of school hurting your teaching?

I’ve spent my career working with highly demanding urban turnaround and selective enrollment high schools. There is no shortage of challenge and negative energy in these environments, yet I’ve seen that all my successful teachers share this idea of positive thoughts and a positive demeanor when working with students. 

Staying positive is no easy task, but these five positivity strategies will give you the tools to maintain an outlook that leads you and your students to perform your best.

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 Have a Growth Plan

In my experience, teachers who were successful with students, measured by school benchmarks and assessment data, thought in growth terms. There are two concrete ways to put your growth plan into action:


1. Help Your Student Visualize Their Progress

Teachers who thought in terms of seeing, visually either using data graphs, charts, or other visual means to show student gains, were more successful in engaging students on the idea that they could learn. There were no letter grades or percentages given to students; there were only visual representations of how well a student was growing in a selected number of skills. Students could easily read their own bar graphs, line graphs, or other charts showing growth.

They also think about all lessons and assessment in terms of synthesizing content with skills. One teacher said, “It isn’t about Shakespeare in my English class, it’s about making sure my students could read independently and write. Specifically, I wanted my students to grow in understanding the author’s approach … I wanted my students to learn that they shouldn’t be taken a fool on the street or in the real world. Students should know what’s coming at them.”

2. Plan Your Personal & Professional Growth

The other side of thinking in growth terms connects directly back to the individual teacher. Teachers who had a plan, not just for their classrooms but for their personal life and profession, often had greater success with their students.

Teachers who saw themselves going back to school to get endorsements, certificates, or other degrees often thought more positively about their situations and often were able to connect and learn because they too were learning.

Be Deceptively Standard

Tracking growth is an important part of the growth process, but it can also alienate students when schools are continually “assessment driven” (non-stop practice testing year around). In one of my urban schools, students were so overloaded with common educational buzz words that the mere mention of the word ACT or College Readiness would shut the entire class off for good. To be successful, positive-thinking-teachers addressed the child’s emotions, demeanor, and attitude all while connecting to college readiness standards.

 The “Expert” Approach

In one case a teacher said to his students, “Everyone in here is an expert. You all know that? You are all experts. What does it take to be an expert? It takes the ability to read, the ability to persevere, and self-discipline.” He went on to explain to his students that he knows they possess these qualities because they’ve proven it to him already.

He asked his class, “How many of you have ever finished a video game all the way through?” Most of the hands went up and heads nodded. “You see, that’s perseverance! You took on the challenge and you got through it.” He went on to give several other life examples which students easily connected to. He then posted these three items on a large post-it paper in the front of the classroom. Every day he reminded his students that they were all experts. Whenever a student didn’t turn in his homework or was late he’d say, “No homework? Remember, self-discipline. You’re an expert…”

 In this classroom, students felt prized and awarded, they understood the value of assessment as a means to understand their growth and expertise. In this classroom, the teacher knew students were brainwashed to shut down at the sound of educational buzzwords like ACT or standards. Knowledge was framed around growth as an expert toward a desired destination and every so often challenges (assessments) were placed as road blocks, but thoughts on self-disciple and perseverance, would assist students in building confidence to successfully overcome those challenges.

Acknowledge & Adjust Your Approach

Teachers who are conscious of their demeanor and physical presence have success with students. This idea does not involve teacher’s changing their physical traits, but thinking about how their posture, presence, and demeanor in a classroom can affect student learning.


I have seen teachers in urban settings juggle the various programs and administrative demands thrown at them in negative ways. These negative emotions, whether a teacher is aware of it or not, can ultimately be communicated back to their students, which can lead to poor student performance on practice tests and on the real tests.


The “Don’t” Example:

A teacher who is asked by the administration to participate in an assessment practice may be irritated that they are interrupting their instruction. This teacher may enter his or her classroom and say to the students, “Ok, don’t blame me but we have to go to the lab today to take the practice test. It shouldn’t take long then we can get back to the real instruction.” This approach can be received negatively by students thus causing disengagement and reducing the chances students will do well on that practice exam.


The “Do” Example:

One positive-thinking teacher handled the situation completely different and saw positive success both with behavior and academics. In the same situation, the teacher walked into his room and told his students, “So, we have an excellent opportunity that has unexpectedly come up today. We’re going to the computer lab for half the period so I can better understand where each of you are in understanding how to read…I’m hoping the information I get from you can best help us in this class with any reading activities we do.” He never let the students know how upset he was with the decision to cut instructional time. He wanted to make sure that no matter what his students received the most out of their time with him that day.

If a teacher frames the situation both verbally and with suggestive slouching-dragging-body-language, showing frustration and disappointment, students will feel the bluntness of the situation and will become less engaged.


Educate Beyond School Walls

Once teaching becomes a profession in the heart and mind, teachers can’t help but be educators outside of school too. Embrace this!


Some teachers literally teach in other venues like Sunday school or at the local YMCA. Others speak freely and don’t think about telling a child at the grocery store to “be polite” or to “help another person.” Educating beyond school walls also involves looking at how we as teachers speak with our friends in various situations.

Seldom do teachers even know that they are correcting their friends or asking them, “did you understand what I just said, do you need me to repeat that?” Phrases we would most commonly hear in a classroom. One teacher told me about how his friends often teased him because he continually asked after he finished his thoughts “Do you know what I mean?...It’s just a habit because I’m constantly asking my students in the classroom if they understand, or if they need me to say it again.”

Educating beyond school walls includes informing others about the teaching profession. In many situations young teachers have told me that when they tell their non-teacher friends they’re teachers, many of their friends say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know how you do it?” Teaching others about the realities of teaching using positive dialogue is important for the continued movement and growth of the teaching profession.

Be an Inspiration for Other Teachers

There are teachers who work and motivate students, then there are teachers who work, motivate students and other teachers. Although the idea of being an inspiration to your peers may seem arrogant or conceited, positive teachers know when the “quackers” (that toxic teacher in your school) are around and know at the right moment when they should lead by example to show that positive-efforts can indeed be made.

As teachers we can often tell who the negative-nelly is in the room. (Hint: if you can’t spot the complainer, it might be you!). Positive thinking teachers know how to spot those teachers who are really just dragging through life and often lend a helping hand when others just want to stay as far away as possible.

In my experience, positive thinking teachers didn’t complain about the complainers. Instead, they asked competing questions or push-back questions that helped others walk into an epiphany like, “this isn’t about me or my music program, this is about our students.” Sometimes, as teachers, we may find it difficult to “be positive” all the time. The various demands given to us by administrators and superintendents can sometimes feeling daunting. Positive teachers, like you, don’t make mountains-out-of-mole-hills though. They know that what they do isn’t for them or about them; it’s about the students that sit in front of them.

How do you stay positive in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

About the Author:

Ignacio Lopez, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of Education at National-Louis University. In his 10+ years with CPS, Dr. Lopez has been an English teacher, reading teacher, AVID teacher, and instructional leader at the high school level. He has worked closely with CPS district-level new teacher mentoring and induction programs, community and culture professional development, and assessments of vertical curriculum teams.

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