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Undeniable Positivity In St. Louis

Aaron Massey (St. Louis '10) is living his lifelong dream of opening a school in the community where he was raised.

December 19, 2016

The TFA Editorial Team

Here I am! In the midst of fulfilling a lifelong dream of opening my own school in the community where I was raised. So many ideas. So many beliefs about what is possible. Best of all, a newfound idea while attending an Aspiring School Leaders Fellowship St. Louis event that will stay with me always in my work with scholars. 

I joined the Aspiring School Leaders Fellowship (ASLF) because I wanted to learn how to operationalize my vision, gain ideas from other school leaders, and simply learn leadership best practices. I did just that when ASLF St. Louis took a trip down to New Orleans. I was inspired by the leaders and concepts they were executing on a daily basis. One idea stuck out to me the most: undeniable positivity. The notion is fairly simple: praise kids in a genuine way and when they are doing something that is less than positive, ignore it. The very moment they do anything positive (and I mean anything), you praise them and quickly bring them back to the main group with affirming words. 

Aaron (back row, left from center) with his cohort of Aspiring School Leadership Fellows.

Undeniable positivity resonated with me because it affirms the goodness in kids and rejects the antiquated “sit down, be quiet, and learn” doctrine education has forced upon urban education for years. Needless to say, I was fired up about bringing this approach back to the school I’m opening in August. But there was one problem with my mindset—I’m a leader at a school right now. I have scholars that deserve life-changing love now. I didn’t challenge myself to do something immediately until Mallory Rusch, our program coordinator, pushed me to think about what I could bring back to the school where I currently work. I had been so focused on creating this great school that I wasn’t looking at the opportunity to make change now. 

So it all clicked! Mallory had empowered me to lead right away. I had this great idea from Carver Collegiate. I had to make it happen. As soon as I could, I talked to a teacher on my campus about piloting this concept. I went on and on about the power of undeniable positivity. I modeled what it might sound like, look like, and feel like for the teacher and the scholar. We role played and had the “What if” conversation. And eventually, she agreed to try it. This is what she emailed me right after school:



Today, for the last half of our day after lunch and specials, Mr. Nash and I ignored negative behaviors 100% and narrated only positive behavior. We repeated expectations and rewarded scholars who met those expectations with high fives, dojo points, smiles, and hugs.

The results were amazing!!! The scholars were being so kind to one another. They were engaged and quickly fixed negative behaviors they were exhibiting to meet the high expectations set. One scholar in particular who can usually carry on a fit for upwards of 30 minutes has maybe a 2 minute episode of screaming over me (that I completely ignored). After these 2 minutes, she sat down in perfect SLANT and instantly participated in the lesson. This is a HUGE win for her!!

Even little issues like shouting out without raising a hand and not sitting the proper way in a chair or on the carpet were significantly improved with this. I have to admit, I was apprehensive about how this would turn out. After just these few hours, I am completely sold! All afternoon I felt happier and better personally only highlighting the positive. It was easier to smile more and complimenting scholars working hard felt so good. I cannot wait to see where we can go with this!! Thank you so much for the information and the push to try this!!"


It’s not enough to hug the kid after a tough day. We have to institutionalize that love.

This made my heart happy! The kids were not only helping each other and owning their own culture, but my teacher felt better as a person because she was able to operationalize that love that we all feel for our scholars. It’s not enough to hug the kid after a tough day. We have to institutionalize that love. We have to make it something we show on a regular basis; not just when kids are in trouble. We have to be bold with our love. If we are fired up about something for kids, we should try it. My recent approach may not be successful 100 percent of the time. Additionally, ignoring less than positive behaviors is tough. But we’re teachers! We are leaders who were built for this. We can change lives now. I’m thankful to Mallory for pushing me!

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