Thinking about “Strengths Chasing”

“Strengths are individual epiphanies that open doors to further understanding about what turns one on to life.” – Jenifer Fox

Last week as I was cleaning out boxes from my attic, I unearthed a true treasure. Among countless Trinity School art projects, yearbooks, and even a few binders from my time as a Sixth Grader, I found my Fifth Grade journal. While my entries in this battered notebook range from poetry about hermit crabs to reflections on music lyrics to thoughts about values class, every entry is followed by a thoughtful response from Miss Songster, my Fifth Grade teacher. Although her name has changed (she is now a colleague of mine) and some time has passed (20 years to be exact!), the discovery of this journal shed light on why my Fifth and Sixth Grade years were so transformational.

About halfway through the journal, there are two “Guess Who” poems – ten words each and written in very sloppy handwriting with a bright green marker. Underneath the poems, in perfect cursive, reads Miss Songster’s response: “I’d like to see a little more effort in this journal. This entry took about two minutes – tops.” I initially laughed at the response because as a teacher, I have written similar words to students when they needed an extra nudge. However, as I reflect on Maryellen’s words through my lens as an educator, I see that her reply to my lackluster journal entry was a way of pushing me to pursue excellence not only in my journaling but in other areas of my fifth grade life. She recognized that I was not achieving my full potential and began the process of what Jenifer Fox calls “strengths chasing” in her book, Your Child’s Strengths.

In Fifth Grade, Maryellen recognized an untapped strength in the scrawny Fifth Grader who loved hermit crabs, music, and values class. She saw that my competitive nature at recess and on the sports fields could translate into the academic world. Through conversation – in my journal, in the classroom, at the lunch table, and during recess – Maryellen worked to unearth this strength and then did the difficult work of helping me understand how my competitive nature could be a great gift and not a deficit.

As a colleague of Maryellen’s, I have the pleasure of witnessing the unique ways in which she engages in “strengths chasing” in her daily work. She involves children in conversation and discussion about their interests. She helps them verbalize and share their talents with classmates and family members. And in Fox’s words, she recognizes “the vast reserves of untapped potential residing in our children…[and that] their strengths are as various as the children themselves.” While many members of the Trinity community are devoted to similar work, what a unique gift it is to have an administrator doing this work. Personally, Maryellen played an integral role in helping me realize that risk-taking is essential, competitiveness can be positive, and that nothing is worth achieving unless it is pursued with excellence and integrity. What a powerful lesson! Even more powerful is the thought that she has helped hundreds of students unearth thousands of strengths in her 20 years at Trinity.