For the first two-thirds of my career, I was acutely unaware of my inner life and the effect it was having on my outer life and the lives of others. I was functionally dysfunctional. My students generally got good grades and my athletic teams were successful, but I was routinely sarcastic, cynical, and negative with my students and athletes. Although I was producing somewhat effective outcomes, I was not reaching my potential as an educator—or as a human being, for that matter.

Twenty years ago, I became aware of social-emotional learning. This literally changed my life. For the last 15 years in my teaching and coaching careers, I had a different, more positive experience—and so did my students and athletes. In fact, this notion so revolutionized my life that I took many of the concepts and incorporated them into a business I co-founded—Top 20 Training—that specializes in social-emotional learning and training based on the power of positive thinking.

The concept that has had the biggest impact in transforming my personal and professional life is something we at Top 20 call “living above and below the line.” This philosophy ties in to a person’s personality and outlook on life. But more than that, it is a means by which we are aware of our thinking and our overall outlook day to day. When we are above the line, our thinking is effective; our internal messages to ourselves are working in our best interest. For me, that means I am focused on what’s important. I am more patient; I listen to others; I am productive and creative. When we are below the line, our thinking is ineffective; our mental dialogue is not working in our best interest. For me, this means I lose focus on what is important, am impatient, don’t listen, and accomplish very little throughout the day.

People who most often exhibit positive thinking spend most of their time above the line. They live above the line. When in their company, we can feel their positive energy. Although they sometimes go below the line, they don’t stay there very long.

Others live below the line, defaulting to mainly negative thinking. They have days where they exude positivity, hovering above the line, but they spend a majority of their time below it. It seems as if their life agenda is to complain. When in their company, we may feel our own energy being sucked out of us.

The sad thing is, people who live below the line seldom realize that they have a choice in the matter. It is important to remember that this choice can affect decisions we make as an educator and adviser.

Awareness Is Key

Being below the line is not a bad thing; it is a human thing. However, it is important to be aware of it for two reasons. First, life looks different whether we are above or below the line. When we’re above the line, we see our students as energetic, creative, curious, or strong-willed. When we’re below the line, we see those same students as being out of control, disrespectful, apathetic, and stubborn. The same can be said when we are faced with a problem. From above the line, a problem looks more like an opportunity that we are confident we will be able to solve. From below the line, it can look hopelessly insurmountable.

We must be aware of where we are daily, because everything in life will look different whether we are above or below the line.

As an adviser, we might be planning a homecoming dance, for example. Inevitably, problems may arise in carrying out this event, so it is critical to keep a watchful eye on our line throughout the process.

The second reason it is important to know where we are on the line is because we use our thinking to make decisions. If our thinking is working in our best interest, we are likely to make good decisions. However, if we are below the line and our thinking is not working in our best interest, our decisions often create a mess. This is why awareness is key. Had we been aware that we were below the line, we would have been better equipped to refrain from making a decision until we got ourselves back above the line.

Resist Temptation: Ignore Invitations

We certainly want to have more above-the-line days than below-the-line days. However, if we are not aware of our ability to govern our own thinking, we can quickly get off track. Many times we go below the line because we are influenced by outside conditions that we cannot control. We migrate to the negative based on silly things like someone taking our parking space or a slouching kid in our class. “Keep your day” is a slogan that we use to remind ourselves that we have a choice.

At Top 20 Training, we use the term “invitations” to define the conditions that come up in our lives that tempt us to go below the line. These situations can arise several times a day and are sent to us in many forms: an early morning traffic jam, students who don’t do their homework, or a plumbing problem at home. These invites tempt us to attend a below-the-line party.

As advisers, invitations can show up when yearbook deadlines are approaching, inclement weather causes a school event to be canceled, or negative emails from parents arrive after a class trip is announced.

By thinking of these situations as invitations, it reminds us that in order to respond, we need to RSVP. In our brains, that helps to signal that we have a choice. We can decide to go below the line and bring our own negativity, or we can choose to go above the line by turning these invitations down and “keeping our day.”

Conditions vs. Experience

To begin to fully adopt the “above the line” mantra, we need to understand the difference between conditions and experiences. Conditions (lost luggage at the airport, negative co-workers, changes in class schedules) are things over which we have little or no control. Meanwhile, experiences are things over which we have total or almost total control. We determine our experiences; we don’t determine conditions.

However, we often allow conditions to dictate our experiences. Losing your luggage does not have to spell disaster for your entire vacation, just as changes in class schedules do not mean your day cannot still be productive. We fall below the line when we let these conditions get the better of us. As advisers, it is important to rise above the line when these less-than-optimal conditions pop up. You must be adaptive and prepared to make the best of a bad situation.

Part of the issue is that we sometimes fail to realize that we signed up for the conditions for the adviser role. If you are a firefighter, you should not be surprised by people asking you to put out fires. If you are an NHS adviser, you should not be surprised when you are asked to put on the awards banquet—nor should you be surprised about the stressors that can arise during that planning process.

Indicators, Submarines, and Trampolines

It is critical for us to know when we are below the line. To do that, we need to pay attention to our indicators. Indicators are the feelings we have or the behaviors we exhibit when we are below the line. Some of my indicators are sarcasm, impatience, and a need to be right. Other indicators could be being negative, tired, quiet, or easily agitated.

When we are below the line, we are more likely to pass on our negativity to others. In order to avoid this, we need to go below the line in a submarine, so to speak. The submarine is a metaphor for going below the line with grace and dignity, so we don’t dump our negativity onto others—we contain our negativity and sound the alarm. A way to do this is to let others know when we go below. By doing so, our students or colleagues won’t take our negativity personally. Our visits below the line won’t create a mess.

For example, say a student approaches you and asks you why he received a failing grade. Normally, you’d be completely amenable to calmly explaining your reasoning, but you’re unusually agitated because your refrigerator broke this morning, you got a flat tire on the way to work, and your mother-in-law is coming for dinner. It is OK to explain to the student, “I am not my best self today. I am currently below the line. Just give me some time to get back above it, and we can have this discussion then.”

Although submarines are helpful when we go below, we don’t want to stay there for long. How can we get back above the line? “Trampolines” are the coping mechanisms we use to bounce back above the line. These methods vary from person to person, but can include such things as exercise, reading, yoga, music, or hobbies. A meaningful token or symbol (a bracelet or keepsake), a photo of a loved one, or a short vacation can help us get our thinking above the line. Performing an act of kindness or being grateful can prevent us from dipping too far below the line as well.

Pass It On

We have met countless teachers and advisers throughout the country who not only make a difference in their own lives by being aware of their line, but also make a difference by passing this awareness on to their students. As such, they give their students hope by awakening in them their own power of choice.

As this is the beginning of the school year, there is no better time to introduce the concept of living above the line to your students and colleagues. Jeanne Schwabacher, a now-retired teacher of sixth grade in St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, taught her students the concept of living above and below the line. She says, “My students were characters in someone else’s story. Now, they are authors of their own lives.” As teachers and advisers, we have the power to help our students become authors of their own lives. Start the school year off on the right foot by helping them write their own stories. Show them how to take control of their inner selves and live above the line. Then, sit back and watch the positive impact it can have on your student council, honor society, and school as a whole.

Tom Cody is the co-founder of Top 20 Training; he was a middle school and high school math teacher for 40 years.

Sidebar: Processing

When beginning to apply the concept of living above the line to your daily life, consider the following questions:

  • What is it like for you when you are above the line and your thinking is effective?
  • What is it like when you are below the line and your thinking is ineffective?
  • Identify a time when you made a decision when you were below the line. What resulted from that decision? Did you create a mess?
  • What are your indicators? How would you know when you are below the line?
  • What is a “trampoline” you can use? How can you get your thinking back above the line?

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