Teachers Change the World with Creative Strengths Spotting

Kathryn HaydonEducators

Teachers Change the World with Creative Strengths Spotting

By Kathryn P. Haydon


As teachers, how can we change the world most powerfully?

By unlocking the strengths of our students.

Think of Peter Reynolds’s seventh grade math teacher, who saw him doodling and called him aside after class. Mr. Matson didn’t admonish him, but asked if Peter would use his drawing skills to create a comic to illustrate to the class the difficult math concept they were learning. Talk about impact!

This one act validated and encouraged Peter’s “sharing through drawing” for life. It was a tiny pebble that started a magnificent, self-perpetuating ripple effect.

Now, his book The Dot along with his other books have sold over 25 million copies. Millions of people in almost 200 countries participate annually in Dot Day, and millions around the world have been encouraged to “make their own marks.” And this is just ONE of Mr. Matson’s students.

But there’s a problem.

We face so many demands and have so little time. Kids these days seem harder to manage and behavior problems abound. How can we possibly do for each of our students what Mr. Matson did for his?

Over my two decades in education, first as a teacher and now working with teachers, I’ve created a simple (and free!) tool to help: the Creative Strengths Spotter. When we begin to see through the lens of creative strengths, it becomes second nature to spot them in students and find ways to harness them.

Spot Your Own Strengths First

Just like they say on airplanes about oxygen masks, it’s key to start with your own strengths. To get the complete and full-sized PDF workbook, go to Creative Strengths Spotter. Here in this article I’ll give the simple version.

Take a look at the t-shirts below.

Which resonate most strongly with you?

Which would you be proud to wear, because you feel they describe you?

Choose as many as you’d like.

Sparkitivity Strengths Spotter Page

You may have chosen them all, or you may have chosen a handful. Now look back on your t-shirts and pick your top three. Then, pick your top one.

Write it on your whiteboard as a reminder, or on the back of your hand with Sharpie. Notice how you exemplify this strength each day.

How do you currently use it?

In what ways might you use it more?

How might you amplify it in your teaching? 

Seeing and using your own creative strengths is the first step to spotting them in students. When you do, you serve as a role model and students learn from your example. You start your own ripple effect.

A teacher in one of my professional development workshops realized that humor was one of her top strengths. “I use humor all the time in class, but I didn’t realize it is a creative strength!” she told the group. Once she saw that humor was a major asset to her teaching and to her students’ development, she became even more intentional about using it in her classroom.

Spot Your Students’ Strengths

Now, pick t-shirts for your students. Begin with your most difficult, your “problem child.” The one with a reputation throughout the school.

“I can’t see that kid’s strengths!” you might say. “(S)he drives me nuts!”

Good news. Recently I created a new dimension for the strengths spotter. You can look for the things that annoy you; these are an indication of creative strengths that need harnessing. For example, the distracted doodler in Mr. Matson’s class was really a kid brimming with imagination. Perhaps Mr. Matson had to see the problem first, before he saw the strength.

So often the problems that students manifest in class result from intense creative strengths lacking avenues for expression. In math, all Peter could do to use his strength was to doodle, but Mr. Matson’s brilliance was to give it a valid avenue for use, something connected to the task at hand in the classroom.

In the description of each strength in creative strengths spotter key, you can see what strength each “problem behavior” might indicate.

For example, Walt Disney (and so many others) was often misunderstood as a kid. As you can imagine, he had a keen sense of humor. Yet instead of identifying him as a troublemaker, his middle school principal understood that his humor was a top strength and sanctioned its use during the school day. He let him pop into other classrooms to tell jokes! This was a less clever solution than Mr. Matson’s, but it gave Walt a chance to use his humor during the school day without getting in trouble.

When teachers are able to see through the lens of creative strengths, we begin to identify our students accurately. We begin to identify their possibility. When we’re willing to flip our thinking from deficit-based to creative strengths-based mindset, we can actually change the world–one student ripple effect at a time.

About the Author: 

Kathryn Haydon is an award-winning educator and the founder of Sparkitivity.  She works with teachers to integrate creative process and skill-building into academic curriculum to personalize learning, improve collaboration, and deepen engagement. 

Kathryn has written and spoken widely on academic creativity, personalized learning, and the secret strengths of outlier learners. She is the author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative (No Matter Where You Work) (coming in February 2019), and co-author of Creativity for Everybody (2015) and Discovering and Developing Talents in Spanish-Speaking Students (2012). She has written several chapters in edited volumes and hundreds of articles. She earned her BA in Spanish literature and economics at Northwestern University, and her M.Sc. in creativity and change leadership at the State University of New York. Please visit Kathryn at www.sparkitivity.com


Kathryn Haydon helps you maximize your creative strengths so you can do your best work. Through keynotes, workshops, and consulting, she trains individuals, leaders, and teams to find the unique spark that leads to deep engagement and productivity.

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