Q&A with Former Teacher and Author Shirley Mathey
Former high school teacher Shirley Mathey is helping teenagers develop positive attitudes with her new book Become a More Positive Person: Three Practical Skills to Improve Self-Confidence. A former high school teacher, Mathey was well-known for developing her students’ personalities and helping them think positively. She has turned her classroom wisdom into a book, that includes specific exercises and changes young people can make to develop a more positive outlook on their present and future.
HFM Managing Editor interviewed Mathey as a source of inspiration that might help kids, and parents develop positive outlooks, and lessen the likelihood of turning to destructive behaviors during difficult times (see “Why do I Like to Hurt Myself?” here.)
HFM: Tell us a little about your background as a teacher and how it prompted you to develop this process of becoming a more positive person.
Even though I loved being a teacher to high school kids, I became well aware of the damage young people can do to themselves and others. One student came in one day and, as always, complained about everything. It was the morning, getting up, her parents, her jobs, coming to school, and I became alert to the fact this junior in high school blamed everybody but herself. It was the last day she would do that in my presence. She wanted someone to listen to her blaming the world for her existence. At the time, I was reading biographies and became aware: You always blame anyone but yourself. It was an eye opening experience for me. I sat down and began the process of teaching young people to claim their problems, never to blame others. It was a process that took years. I taught 5 classes of Family Living each day in Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Mich. In college I had a teacher who used her classroom experience to teach many other classroom experiences. I determined that every class would get the same treatment. How did I do that? Well, I bought poster board, cut them in half and made my flashcards to make sure every class had the same experience. My book, Become a More Positive Person, gives the flashcards on the left sheet and the description on the right. I realized most people choose one side or the other, so I tried to help them see that every subject has 2 sides.
HFM: What do you see as the root causes for negativity in kids and teens today?
The first cause is being exposed to negativity. The first person I worked on was me. I remember one fellow who said, “I wish you could meet my Mama.” He didn’t know how to deal with her. To help them understand that life is a creative flow, I said, “I want to be positive. But if I ever say something to someone that is mean or nasty, please come and take this bell and ring it one me. Then I will correct my message.” Well, it didn’t take long for the whole class to get involved. In three days, the ringing of the bell was over. My classroom was safe. But remember, it starts with someone who wants the place to be a place for growth.
HFM: What are some of the immediate and long-term effects of negativity in kids and teens?
The first step is control yourself. If that doesn’t happen, who knows? It seems that it depends on the situation in which he is surrounded.
HFM: How can thinking positively help kids and teens?
They begin to see there is a pathway of their own choosing. It is one of the reasons I like to teach this to teenagers. They are at the crossroads. Some are past it, but it helps them with choices to make.
HFM: Your book details 3 skills needed to become a more positive person. Tell us about the first skill, “thinking positively.”
The first skill is to learn to control your tongue. That is very difficult. Many people think they can say whatever comes on their mind. No, no. It is very necessary to recognize you do have control. It is the first understanding of being in charge of the situation, to be able to control the tongue. That is a big.
They have to understand what we say can become very important. One day as I was listening to young people speak on and on, they were saying some outlandish things. Then they began to happen. I realized that to control one’s tongue is a major step. A lady in my hometown was so happy to say whatever she had on her mind. She is dead and gone and her two girls hated her. They did not want her things, and gave things away to anybody. It’s very important to recognize that what you say can affect someone else.
I taught the students to say the things that help you accomplish more in life. Someone gave me the ladder of statements, but learning, “I Can, I Will, and I Did” are the big reasons we repeat it over and over, so they have a visual memory of how important it is.
HFM: The second skill you talk about is “start visualizing.” What does this mean?
Visualization is as major skill for finishing a job. I remember one girl who helped me understand the difference between wanting something and then finishing the project. She brought me a picture from 8th grade where she had started this embroidery picture. She finished the picture. It was her finishing the picture that helped me understand, we start things, but we don’t finish them. I began to look at, why don’t we? Well, the conclusion is a picture of the finished product. We see things started, but we need a visual picture of the finished thing. I used this for graduation. Some of our young people do not see the final picture, they can’t put up with the x. y, and z’s of finalizing the job. It’s true for completion of many of my projects, lots of typing, lots of time, lots of x, y, and z’s. But I finish them. I know to hunker down for the last of the project.
HFM: The third skill you talk about is “start action.” What does this entail?
The third skill is a memory challenge. We are so fascinated by day-to-day changes of life that we forget to finish our own. One of the challenges of finishing projects is remember our own. What happens is we are working on someone else’s project.
There was a study done, I can’t remember the college, who happened to ask the graduating seniors if they had written down their goals. About 6 percent had, some others had spoken about them and many of the others had not seriously completed that challenge. This was a long-term project, like 20 years. The results were amazing. They finished with the results they had started with. I say to students: Know what you want, or else you will be working on someone else’s goals. The goal is simple. Write down about 6 goals for tomorrow. It can be a fancy notebook or the back of an envelope. Who are you trying to control? Yourself. That’s it.
HFM: Is positive thinking about getting through the day effectively, or is it about leading a more enriching life?
HFM: What types of things can parents do to raise more positive teens?
Work on yourself. The great challenge for me has always been a project of some size. I have done some interesting things after leaving the classroom because I knew I could. I became the social historian of Garden Point Cemetery where I organized, found the obits to prove the deaths and put them into the ledger. There were no records of our free cemetery. It is now a state and national historic place. I still keep the records and have a website: gardenpointcemetery.com I have recorded pictures and the memories the 4-H House where I was a member at the University of Arkansas and worked in the church and on my high school memories.
Does this help others? I know someone has to be a role model. My son has always admired me, but I have a granddaughter who is just beginning.
HFM: Who is the intended audience for your book: parents, kids, teens, everyone?
I loved to teach students because of their crossroads. But many adults are hungry to know what to do.
I loved to teach adults, “I Can, I Will, I Did.” That makes my day. It’s also important to remember the page of work that stimulates my thinking. It is in my notebook, and young people hated me for asking them to do the project. It is the appreciations of life page. I named 12 categories and then list 12 things you are thankful for. The amazing thing is, it brings you out of the doldrums. I sit down and do one of these paperwork things whenever I am blue. It takes away your laziness and makes you appreciate everything about you. It still helps me.
Mathey’s book is available for purchase on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Become-More-Positive-Person-ebook/dp/B008EGBC8G).
Editor’s note: last edit July, 2022