Have you noticed how easy it is to focus on the negative things in both people and circumstances? It comes so naturally. Once I start noticing an irritating trait in a student or situation and think about it repeatedly, it mushrooms. Soon I see their many prickly traits cropping up all over the place. In fact, unless I set my mind to look for the things of good report around me, I zero in on the difficult things by default – and quickly feel drained, both emotionally and physically. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with my thoughts. What I think about most grows and ends up growing in actions or negative words I soon regret.
So how can I practice the habit of noticing the positive? How can I encourage students by affirming the good?
As a teacher, I also have to confront and redirect ungodly behavior and attitudes in the classroom. That is a necessary part of life. And yet, experience has repeatedly reminded me that without ample affirming words behind those necessary corrections, the reproofs end up simply falling to the ground without really being heard. That fits with what I heard someone say years ago: you ought to speak ten positives to one negative. Although I am sure I have never reached that ratio, it has often motivated me when I’ve interacted with students whose behavioral issues require many corrections. With that in mind, through the years I have frequently asked myself how I can intentionally cultivate a habit of noticing and affirming that which is praiseworthy.
Here I attempt to list a few ways I have actively sought to focus on the noble, the admirable, and the praiseworthy.
First on the list is earnest prayer, asking for eyes to see the good in others and in situations. God honors those prayers. But in the same way that I can’t eat junk food and then pray that it will turn into organic kale, I can’t pray some magic prayer without also directing my mind to actively reflect on what is excellent and of good report. This is, after all, a part of renewing my mind and of taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Asking the Lord for proper vision often includes repeatedly thanking Him for the privilege of working with a difficult student – and asking Him to help me to see it as a privilege. I often think of Philippians 2:13 where I read that God is the one who gives me both the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. I need that desire and power to walk forward, so I turn to Him.
Then, too, I think of how a practice of years has helped me in this quest to deliberately set my mind to seek the good. This tradition is one of periodically telling stories about individuals in the classroom without divulging their names. I recount something I observed and give it a character trait name: gratitude, respect, hospitality, availability, wisdom, or kindness, for example. They love these stories, often recognize them, and eagerly guess the person’s name. This routine tradition never loses its joy. They love it. The students know that each child gets the same amount, usually one every 3-4 weeks, but not everyone on the same day. I tell the stories, but then I give them a small certificate with a nice picture, their name and the named character quality on the front. On the back, I write a short phrase that helps me remember the story to go with it. These bits of paper are collected, treasured, and then at the end of the year added to their lapbooks. What a reward it is to have students start noticing these good things in their peers, sidle up to me, and whisper, “Miss Yoder, I have a story about _______.” This practice of regular storytelling, born out of a deep desire to cultivate noticing the good in my students, takes time. But it is one I intend to keep.
One of the first years of my teaching, I kept a list of character qualities and their definitions in a prominent spot where I would routinely work at memorizing them. Having words to describe or define a positive action is a powerful tool. I used the words as vocabulary words so they would become familiar to all of us. Even today, when I can’t come up with a specific, recent story for a child, perusing the character qualities list with a prayer in my heart usually helps.
In addition, for several years I gave each child a craft stick with their name on it. When they heard me affirm them, they handed it in. The intent of this project was aimed purely and simply at me – to help me intentionally think about ways to speak positively. The same kind of thing can be done in reverse – asking them to speak words of blessing to a classmate and then hand the craft stick in when they speak a kind word to someone. This takes some coaching. A thoughtless, “Good job” just so they can hand it in doesn’t cut it. Along the same vein, a child who has a habit of speaking unkind words can be required to write out five kind things about the person he had spoken ill of. This can be homework given, along with a call of explanation to the parent. I found this to be well received and appreciated (by the parent at least!)
When I sense a child needs an extra shot of encouragement, I like to write out the positive story, privately read it to the child, and then ask him to deliver it to his parents. In this way, the positive is affirmed several times, and parents appreciate the encouragement too. In like manner, phone calls or texts affirming a child’s good choices are also powerful tools. One year I discovered that one struggling student was especially motivated by good reports given to his mother. So for a time I daily chose one thing the student had done well (completely bypassing the number of things that had not gone well), and texted the good report to the mother. It was well worth the effort – both for my sake in that it caused me to deliberately notice the admirable things, and also for how it motivated the student to be increasingly diligent. Such texts can also include pictures, such as a page neatly written along with a comment about the pleasure you feel when you check the neat work. Well chosen praise is life-giving!
In teaching, I most naturally think in terms of me, the teacher, giving to them, the students. And it is true; I give a lot. But that focus alone quickly drains me. While this point may seem a bit different from those listed above, I find that seeing myself as receiving as well as giving really opens my eyes to seeing the good and the positive. Students offer so much to me. They enrich my life tremendously. When I see the love offered through the wilted flowers handed to me after recess, I focus on lovely thoughts. When I listen to them heartily singing “I sing the mighty power of God” we worship together and my thoughts center in on what is right and pure. When I regularly give them time to tell about their evening at home, and see it not as them taking away from the important things I have planned for the day, but instead as a treasured peek into their hearts and lives, guess who is blessed most? In all these ways and more, I become not primarily the giver, but a receiver. Allowing them to give to me adds a pleasant atmosphere to the classroom and yes, it helps me think upon the pure and the lovely things around me and in my students.
I can choose to think on whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. Phil. 4:8
CONTRIBUTOR: Betty Yoder