Bringing Your Best Self into the New Year

Teaching is both challenging (exhausting) and fulfilling. The time off in December can be a time to breathe, renew your energy and refocus on your passion and vision for yourself as a teacher and what you want for your students. Parker Palmer’s book Courage to Teach is a lovely resource for renewing your sense of purpose, and cultivating your capacity to teach wholeheartedly, for your ability to bring the best of you into your classroom.

Effective teachers have of a strong sense of personal identity and enthusiasm that infuses their teaching with inspiration and challenge.

  • What do you love or care about? Share some of that interest or passion with your students so that they know you as a human being.
  • What do you love about what you teach? What tickles you and brings you joy in learning? Let your students see that part of you too. It might be what delights you about reading or about solving a math problem. Pause now and then and reflect on the wonder of discovery and learning.istock_000006223937small
  • How do you connect with your students about the delight of learning? It is so easy to focus on what is not going well. Can you make a promise with your self to pause once a day and have a “share the joy of learning moment” in some small or humorous way?

Effective teachers build authentic learning communities and connection. Many of our students come from cultures that are less individualistic and building connections supports their learning as well.

  • Continue to build in opportunities for students to share what they are learning. Pair sharing and small group work more powerful at building connections than displaying or presenting in front of large groups.
  • Routines and rituals build a sense of connection in the classroom. What is unique about your classroom that your students can identify with? Do you have a chant, a signal, transition music, a ritual for acknowledging mistakes or some other thing that makes your learning community special? Ask your students what they think makes your room special.
  • Class meetings and compliment circles where students have a voice and hear others’ perspectives are one of the most practical and powerful ways to build classroom community. We recommend the regular structure of Positive Discipline class meetings 3-5 times/week for elementary classrooms and once a week for secondary classrooms. There are lots of resources for how to teach class meetings and learn more about them.

Effective teachers take care of themselves. You cannot be your best self pouring from an empty pitcher.

  • Spend time with the people and things you enjoy outside of school. Get some movement, some quiet time, some time with people you love.
  • You could spend 20 hours a day on doing your work and it still wouldn’t be perfect. Learn to let go and be proud of “good enough.” Your students need you – not the “perfect” lesson.
  • Collaborate with and get support from colleagues. You can learn time-saving techniques and share work.
  • Get enough sleep. Teachers are notorious for thinking they can do with less. Not true. New brain research shows that sleep is very important for “brain cleaning,” for learning and for preventing dementia long term.

Here is another resource from the Center for Courage and Renewal on the Heart of a Teacher.

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Growing Social Responsibility

Cultivating community interest and a sense that “we are in it together” in our children enhances their moral development and broadens their perspective, encouraging them to think beyond themselves.  Teaching social responsibility begins with modeling. You don’t teach your children who you want them to be…you teach them who you are. Start early!

  • Model sharing. When grocery shopping, help children pick out items to purchase that will be contributed to a food drive. Older children can be given a dollar amount to spend on these items, learning budgeting skills as well.
  • Grow and share. If your family has a garden, give your child a small section of their own. Tending a garden takes patience and responsibility. At harvest time consider sharing some produce with a local food pantry.
  • Make an offering of what you don’t need. Have your children sort through toys and clothes, picking out items they no longer play with and have outgrown to give to a charity.iStock_000005516589Small
  • Help at the holidays. As a family, volunteer at a food bank, “adopt” an elderly person at a nursing home to spend time with, or adopt a family through the Salvation Army or another non-profit. Bake good to share with neighbors. Encourage your children to participate and/ or to make cards or gifts.
  • Help out on your street. Make time to sit and enjoy a cup of tea with an older neighbor, have your children take an elderly neighbor’s trash bins to the street, or help him or her with garden tasks.
  • Research and donate. One family did a family cleanup for 2 hours every weekend and “paid themselves” $25 each week. The monies went on a ledger and they had quite a sum by the end of the year. They put aside $100 for a fun family activity and on the day after Thanksgiving, the children researched and selected non-profit organizations to which they gave the rest.
  • Reflect and celebrate together. After the holiday season is over, have each member of your family share which gift was the one they could hardly wait to give.
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Building Connection and Responsibility

There is now clear evidence that children learn better when they sense that they are part of a learning community that is safe and respectful. Learning how to participate and contribute to the classroom community is a big part of what builds their skills to be resourceful, respectful and responsible citizens of the larger world as they become adults. When students are taught to apply their energies in a way that is socially useful, in ways that make their part of the world a better place, they develop a deep sense that they are capable and that their contributions matter. A classroom environment that provides these opportunities does not just happen. You build it carefully.  You may want to use the list below as a checklist for what you have done, or a place to start now one step at a time. Here are places to begin:

Structures for safety:

  • Clear routines that are practiced regularly.
  • Classroom agreements (instead of rules) that are co-generated with students. Some classrooms call this the “classroom charter”. Refer to this regularly so that it stays alive. “How are we doing on our agreement to _____?” (Thumbs up/sideways/down). “What can you do to make it better right now?”
  • Teach self-regulation. Students feel safer when the classroom tone is regulated. Not all students come to school with the ability to manage their stress. Regular practice, teaching “the brain in the hand” and modeling self-regulation help students grow the parts of their brain that can keep them focused on the work at hand. The picture below was done by Ms. Isakson, a third-grade teacher, as her students learned about their brains.
  • Model and teach that mistakes are opportunities to learn. This is not the message that all students bring with them to school. Students need to be able to make mistakes and take risks to be able to learn well.img_3349
  • Avoid any shaming or public put-downs. This applies to what you say, what you do and your tone of voice. Avoid tracking inappropriate behavior publicly. This increases stress levels for all students.

Create connections teacher to student and student to student:

  • Get to know your students. You know how to do this and it is easier for some of us than others. You can have lunch with small groups, use interactive journal writing, or create situations where students can share more about their own lives and cultures.
  • Help them know each other. You do this already through pair sharing, seating arrangements and small group work. How might that expand?
  • Challenge curiosity. When we are curious about the world and each other, we grow connections and compassion. It is the foundation of becoming a self-motivated learner. Begin to use the word curiosity in different kinds of lessons. “What might this character be wondering or be curious about?” “Before we start learning about (the ocean, spiders, Latin America) what are you curious about?”
  • Use class meetings. Positive Discipline class meetings start with compliments. With practice the compliments become richer and students begin to appreciate each other and build better connections.

Expand opportunities to contribute.

  • Classroom jobs. Make sure students have social responsibility within the classroom. Create a structure for jobs and rotating jobs. Think broadly. Do you have a welcomer who introduces each guest? Do you have a class “medic” in charge of the bandaids? Older students can write job descriptions and “train” each other.
  • Teach problem solving and create a space for problem solving in the classroom. The ability to navigate small problems improves a child’s sense of agency and transfers to solving academic problems as well. Simple tools include using Bugs and Wishes and the Four Problem Solving Steps.
  • Use class meetings to solve problems that students experience in and out of the classroom. When students solve problems together they grow their sense of “we are capable.”
  • Welcome differences and student voice. Once students are skilled at being respectful to each other, create an “opinion continuum”. Read a statement expressing a certain opinion then have students choose from: I strongly agree/I agree/I’m not sure/I disagree/I strongly disagree.  Invite students to explain and discuss.
  • Engage the bigger world. Invite the class to do a community service project. What can they do to improve the school or larger community? Ideas include: recycling program, playground cleanup, penny drive, plan a field trip for a younger class. Planning and executing the project as well as reflecting on the experience allows students to see themselves as part of a team and a bigger community.

Resources:  For lessons plans to teach setting classroom guidelines, self-regulation, classroom routines, jobs, problem solving and class meetings we recommend Positive Discipline in the School and Classroom Teachers’ Guide: Activities for Students. It is available at

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Gratitude Builds Connection

Schools can strengthen students’ connections to teachers, schools and communities. Research done since 2006 suggests there is a free, simple, effective practice that can be placed into existing curriculum across subjects and grade levels: teaching gratitude. Here are some ideas for first steps:

  • Class meetings. Positive Discipline class meetings start with compliments. Often the compliments are a form of appreciation and gratitude. They build connection and empathy, too.IMG_1715
  • A gratitude journal. Have students keep a daily gratitude journal. Studies have shown that this single activity is connected to more optimism and life satisfaction, fewer physical complaints and fewer negative emotions. Journaling ideas might include:
    • Write 3 or 4 things and/or people they are grateful for and why.
    • Write a specific letter of gratitude to a person they have not thanked or appreciated. They could read or send the letter to the person.
    • Respond to prompts, for example, “My day/life is better because __________” or even “I am grateful for chores because ____________”, to encourage them to think more deeply.
    • Share how their family practices gratitude.
  • A gratitude wall. Invite students to share thing that they are grateful for in a designated space on a wall of the classroom. Join them in writing things you are grateful for.
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Gratitude is Good for You

In the past decade, several long-term research studies have shown a strong connection between gratitude and greater social support and protection from stress and depression over time. It helps people stay happier and healthier. The studies suggest that gratitude in children helps them form, maintain and strengthen relationships as well as helping them feel connected to their community. Here are some ideas for growing “gratitude muscles” in your family. Children learn from our example.

  • Talk about being grateful out loud. It might sound like, “Thank you for” or “I’m grateful for.”
  • Include gratitude in your routines. You may be a family that shares gratitude before meals, gratitude for joys of the day before bedtime or a family that regularly reflects on things you are grateful for including friends and each other.
  • Keep a family gratitude journal or jar. Your family can write down things you are grateful for and then on special occasions take time to read what you have been grateful for together.iStock_000003429911Small
  • Model and encourage helping others and nurturing relationships. When children see us helping others, they are more likely to follow suit. When children lend a hand to another – especially if they are using their own strengths, they feel more connected to those they are helping. They learn that tending to relationships should be a priority.
  • Plant the seeds of gratitude early. Gratitude thrives in an environment of connection and belonging. When infants’ and toddlers’ needs are satisfied with love and patience, we are planting the seeds of gratitude.
  • Teach your children how to contribute. Help your child discover his or her passion and then to use that passion to make a difference by giving back. The strongest sense of gratitude comes from connecting to a ‘bigger picture’.
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Mistakes Can Be Opportunities

No one likes to make mistakes. Making mistakes can invite uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame. Those feelings result in students (and most of us) thinking about mistakes in ways that aren’t helpful. Students may think that mistakes are “bad” or that others will laugh at them if they do something wrong. They may work really hard to try not to make any mistakes – to be perfect. These thoughts and feelings invite students to feel discouraged or to give up.2015-05-Lakeridge-14

As an educator you know that learning requires making some mistakes. Can you imagine learning math or how to spell if you couldn’t make mistakes? It also requires taking one more step: learning from our mistakes. Creating a classroom where mistakes are opportunities to learn helps students take responsibility and develop a growth mindset conducive to learning. Here are some ideas:

  • Be transparent about your own mistakes and invite students to help you find the repair. “Whoops, I made a mistake. How can I fix it?”
  • Teach and model the process of repairing a mistake.
    • Regather: Make sure both of you are calm.
    • Recognize: Own your part of the problem.
    • Reconcile: Briefly express regret. Don’t make excuses.
    • Resolve: Share with the other person what you will do to prevent the problem in the future.
  • Celebrate instructional mistakes (yours and theirs). Create a community where it is safe to learn from the mistakes made in math and reading.
  • When students make a mistake, focus on how they can fix it instead of the mistake itself.
  • Remind students that anytime we learn, we will make mistakes and that is different than being a mistake (being stupid, lazy, careless).
  • Have a class discussion about what mistakes mean to your students and what kind of self-talk they use when they make a mistake. Help them find new words so that they can learn from their mistakes.
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Traditional discipline often focuses on what not to do – often blaming, shaming or humiliating children when they make a mistake, in an attempt to “teach” them to behave. Isn’t it interesting that we think we have to make children feel worse before they can do better? Positive Discipline focuses instead on teaching children what to do. They don’t always get it right the first time, but they do learn. We can start by iStock_000001426250Smallmodeling the courage to be imperfect ourselves– acknowledging and repairing our own mistakes. We can also:

  • Ask curiosity questions when children have an issue: What happened? How did it happen? What were you trying to accomplish? I wonder what you try next time?
  • Remember that your children are children. They are not mini adults. Just as toddlers have to fall down repeatedly before they can walk, our children need to make lots of mistakes as they learn.
  • Model and teach the 4 R’s of recovering from mistakes:
    • Re-gather – Make sure everyone is calm.
    • Recognize – “Wow, I made a mistake.”
    • Reconcile – “I apologize.”
    • Resolve – “Next time I will…” or “Let’s work on a solution.”

More on learning from mistakes:Modeling how to handle adversity  Creating protection from shame  Making amends and more on fixing mistakes


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