Habit of Balance

Tuesday is for Teachers

Habits of Heart for Teachers

Habit of Balance

Habit of Balance

Today begins a series of posts on the Habit of Balance. I found it all too easy to be consumed with the daily needs, expectations, schedules, and classroom dynamics when I taught. I really had tunnel vision about using every minute of class time for instruction, practice, and assessment, and I seldom had a thought about personal matters outside the school building. Teaching truly was my mission and ministry because my students needed so much.

Balancing the needs of your students, yourself, and your family is not an easy task. We’ll look at these potential habits for achieving balance:

  • counting joys
  • taking care of yourself
  • maintaining a sense of humor
  • keeping your heart open


If you’ve followed this blog you are familiar with my personal feelings on counting joys, based on Ann Voskamp’s book, one thousand gifts.  Put in the word “gratitude” in a Google search and you will get a number of very current studies on the topic. Researchers are looking at the value of the feeling of gratitude and measuring its effect on aggression, empathy, happiness, relationships, and prosocial behavior. For a teacher under enormous pressure to raise test scores you may want to dismiss this whole idea as a waste of time. First, would you consider these questions with your current students in mind.

  1. Do you want your students to show less aggression in the classroom and halls?
  2. Do you want them to feel empathy for an “underdog” or a fellow student with hurt feelings?
  3. Do you want their relationships in the classroom to have less conflict?
  4. Do you wish they had better prosocial behavior (good manners, respect for others, integrity)?

How much time in class revolves around solving a conflict, reminding students to be respectful, or reviewing classroom expectations? If you are a veteran teacher, you probably remember when students came to school with most of these behaviors already ingrained into their life from parents. I caught a glimpse of Mr. Holland’s Opus the other day on TV and noticed the classroom behavior of his students. They sat quietly listening to every word, taking notes, totally engrossed in his lesson. These were high school students but I could not help but compare them to my last class of 8th graders before I retired in 2010. Students have changed, and teaching is not the same.as the 1960s.

In 2003 Ron Clark, a Disney Teacher of the Year, wrote his book The Essential 55: An Award-winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child. He basically outlined 55 rules that his 5th graders needed to become successful in the classroom and in life. If you look at the list, you’ll find a large chunk of rules that about relationships and how to treat other people.

I realize that I’m not giving new information to most teachers, but achieving a goal such as improving prosocial behavior in the classroom seems an impossibility  along with all the other demands in the classroom. The Habit of Balance in the life of a teacher can transfer into the classroom. If you are able to find joy in your teaching life, you can translate that into your teaching. I’d like to share some facts from researchers that illustrate the importance of gratitude in your own life as well as the lives of your students.


“At the University of Kentucky, a study led by Nathan DeWall looked at the effect gratitude has on aggression and empathy. Students turned in an essay paper, for which some received praise and others received scathing criticisms. Afterward, each student played a computer game against the person who had evaluated their paper.

In the game, the winner could administer a loud blast of white noise at the loser. Those who had received bad evaluations on their papers sent much louder blasts than those who had gotten positive feedback.

But one thing changed that tendency. One subgroup of students had been instructed to write their essays about things they were grateful for. Those students, after receiving harsh critiques, did not send louder blasts in the computer game. It appeared that after counting their blessings, they were no longer bothered by the negative criticism. ‘Higher empathy mediated the relationship between gratitude and lower aggression,’ DeWall wrote in the journal, Social Psychological & Personality Science. ‘Gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others and stimulates prosocial behavior.’”

The New York Times quotes primary author Nathan Dewall as explaining, “Gratitude is more than just feeling good. It’s an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”

The pursuit of happiness

What every recent study on gratitude seems to share is that in addition to the specific benefits each noted, thankful people tended to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. The participants in Dr. Emmons’ study, for example, were more enthusiastic about their activities and more optimistic about the week that lay ahead.

The Associated Press reports coauthor Michael McCullough explaining, “When you are stopping and counting your blessings, you are sort of hijacking your emotional system” — resetting yourself to see things in a new light.

And this reset can be accomplished in simple ways. Kent State University researchers Steven Toepfer and Kathleen Walker researched the effect of writing grateful letters on the well-being of a group of young adult students.

The project required participants to write three letters over three weeks to someone in their lives for whom they were thankful. Remy Melina on the site LiveScience reports the instructions were specific: no pithy thank-you notes, no throwaways. They had to mean something for the writer and the recipient.

The study concluded that the letter-writers saw increases in their levels of gratitude over time– but also in their levels of overall happiness. For its authors, the project revealed a clear connection between being grateful and being happy. Even more importantly, the happiness was increased through intentional action on the part of individuals.

What this means? “The volitional act of writing letters of gratitude supports previous research which demonstrated that individuals have the ability to direct positive change in their lives,” said the authors. People can make themselves happier.

They can do it today, by giving thanks.

Besides having students write letters of gratitude or to have a bulletin board where students post individual thanks on sticky notes, what else can a teacher do to give students opportunities for gratitude? Depending on the age of your students they may need a model for counting gifts. Start a list for the whole class on chart paper. As you think of something during class or during the day, stop and write it large enough for students to see. Just write the gift. See how they respond. After a day or two, let students write some on the chart.

Bean Jar

When I taught a difficult class of 6th graders in my last full year of teaching, I found them to be desperately in need of empathy for others, respect for themselves and each other, less aggressive, and lacking in skills to solve conflicts. I put the whole class on individual behavior contracts so they could earn rewards for their own personal behavior, but I also had a class goal. I used a glass jar and dried beans as a visual reminder of our progress. When the class demonstrated appropriate behavior in the hall or other places throughout the school, I would drop beans into the jar. When the jar was filled, we had a celebration.

One of the ways to make them aware of how their behavior was perceived as a group involved the adults we encountered in the hall traveling from place to place. If an administrator, guidance counselor, etc. bragged on their behavior, more beans went into the jar. Don’t you know those students paid attention to the comments made about their behavior! They never let me forget to add beans to the jar for their appropriate behavior.

Start counting today! I’m thankful for teachers with tender hearts who continue to seek effective ways to guide students to be better socially, emotionally, and intellectually.



2 thoughts on “Habit of Balance

  1. Ann McElhiney

    Martell, I am grateful for your blog. Bobby and I have been involved with prison ministry for a number of years and now teach an Anger Management Course at the Correctional Development Center for Women. I find so many good ideas and information that we can apply in our class. Thank you for the time and effort you put into making your blog so very helpful.


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