Habits of Heart for Teachers #3

HabitsofHeartA series about habits teachers need for the long haul

CourageHabit of Courage

Habit of Balance

Habit of Balance:

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

EncouragementHeartHabit of Encouragement


  • you run late and haven’t prepared your room for the first lesson,
  • every 5 minutes an announcement over the intercom interrupts your class,
  • the disagreement in the hall spills over into your room and becomes a shouting match,

what is your default mode? Do you react or are you proactive? What kind of words pour out of your mouth and spread throughout the room?

When you’ve been teaching a few years, you have a default mode that kicks in because “you’ve been here before”. Default mode comes when you are sick and should really be in bed this day, or you are just so tired today.

Teaching requires energy; some days it requires superhuman energy. The younger your students are, the more energy it takes. If you don’t believe that, you must be a middle or high school teacher. I’ve taught pre-school and kindergarten; my last two years of teaching were with 6th graders and 8th graders. No comparison in the type of physical energy needed for those little ones. Can you identify your default mode? When do you start giving directions without even thinking?

The way we speak to children or teenagers – the words we use, the tone of voice, body language, facial expression — the whole package is critically important.

This is not a post to make you feel guilty, but to gently remind you of the power of your words. It is so easy to get into a rut. You have to consciously pay attention to your words, especially when you can feel the negativity spreading around the room. You may need to practice words of encouragement until the habit becomes part of the fabric of your daily uniform.

I have to pause and throw in a tip that I used on occasion with middle schoolers when the negativity became epidemic. I stopped the action in class like a movie to say,  “Cut! This is not my 5th period class (substitute your own). Some other students have come in and spread negative thoughts and words all over! We’re going out in the hall and taking the negativity with us. We’ll leave it there in the hall so that my ‘real’ class can come in.”

Going to the hall creates opportunities for silliness or just disruption. You only do this when you think it is worth the time and effort. When they are in the hall, repeat your directions. Make it a pantomime. “Silently, knock the negative thoughts off your shoulders. Then wipe your brain clear of the negative. Let those negative words drop into your hand and throw them away.”

Will this work? Depends on your students, depends on you ability to pull it off with a straight face and dignity. You will need to adjust it to fit your age group. Younger kids will love shaking out the negative stuff. It may do nothing else but give you an opportunity to restart the class and give some motivation for replacing negative with positive.

As my daddy used to say in his sermons, “There’s no charge for that.”

Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School, is a classic how-to for new teachers, full of detailed steps in beginning the school year with procedures and establishing rules. You may this book on your shelf and haven’t looked at it in years. I just want to remind you of his advice on high expectations and motivating positive student behavior. They are simple and seemingly obvious steps:

  1. Address a student by name
  2. Say “please” and “thank you”
  3. Smile
  4. Care for your students

“An effective teacher is caring, warm, and lovable” (?). The older your students are the less likely you to want to appear to be lovable. The point is that your students know you care about them. Teachers in middle schools and high schools use different strategies to communicate this caring than elementary, but I’ve heard too many high school students say that their teachers do not care. Perception is everything and their perception is some teachers don’t care about anything.

Encouraging Words

In the Montessori approach children are encouraged to explore and discover on their own. They learn to work independently and move at their own pace. The one thing you will not hear in those classrooms are extravagant words of praise. Children are going about their business; they don’t need an adult to brag on them, remarking on how wonderful/smart/intelligent/creative they are.Playdough1.10

Montessori and Piaget questioned the use of praise by adults to foster positive self-esteem. Most behaviorists and researchers now believe that vague phrases such as, “Good job! or What a nice picture!” are ineffective. I learned while teaching students with disabilities that interrupting students as they work with some type of praise was detrimental to their completing the task.

The Responsive Classroom has published some great books with suggestions for the language that teachers use. They call it “reinforcing” and “celebrating” learning. If you have not read any of their material, click on the blue phrase to see very specific help in language.

“Praise the deed, not the doer. Heard this before? It’s the same concept. When you want to comment on a student’s work, be very specific. Describe what has been done. A frequent phrase to use at the beginning of your sentence is “I notice that . . . ” With older students, try to notice their work in private. Your positive observation may result in a totally negative reaction by an 8th grader or an 11th grader.

When you’ve thrown out a question to the whole class and a student answers a question incorrectly, how do you respond? You don’t want to dampen enthusiasm or effort, but the correct answer is important. Years ago, special education used a term called “close approximation”. Sometimes your goal had to be “nearly there” for a student. You might use the same idea by noticing the part of the answer that is correct. You might also make a comment such as, “I can see how you came to the answer because . . . ”

6thProjectIt is so natural to share your opinion about improvement in a class’s behavior, but look at the two different ways to say it:

I am so proud of this class for finishing their projects on time.

Everyone in class has finished their project on time by staying focused and using your time wisely.

If you like your information in bullets, here is today’s recap:

  • praise the student’s work or accomplishment, not the student
  • be very specific and describe the behavior you are reinforcing
  • look for ways to comment on partial achievement
  • notice achievement in private with older students

Counting the blessings for children whose teachers:

  • use words of encouragement to reinforce learning
  • find creative ways to change the atmosphere of a classroom
  • recognize the importance of effort in learning



2 thoughts on “Habits of Heart for Teachers #3

  1. Therese Williams

    Joy Martel,

    These are such excellent tips. Thanks so much for sharing and giving us all something to think about.


    Superintendent of Catholic Schools Diocese of Nashville St. Mary Villa, 30 White Bridge Road Nashville, TN 37205 (615) 760-4403 FAX (615) 353-7972 ________________________________

    1. JoyMartell Post author

      Thank you so much Therese for letting me know when something is helpful. This blog writing is like sending out your words with the wind. You don’t always know where they land!


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