“Make the right choice” is a phrase that you would hear often if you walk by my classroom and listen in. I have always felt a responsibility to encourage students to be the best version of themselves in the 180 days that they are with me. Like most teachers, I do not just view my students as they appear before my eyes in the present, but I also look at them from the lens of the future and what they will become. I have been teaching for 20 years and I have taught fourth, third, fifth, and now first grade. I am currently in my third year of first grade and I think this age is my absolute favorite.

First graders are impressionable, sweet, and often very funny (but they do not always realize that last aspect!). First graders can also be developmentally egocentric. This means they have trouble seeing outside of themselves and understanding others’ perspectives. Sometimes children have difficulty showing empathy towards others. As you can imagine, this can be quite problematic and can lead to conflict with peers. This is developmentally appropriate, but children may need help overcoming this obstacle. I try to help the students outgrow their egocentric tendencies as quickly as possible. In my classroom, I try to promote being a good citizen to the people around them. Here are some of the things I do to try to promote good classroom citizenship.

Be a Bucket Filler!

I always read the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud on the first day of school. This is an excellent book that teaches children in a very practical way to change someone else’s day for the better. I encourage children all year to fill someone else’s bucket. When someone fills my bucket or another person’s bucket, I publicly acknowledge this and make a big deal about it. We also look for ways to fill other teachers’ buckets as often as we can! Very soon, this creates a contagious atmosphere that encourages children to see beyond themselves and to help fill someone’s bucket. This book is a great resource.

Praise Specifically

Have you ever received a compliment from someone that was life- changing? Chances are, the compliment giver praised you specifically. The other day, another teacher gave me such a beautiful compliment. I found myself thinking about her words over and over again hours after she spoke to me. What she said to me filled me with tremendous joy. If I hear someone complain about a restaurant, he or she normally has a good reason-–poor service, the food came out too slowly, or the food simply did not taste good. I hear people criticize specifically, but not always compliment specifically. I think it is important to understand that students do not always know what we mean when we say “good job” or “great work.” It is almost abstract to them when we do not tell students what they did that was so great. When we praise students for specific things, magic happens. It encourages the behavior in that student, but it encourages other students to also emulate that behavior. When this happens, I say to myself, Make sure you do this more often, because it is so effective!

Focus on the Other Behavior

My beloved former principal, Mr. Pedersen, taught me this wonderful hack. This works like a charm for every age group that I have taught! It is interesting because it goes against my instincts. Normally, when you see a child behaving a certain way that goes against the rules, you want to call him or her out and ask them to stop. A more effective method is just the opposite. Next time, when you see a child misbehaving, instead of addressing the issue with that child, find a child that is doing the right thing. Publicly praise this other child. For example, if you are teaching a lesson and a student has his/her head on the desk and is clearly not paying attention, find a student that is making good eye contact, appears engaged, and say, “I love the way that this student is looking at me and is focused on his/her work.” As soon as you say this, you will see an obvious difference with the other child or children. Most students start doing exactly what you complimented the other student for! This shows children your expectations in a practical, tangible way.

Be Proactive With Behavior

This is very helpful, especially to those students who struggle daily with making the best choices. I noticed that sometimes I wait until a student misbehaves to correct their behavior. Once you know your students and know what they struggle with, try to compliment them before they make the wrong choice. I have a student this year that likes to move around. As he does so, he bumps into other students. He is not being malicious but is not cognizant of what he is doing. We were at an assembly, and I noticed that he was moving around but he was being careful not to bump into the other students. I tapped him on the shoulder and told him that I was proud of him for being considerate of his classmates. This is something that he needs reminders of throughout the day. For the rest of the assembly and for the rest of the day, he was careful to mind others’ personal space. Positive feedback can help prevent negative behaviors. I know it is hard to be mindful of this when you are knee deep in teaching, but it can be very helpful to you and your students.

Start the Day Off Right

Every day, start the day asking for the Lord’s blessing on your teaching. This makes a huge difference. As educators and school workers, we are impacting eternity! A parent told me a specific prayer that she goes to God with each day, and I try my best to start the day with this prayer: I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me to make the right decisions for the day ahead. We have no idea what obstacles, challenges, or choices we will be faced with. The Holy Spirit is a gift to us who wants to help us with our students. His name in Greek means “Helper”. Oftentimes, people have come up to me after a crisis and told me, “You stayed so calm” or “How did you do that?” or “You handled that so well!” I know it was the power of the Holy Spirit that guided me, calmed me, and showed me what to do. God wants to help you be the best teacher that you can be. All you have to do is ask.

Fran Turuta currently teaches at Smithtown Christian School which is located on Long Island, NY. She has worked as a camp counselor, a tutor, and a classroom teacher. She has over 20 years of experience and has taught 4th, 3rd, 5th, and 1st grades. She is a wife and a mother and enjoys standup paddle boarding, running, baking, and reading.

Photo by Lucas Alexander on Unsplash