The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Feeding the Energy

We talk about energy in a lot of different ways. There is the scientific notion of energy as power used to carry out motion. There is also energy that describes how we are carrying out our own lives. There is also the energy we get from others that impacts our moods. (This energy is also given to others as we impact them.) Ideally, this energy is positive and builds us up, making us all feel a lot happier. But sometimes the energy is negative, and it makes us, and others, feel frustrated and upset.

The thing is, sometimes we can get so used to the negative that it starts to be what we feed on. It starts to be what we start to think of as positive because we honestly don’t know the difference. And then we don’t only come to expect negative to come to us, we start to believe that negative is all we should produce, too.

This is something we talked about as a class today. There has been a lot of negative energy in the room this year. Those who read my blog regularly know that I try to focus on the positives, but I also want to be honest. While we have had some amazingly wonderful things happen, I have been disheartened by all of the negative energy. As I’ve talked to other teachers, I’ve come to realise that this negativity has been hovering over my class like a dark raincloud for years. Even though each day is a fresh new start, my young students have a hard time understanding that and allowing each other to start over. They are used to the negative, they feed on the negative, and they do it because I think many of them honestly don’t know the difference.

So I decided today to focus on changing the message, changing the energy. We had a blow-up in the classroom after lunch during our read aloud. It doesn’t matter what happened, it doesn’t matter why it happened; what matters is it did happen. Some students had to leave the room to reset with another teacher. While they were gone, I felt it important to apologise for it happening. I know that my students don’t come to school expecting to have things blow up; they come to school expecting to learn. It is my job to provide an environment where that can happen. It is also my job to provide an environment where everyone feels safe.

The best way for this environment to exist is to focus on the positives. I asked my class to try an experiment. I told them that it would only work if each and every single one of them committed completely to trying it. The experiment is deceptively simple: stop feeding the negative energy. When a student blurts out an answer, we ignore it. When a student calls another student a name, we ignore it. When a student starts kicking their desk and insisting they need help, we ignore it. Those are negative behaviours and not the kind we want to reinforce. (Of course, I, as the teacher, am responsible for redirecting and reestablishing the correct, desired behavior. When I say “we” I am speaking of the class as a whole.) But when a student raises a hand and asks for help, we thank them and we provide help. When a student does the right thing, we praise it. The goal is to change the focus from the negative to the positive. It is all about changing what we’ve been doing.

We had an opportunity to try it out this afternoon. The students were reading silently at their seats while a few were finishing a writing assignment. One student started loudly complaining that it was too hard. Nobody responded. After several minutes of this, the same student raised a hand and when I came over, said, “Mr. Valencic, this is hard; I need help.” I calmly responded, “I understand; can you ask me for help instead?” After a pause, the student said, “Mr. Valencic, will you please help me?” I said, “Yes, of course! Thank you so much for asking!” I helped the student with the assignment and then, when it was done, I heard this observation: “Oh, I get how to do this! That was actually pretty easy!”

The whole room changed during this half hour. Instead of feeling tense, stressed, and anxious, the students were relaxed, calm, and focused. They ignored the negative energy but quickly acknowledged the positive.

Are things going to miraculously change over the weekend so that the negativity is gone? Honestly, I doubt it. We are still learning. Did we get a glimpse of the change we want to see? Absolutely we did. I’m going to take the weekend to recharge and refocus. I am planning on starting Monday fresh, with a new attitude and a new focus on the positive. After all, if I’m gonna make a change, I’ve gotta start with me!

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