Having a belief system that provides direction and strength as we face difficulties is a powerful cane to lean upon. For some people spirituality is a connection to something larger than ourselves and for others, their moral compass is embedded in a religious tradition. Regardless, thinking bigger and feeling a deep connection to something bigger than ourselves is incredibly meaningful. And, allowing these beliefs to guide our choices provides a moral compass allowing us to live a life of coherence in which our choices line up with our values.
As teachers, we do a lot to cultivate the development of a moral compass in our students. For example, we set values and corresponding guidelines for our students in our classrooms. The guidelines you create and the ways you foster a sense of community is a part of this process. Helping students connect with each other and develop a moral responsibility to the collective is one way to activate this protective factor.
Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, rocked the psychological world when in 1998, he became the president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and challenged his colleagues, asking them to look at what was right with people vs wrong, opening a new perspective in psychology. Through his leadership, he started research in this direction and shared that there are three lives that we can live.
The first life is the Pleasant Life and encompasses all that is pleasurable, providing instant gratification that brings immediate but not necessarily long-lasting happiness. Good food, companionship, and fun experiences can all fall under this life.
The second life is one of engagement and called the Good Life. This is where we find a career, hobby or activity that fully engages us, keeping the brain focused and present while losing our sense of time. We are so fully engaged that we enter into a state of flow, a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and for many also known as being in the zone. This life can be brought about by identifying our strengths, interests and exploring the different facets of life to see with what we connect.
The third life is known as the Meaningful Life and this is the one, that if achieved, data show can bring long lasting happiness. This life is where we take those strengths and interests that we have identified in the Good Life and apply them to something bigger than ourselves, contributing to the larger picture of humanity. This life gives us purpose and meaning and helps navigate the challenges that life inherently brings our way.
Our goal is therefore to have all three of these lives, enjoying the pleasures, learning who we are and then applying them to the world so that we can make sense of the challenges and difficulties as we encounter them. What a gift to be able to move forward positively and responsively rather than being reactively crippled by the natural cycles of life. And helping our students to develop their own sense of meaning and values will provide them direction in their lives as well.
I have been teaching for 18 years, some days it feels like 10, other days it’s 20. But, I can tell you I wouldn’t change a thing. Teachers know that we don’t get into teaching for the money or the praise, though we would love both. The joy of watching students when they are struggling and then the “light bulb” comes on, those moments bring me pure satisfaction and fulfillment. My students are like sponges. If I’m excited, they are excited or another way I like to think about it is, I am like a temperature gauge. If I am off, then they are off, if I am on, then they are on. Some days, when it's rough, and the kids are acting up or not paying attention, it’s a good time to stop and check our temperature gauges. Maybe you're tired; you don’t feel good; you’re in a bad mood, but if you really stop and think about it for a second, they are feeling and sensing whatever you are putting out to them.
I started teaching 5th grade and as the years went on, I was asked to teach other grade levels first though fifth. At first, I thought this was a bummer, until I realized; I am getting so much experience with different ages as well as different levels! Then a public school I worked for asked me to teach a program called PASS for 5 years, which in some schools is called the GUS Program. It is a small sized classroom, no more than 12 students and a full-time aide. The program is based on the thought of taking students with behavior concerns out of a regular classroom and put them into a small class size full time. My job was to teach them just like all the others; math, reading, language, spelling, social studies, science and art. They took all the same state tests as the other students. Most importantly, it was designed to help them socially. This was the main goal of this classroom as all the students had issues with their anger, violent tendencies, having outbursts, negative comments, defiance, inappropriate social skills, and runners (those students that liked to just run out of class when they chose). Although academics were just as important as with any other student in the school, I also spent time teaching manners and social skills so they could be mainstreamed back into a “regular” classroom of 20-30 students. I wanted and hoped for these kids to want to learn and want to participate. Though that was not the case at all. My principal would even say, “Don’t worry about the grades: help them with their core issues first.” She was spot on. As time went on, and I used my instincts, I realized those kids just needed someone to listen, be given boundaries, love, respect, real communication and reasons for what was being asked of them. Even though it may have taken 5 different strategies for them to understand an academic lesson or a life lesson; I did it. Having a more compassionate environment for these students was much more beneficial for all of the class than an A in Math. The A’s started coming later. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of days I used my so called “Teacher Voice” and then was able to go right back to who I consider myself to be as a teacher - loving and caring. I have found my purpose, my meaningful life.
What I can tell you even though you might not hear it every day or every week is how wonderful you are. Please know that interacting with students and their joy for learning is praise enough. Don’t give up, they need awesome people like you in the classrooms.
Employer: Noah Webster
Job Title: K-6 Educator
Visit this website to learn more about positive psychology and the tools that it can provide in helping you live a Meaningful Life.