Affirming the Positive, or Fill Me Up, Buttercup

In 1978, on my way to learning other things in the classroom, I took a ten-day in-service class called “Humanizing the Classroom”  led by Art Combs.

Combs taught us how children become more self-confident and self-disciplined in response to what they learn about themselves in the classroom and at home.

He used the metaphor of a deep well to represent a child’s self-esteem capacity.  The role of a teacher is to raise the water level of each child’s well.  According to Combs, everyone has a reservoir of goodness (the water) in his well. Each day, children collect affirmations; some children, over time, collect more than others. The children who experience many positives over the course of time, find that their water level (self-esteem) rises all the time, and that a child with lots of positives will have the water level almost at the top of the well. Thus, when you bend over each child’s well and drop a rock into it to sound the depth of the reservoir from the top of the well to the water, you will hear the splash right away in the well of the child who experiences lots of affirmations. (The void from the water level to the top of the well is call an “ullage” by the way.) The child who rarely experiences affirmation will have a water level so low (a huge “ullage,” or void in his or her well) that one might have to listen for a long, long time to hear a splash. This may be why children who encounter very few positive experiences, or affirmations may seem to be “distant” from us. By extension, it is our positive experiences that make us attractive to others.

So what is the takeaway for teachers and parents from this analogy?

Combs said that it is a teacher’s job, every day, to structure positive learning experiences that give children  a sense of accomplishment;  that give children the affirmation requirement every child needs every day. Every day, the water level (self-esteem) will rise a bit more.

But most importantly, as you add affirmations (positive experiences and a sense of accomplishment) to a child’s well, regardless of the level, that affirmation can never be undone by anyone: the good you do for a child will always remain with that child.

Long after children forget the facts and figures and dates they learn in school, they will remember how well they were cared for and, most importantly, how they were treated.

3 thoughts on “Affirming the Positive, or Fill Me Up, Buttercup

  1. I feel fortunate to be teaching the little guys. When you fill up their well, you can see it light up their faces as well, and it is AMAZING to watch their confidence grow throughout the year!



    Great article, Jeff! I love watching the light turn on in someone’s (not just children) eyes when they start getting what they really need – acknowledgement and acceptance! You must have been a great and inspiring teacher!


  3. Hi Lisa! Thanks for reading this blog! I don’t know if I was ever a great teacher, or a particularly inspiring teacher, but I did have my great days, and I had days when I was very inspired to teach the children I had in front of me every day for a year. In fact, I had half of the CTHS Class of 2016 in front of me for years ago, and then all of that class in front of me last year. That was an inspiring class; I think I did some of my best teaching with those students: they inspired me to greatness if that was what we experienced! That class honored me recently by choosing me as their commencement speaker in May. I can now retire as a happy man!


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