Group First

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 (Marilyn Englander)

"If you lose, I win" seems to be a guiding principle in many circles, but Marilyn Englander and her young students found the antidote in a system that emphasizes the common good.

“Group first, me second” was the guiding principle in my middle school classroom. The tenet was presented by teachers trying to control the selfishness and pettiness inevitable in any group of adolescents. Nevertheless, it was the kids who championed the concept, invoking it enthusiastically to manage their lives. How wise they were.

Many parents were suspicious of the idea, “group first.” It flew in the face of their efforts to promote their own child’s success. It sounded vaguely communist and ambition-squelching. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and the kids knew that by living the rule.

At chore time, older kids learned to help younger ones finish their work, so everyone could get to the playground faster. On long field trips, the kids kept track of who sat where at each stop, to defeat preemptive yelling, “First dibs on shotgun seat!” They agreed to handicaps for weak players on the ball teams so their games could be more exciting for everyone. The kids loved this avarice-flattening standard, and it inspired more generous behavior overall. Such a simple path toward group harmony.

Making gestures for the good of all can seem grand in the moment —resisting squeezing into the intersection just as the light is turning red, picking up a little trash on the morning walk, pushing the grocery cart into the corral instead of abandoning it in the lot. But I notice in myself a pleasant flush of well being every time. And the glow lasts a while. By contrast, when I’ve darted ahead of someone to get the aisle seat in the theater, or snagged the last clean towel at the gym, it’s smugness and insular satisfaction I feel, fleeting as the moment.


My students relaxed into better citizens, for not having to watch their backs all the time. They understood that a pact of goodwill and consideration benefited everyone.

Serving others actually is a benevolent form of self-serving. I keep trying to remember what my young students understood long ago.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a North Bay educator.