A wise professor said, many years ago, “Avoid allowing students to push you too far before you act. Otherwise, you will REACT and the student will be in control of the situation.” He grinned. “I remember once I sent a child to the principal. I was fuming and could the flush in my face. The principal asked what the lad had done to evoke such a response in me. ‘He broke a pencil!’ I raged. Of course the principal hadn’t seen the three hours of his misbehavior to the pencil episode, so the kid ended up looking like a victim and I ended up looking like a jerk.”
Teaching is like anything else-if we do it long enough, we’ll blow it on some level. The good news is that it’s not the unforgivable sin, and there are steps to avoid loss of composure and ways to redeem yourself afterward.
Avoiding loss of temper is, of course, the preferred route. So how, when we’re involved with the same group of kids for days on end, do we avoid temper flares? Because we’re all different, these strategies may need to be modified to work for you, but they’re a good starting point.
1. Know yourself. Know what sets you off. Know who sets you off. Avoid situations that will push you over the brink whenever possible. Butting heads over and over just to prove your authority will, as often as not, erode the very position you’re attempting to enforce. Quiet ownership of the classroom is always more effective than loud, confrontational dictatorship.
2. Know when you’re getting close to the edge and step back. When I was teaching severe/profound special education, we taught our kids strategies to distract themselves from a meltdown. When they started to exhibit signs of high stress we taught them to get a drink, breathe deeply, hum a tune, etc. This broke the pattern that led down the path to a disastrous emotional reaction to multiple stressors . We can do the same. I keep a bottled water on my desk. When my ire begins to raise it’s ugly head, I step away from my teaching role for three or four seconds, take a long drink and think through my mantra -“I can do all things through Christ*-even this. These kids need what I have to offer, and children will act childishly.” Doesn’t always work perfectly, but it does give me a minute to step back and release some tension.
3. Be honest. If you’ve set up the appropriate relationship with the kids, an honest evaluation of what’s happening in the classroom can help. After a few weeks in the class, you will know when, and with what students, this will work. I turn the lights off, allowing only exterior light to illuminate the room, walk to the area of the offender and quietly talk about controlling our behavior. It helps us all focus on the importance of self-control, inside and outside the classroom. Often the words I say are for me more than the student.
But sometimes, strategies or no, we blow it. Then what?
Obviously, we teach. We teach through our reaction to our own shortcomings. We model what we would expect from the student and apologize. No trite apology will work here-you’ve dropped the ball in front of everyone who looks to you for guidance and support. Admit your fall from reason, ask for forgiveness and show them the humility you expect them to show under similar circumstances. Taking it a step further can be another great teaching tool-for them and for you. Ask the kids to write a paragraph or two about how you could have better handled the confrontation. This allows them to step into your skin for a few minutes and share with you their understanding of human fragility . And then move on.
Kids are pretty smart. They know we’re only human.