As Tears Go By

It must be something in the water.  Yesterday, for the second time in a week, I had a student break into full-out hysterics in my presence: shouting, crying, gulping for air, and thoroughly embarrassed to be doing any of the three in front of me. The triggers: one student thought she deserved a higher grade on her project, and another was frustrated because some noise outside the classroom was distracting her while she tried to write her essay.  So, little to no warning, followed by water works (and no $75 rent to collect, either!)

Amazingly, I wasn't upset by either case; caught off guard a little, sure, but I knew exactly how to handle it.  (Come on. I teach high school girls every day of the school year.) It's not pleasant, but after a few of these, you come to feel at least confident you've done the right thing.  So, for the benefit of any future teachers, or current teachers who haven't had the particular pleasure of this experience . . . here is Emily's Guide to Calming Hysterical Students.

1) Recognize the situation for what it is. First, she (or he, occasionally) is still a child, and as such, has difficulty seeing the big picture.  Second, you and your grade, policy, etc., are almost certainly not the only thing that has caused this child to cry.  Third, you are still the teacher, and therefore are still in control of the situation if you choose to be.

2) Express sympathy. Don't assign or accept blame yet; just say, "I'm sorry that this has upset you so badly."  Try to remember times when you've felt frustrated, out of control, and overwhelmed by life in general.  This is what she's feeling, only with more hormones.  Above all, avoid trivializing her situation; remember that for her, this is all there is, and it's the most horrible predicament imaginable.  You were there once, too (probably more than once!)

3) Get specifics. Did something you said or did particularly upset her?  Is this the first time she's encountered this subject, or grading system, or method of instruction?  Tears are commonly a result of frustration and hurt feelings, which often result from misunderstandings.  Apologize, if you feel you were in the wrong or didn't communicate clearly.

4) Don't fold, but remain positive. If you immediately give in to a higher grade, you will have to do this for every student who cries in front of you.  Try to find a positive spin: this is an opportunity for you both to learn to better communicate, and she will have many more opportunities to bring her grade up in the next (week, month, quarter -- but be truthful!)  If you are really stumped as to what to do, tell her you'll think about it, and / or mention you'll consult with your (department head, guidance counselor, principal) to come up with a solution.  You don't have to answer anything right away, tears or no tears.

5) Don't get touchy-feely. You could get sued, and besides, experience has shown me that hugging only makes the student cry more.  Allow her to bring her emotions back into check; it will be a more empowering experience.  You're not her best friend.  You're her teacher.  Model a professional, cordial relationship.

Do you feel like the world's best teacher when a crying student has just left your classroom?  Of course not.  You feel like an uncaring, callous jerk.  But with time, you'll see that this, too, is a part of teaching and learning.  You're helping your students grow.