Keeping Your Own Cool

After my last post, I got to thinking: students are not the only ones who need calming.  Teachers are faced with stressful situations many times every day.  How are we supposed to handle our own [suppressed] hysterics?

Well, I am not opposed to a stiff drink as a relaxation technique.  Most recently, the mother of one of my students turned me on to Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, which sounds too good to be true (but oh, my friends, it is not!)

However, as we all know, sometimes it's not an appropriate time to exercise this technique.  During parent conferences, for example.  Or  between classes.  Or when your hyperactive student is still turning cartwheels around your living room.  Tempting, but inappropriate.

I've mentioned Fred Jones' excellent work before, and I'm sure I will again.  Tools for Teaching has an excellent section about the physical responses our bodies have to anger and frustration, and the physical ways we can reverse those responses to restore our calm.  The whole section is entitled "Learning to Mean Business," which is taken from the mouths of what Jones calls "natural" teachers, the type who can get any kid to behave at any time with just one look.  These teachers are very skilled in the ways of instruction, but they often can't articulate exactly what they're doing, so they reduce it to a simple maxim: "You had better mean business."

When something unexpected and unpleasant takes place, it triggers the fight-flight reflex, the name psychologists have given to certain physical responses to stress.  The first phase of this reflex happens quickly, and there is almost nothing we can do to stop it.  When we catch a student goofing off, or they say something flippant or rude, our eyes widen, our teeth clench, our muscles tense, and our heart rate increases.  The second phase happens more slowly, as our bodies release adrenaline.  Adrenaline gives you "nervous energy," but it also exhausts you.  Jones puts it well: "It takes roughly 27 minutes for adrenaline to clear the bloodstream. Consequently, it takes only two squirrely behaviors per class period to keep you wired all day long for the remainder of your career. (p. 174)"  This happens because, during the fight-flight reflex, your brain is "downshifting" from the neocortex to the brain stem.  In other words, you've gone from behaving like a human to behaving like a dog to behaving like a reptile, or a two-year-old child, in an instant.  Not a good position for an authority figure.

The only way for you to remain calm in stressful situations is to find what Jones calls your "relax button."  This is where you stop the adrenaline from flowing and return control of the classroom to yourself, where it belongs.  You really need to read these chapters for yourself, because they're incredibly detailed and informative, but here's a few hints:

1) Slow down. One of the worst mistakes teachers make is to react instantaneously: nagging, scolding, sighing, folding their arms and setting their jaws.  This causes the intensity level in the classroom to rise.  Instead, just try turning slowly to the offender and fixing your eyes on her.  The class will quiet until you can hear a pin drop, and the out-of-line student will have no question as to what's gone wrong and what needs to happen. In the case of a parent conference, saying fewer and more carefully planned sentences will draw more attention to each point you make, and you'll come across as confident and authoritative -- and the parent will be more likely to respect your words.

2) Really slow down. My grad class last semester had a ball with what Jones calls "the six-second turn:" taking six full seconds to straighten, place your feet and pivot to face the student who has talked out of turn, complained about something you've said, or slyly taken out her phone to relay a clandestine message.  Six full seconds.  Try it on a friend sometime: they will be very nervous by the end, even if they know it's an experiment!

3) Take calming breaths. Contrary to popular belief, these are not deeeeeeep breaths.  Deep breaths are what we take during emotional turmoil.  When we're at rest, we breathe in a light, shallow pattern.  Take a couple of these in order to physically remind your body that you are still in control.

4) Follow up. Whatever the conflict, it's not fully over yet.  The student will test you again to see if you really "mean business."  The parent will look for a way to blame you for her child's slow progress.  The supervisor will be watching to see that you have taken her suggestions.  Your job is to ensure you have been clear about your plan of action, and to follow through with it.

Stress is a part of any occupation.  For teachers, it might be worse than for other professionals, or it might be the same, or it might even be better.  Regardless: learn how to handle stress, and you've learned to enjoy your job.