The benefits of remaining calm

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by bledsoe on June 4, 2011

I am continually reminded of just how valuable it is for a teacher to remain calm, even when classroom events may be really annoying. Several times this semester I found myself getting irritated with one or more students, yet each time I managed to keep my cool and was very glad I had.

The most common example this semester seemed to be the standard "student who doesn't want to do anything." In a typical scenario, I will have just finished explaining some new topic and passed out practice exercises for the students to work on. We do this regularly and they all know the drill. They work on the practice problems and I wander around to answer questions or remind students to get back to work, keep any conversations on-task, etc. Occasionally I'll come across a student who has put their work away before class is over, and I'll ask if they're already finished. Sometimes they are, to which I say "Good for you," but sometimes they want to try the old, "No, but I'm going to do it at home" ruse, to which I say, "I appreciate that, but we still have plenty of class time left so I want you to take your work out and work on it now."

This happens less and less as the semester goes on, because the students see other students try it and they know it doesn't work, but I guess hope springs eternal. Almost always the student will sigh, roll their eyes, or make some other gesture indicating how ridiculous Mr. Bledsoe is being, and then get their paper out and reluctantly get to work (or pretend to work).

Occasionally, however, I'll have a student who will go to some pretty dramatic lengths to avoid getting their paper back out. A couple of students this semester tried simple foot-dragging, hoping Mr. B would forget about it (I don't), and one was not only refusing to get her work out, but was actively socializing with another student at the same time; I asked that one to move to a different seat and then she REALLY got defiant. (I ended up sending her out of class.)

Each time this happened, I was really annoyed by it. Maybe because each time it caught me by surprise (I hadn't had trouble from any of these students before) or maybe I was just already annoyed by something else. At any rate, I remembered Dan Meyer's Important Ratio #2:

DisruptiveStudent'sSatisfaction = MyFrustration / EffortStudentPutIntoFrustratingMe

and the importance of keeping this ratio low, so even though I was irritated on the inside, all my students saw was Mr. B being calmly insistent while continuing to go about his other duties.

It's hard to overestimate the benefits of this. Not only do the specific kids you're dealing with learn that a) they're not going to get away with that in your classroom, and b) they're not going to make Mr. B lose his cool, but all the other kids in the class learn it as well. So a kind of self-reinforcing cycle begins: the more kids see how Mr. B always remains calm (even with the really annoying kids), the less incentive they have to try to piss him off. So most of them don't even try; they just sigh and get back to work.

And the big benefits actually begin the next day, when the disruptive kid shows up in class and I calmly greet them just like it's a brand new day and I've completely forgotten about what happened yesterday. Of course, I haven't forgotten about it and neither have they, but they and all their classmates get a powerful lesson in not holding a grudge. They learn that just because they have a bad day, or maybe even act rude or obnoxious in class, Mr. B doesn't label them a troublemaker forevermore. He treats them just like everybody else; which is to say, he expects them to come in and get to work.

Oh, and that student I (calmly) sent out of class for being disruptive and defiant? The next week she stayed after class to apologize. And you can bet that would never have happened if I had lost my cool.

Image by Gloson on Flickr.

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