Teacher and coach

The benefits of remaining calm

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.

7 Responses to “The benefits of remaining calm”

  1. browse says:

    Oh man, I don’t know how you do it! Maybe there’s something about having your own kids that slowly builds up whatever attribute you need for such circumstances. Patience? Calm? Calluses?

    When I was a high school student, I like to think I was only that much of a punk towards the massively dreadful teachers. At least, I really hope that was the case.

  2. bledsoe says:

    I definitely think having your own kids builds up that “whatever” attribute, as does being a teacher and probably just spending a lot of time with young people. Until you spend a lot of time with young people, you really have trouble imagining exactly how they behave. I spent almost my entire first year of teaching just shaking my head and saying to myself, “Really? They really do that?” And yeah, they do.

    Young people (and let’s tell the truth, lots of adults as well) have an amazing ability to make decisions that are not in their best interests, even when they KNOW that the decisions are not in their best interests. Think of how many adults you know who KNOW that they should eat better, or get more exercise, or spend less money, or get out of a bad relationship, or [enter your favorite example here]. It’s not that they don’t know what they SHOULD do, it’s that doing it is so much work.

    And as far as you being a punk only toward the dreadful teachers, I can almost guarantee that you were also a punk to the good teachers as well. And I can also guarantee that you probably didn’t even realize how horribly you were behaving.

  3. Of course Browse was a punk, but I wasn’t. Really I wasn’t. I don’t think I was. Was I?

  4. jeanne says:

    This is the reason I wish I had trained dogs before I had kids. Having something non-human to practice on would have been a huge help. Dogs have exactly the same response to a lack of calm, and it interferes with the message. I’ve only gotten a little elevated three times in the last two semesters, never more than once per section per semester. Each time I wish I hadn’t, and I certainly didn’t get angy, but each time I know that I lost something by allowing myself to be baited.

  5. bledsoe says:

    “Interferes with the message.” That’s exactly what it does. And when you have a whole class full of kids who are trying to find *anything* to interfere with the message, you don’t want to just be handing them things on a platter.

    (And I’d love to hear about the times you got elevated.)

  6. Cory Emanuel says:

    Remain Calm Indeed.

    I do not think there are any real benefits in becoming the storm, because we all know what a storm does: it destroys anything in its path before itself eventually dies out. While reading your really insightful piece, a few other benefits of remaining calm that came to mind are as follows:

    1/ Your Professional (and Personal) Image and character is strengthened, if not preserved. ( I believe people in general (including student) tend to show allot of admiration and respect for other people who embody skills which they themselves fail to demonstrate. Patience (and detachment) is indeed a virtue, found few and far between the multitude.

    2/ Your health is not compromised through the elevated levels of stress that surface from losing your calm. ( There’s an abundance of literature which describes the infamous inverse relationship between stress and health. )

    3/ You do not become the problem ( i have a personal experience and vivid recollections of being the troublemaker/practical joker student. While at it, one of my teachers happen to fall victim to my mischievous behavior by losing her cool to the point where she became physically violent. One cool day, she surprisingly threw a sharp object at me which struck me in the face. Needless to say at that point, I became the victim, and compassion stood in my favor, while the unemployment line in her immediate future.)

    4. Preserves your ability to make better decisions. ( Its a well known fact that we are more able to see things for what they are, and therefore make better judgement calls if we are not heavily emotionally vested such as when we lose our cool calm collective self)

    In Conclusion, while we could make a strong case for and identify numerous benefits of remaining calm, the next logical step of putting it into practice unfortunately does not always follow. Without despair, and with the sole intent of making it become a second nature response in our tested times, the following articles detail some wonderful steps and tips recommended to achieving this end:

    1/ Be calm in a Stressful Situation ( http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Calm-in-a-Stressful-Situation )
    2/ How to keep cool when the heats on ( http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2011/05/10/how-to-keep-your-cool-when-the-heats-on/ )

  7. bledsoe says:

    “…she surprisingly threw a sharp object at me which struck me in the face.”

    Yeah, I bet my students would find this surprising as well. While I can imagine myself losing my cool and raising my voice, I would hope I have enough self-control to avoid throwing sharp objects, even at my most annoying students.

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