I was teaching a fitness class to a group of 10th-grade students. They'd done a great job of listening, and I was finishing up demoing our leg press machine. Before hopping on the device, I said, "guys and girls, please pay close attention to how I lock and unlock this machine. It's tricky, and I don't want anyone unlocking the machine without knowing how to lock it after you're done. As I talked to them about the movement, I noticed two boys talking to each other, not paying an ounce of attention to anything I was saying. I got up from the machine and proceeded to embarrass them in front of the class! Since I'd never done this before, it caught the entire class by surprise, and a pin drop would have easily have been heard from across the room. As the class started again, my student teacher said, "wow, Shap! I've never heard you speak to students like that. That got their attention." I responded, "yes, but it was horrible teaching on my part. There was no reason to call them out in front of others. I could have just as quickly waited till the class started back up and spoke to them individually (which I did after the fact).
Those who've had a lasting career in education might easily understand the above story. We all lose our cool and forget the importance of patience, staying calm, and positively redirecting students. In other words, "stuff happens!" On the flip side, and much more important, what I did was wrong! I don't want to make excuses for my actions because I feel it serves no purpose in helping others to read this brief story. Educators are leaders in their domain. Students look to us for guidance, respect, empathy, and proper decision-making. So how do we "stay calm" in those moments where it's so easy to lose our cool?
I usually remind myself that I'm still teaching young adults, not those my age. As much as I'd like to hope they can all listen intently all the time, more often than not, it just isn't reality. Again, I'm not making excuses for poor attention or behavior. Still, many years of experience working with teenagers has shown me that expecting perfection from every single student all of the time will be a recipe for disaster.
Admit to students that you made a mistake. While my example above wasn't the worst thing ever, speaking to the class about how we treat each other and that we aren't perfect is an excellent opportunity for growth and reflection. Plus, it shows a human side that is equally important for relationship building. When I had a few moments, I spoke to both boys about our situation. They were apologetic about not listening, and because we'd already developed a good relationship, they appreciated my equally honest apology.
Try not to take things personally. I don't know if I got upset because they weren't listening if I felt disrespected, or both. But in hindsight, I realize that taking things on a personal level is rarely productive for our students and us. In my experience, rarely is it about us when a student gets upset. Much more frequently, they have other aspects in their lives that are causing that behavior to exist. At the very least, we can ask, "Is there something I've said or done that is upsetting you?" While that is not an easy habit to develop, the results from practice can be helpful on so many levels.
Remember the end game! Students, no matter their age, will follow our lead. While losing your cool one time isn't usually a relationship killer, doing it all the time won't promote empathy, kindness, listening, and respect. All essential skills are needed not just in school but in life. We aren't perfect; mistakes will happen. If we consider the benefits of remaining calm, it's easy to see the positive results from our actions.
This is the end of 33 years of being in the classroom! I mention that solely to re-state that it's okay not to be perfect. While I rarely raise my voice or embarrass students, on this one occasion, it happened. I can't take back that moment. But I can continue to learn from it for the betterment of everyone. Whatever your role in the school, staying calm is a learnable skill set that carries great power. A sense of calmness sets the tone for students and colleagues. It provides a growth-oriented atmosphere. I hope this story gives you pause and provides a meaningful chance to recognize our own words, actions, and behaviors. Stay calm: students will appreciate you for it!
About the Author
I’ve been a Health and Physical Education Teacher/Coach/Trainer for 30+ years. I enjoy all types of fitness, writing, speaking, and spending time with my family! Stay positive, stay happy, stay well!