Unglued. Snapped. Exploded.
Not the most flattering adjectives – but ones I’ve used to describe my reaction to the 1 millionth annoyance of a stressful day. We’ve all been there. It’s not our prettiest, scrapbook-worthy, teacher-of-the-year moment.
What do you do when a moment like this hits? Do you react or respond? How can you make a wise choice amidst the stress?
Negative Emotions of Teaching
As teachers, we are all too familiar with the stress and negative emotions that cause these moments. Whether it be a critical comment from your admin or a parent, a student who forgot his/her homework for the 20th time, or a more severe safety concern for a student – none of us are immune to the negative emotions that sometimes hit us as teachers.
In fact, this is becoming a bigger focus among educational researchers. Andy Hargreaves (1998) framed the research conversation well:
- Teaching is an emotional practice.
- Teaching and learning involve emotional understanding.
- Teaching is a form of emotional labor.
- Teachers’ emotions are inseparable from their moral purposes and their ability to achieve those purposes.
- Teachers’ emotions are shaped by experiences of power and powerlessness.
- Teacher’ emotions vary with culture and context. (p. 319 – quoted).
Simply put: You cannot check your heart at the door as a teacher.
Being a great teacher means caring about our students, their learning, and their lives. Loving this many students – some of whom are in dire straights and heartbreaking situations – is enough to put anyone’s heart through the ringer. But then add in the stress of the demands of the current realities of teaching (standards, testing, high stakes, etc.) – and it’s a recipe for an emotional cocktail that can sometimes taste like poison.
Even the Marzano’s (Robert and Jana – teaching research champions) are in this conversation, saying
While it will always be important to keep abreast of teaching behaviors and instructional strategies that have the greatest chance of enhancing students’ learning, there is another aspect of effective teaching that has been virtually ignored in the literature on classroom instruction: the relationship between what teachers are thinking and feeling at any point in time and their actions at that same point in time. ~Marzano & Marzano, 2015
Thus, as important as it is for us to continue to cultivate our instructional practices, we also have to cultivate our wholeheartedness. Which makes the skill below one of the heavyweights on the top 10 list for wholehearted habits.
Cultivating Mindfulness as a Teacher
What is mindfulness? At it’s core, mindfulness is the process of managing (choosing) your reaction to whatever situation you encounter.
Google defines it as:
- the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. “their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
- a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
Mindfulness is the process of:
- becoming aware of negative emotions and stopping to pause within the present moment,
- taking time to assess the situation, your emotions, and the consequences of each choice for how you could react,
- consciously choosing what the most favorable outcome will be, and
- ultimately responding to the situation in that way.
Let’s break it down:
Step 1: I’m Aware, Now Pause
When a stressful, anxious, fearful, or otherwise negative emotion strikes, you must be aware. Awareness is truly the first (and possibly most difficult step). If you do nothing else, just begin to notice when you are “tripped” up by a negative emotion.
Then pause. When you become aware of the negative emotion, pause for a brief moment and take a few deep belly breaths. This will get your body out of “fight or flight” and will move your thinking to the rational part of your brain (we tell students to do this but rarely practice it ourselves!).
Step 2: Assess
The next step is to assess the situation. You need to assess what your emotions are, name them if possible, and decide what truth is in the moment.
For example, you see a student withdrawn and “spacing out” instead of doing her work. You decide that she is off task (a pattern for her) and immediately add this infraction to a growing list of annoyances about this student that are beginning to affect her learning. You start to head to her desk, and then become aware of your negativity. You pause and take a breath. Then you assess the situation –
What are the possibilities of what is going on for this student? She could be willfully disobedient. OR she could be lost or confused. She could be battling some insecurity about the concept and feeling “stupid”. She could be preoccupied with something from her home-life. She could be worried about friends.
The possibilities are really endless. But the important thing is that there are many more scenarios where she needs something from you other than discipline. (Please don’t misread this as saying you should never discipline a student.) What I’m saying is that there may be a better choice. Caring and compassion may be just the ticket for what she needs rather than a punishment.
Step 3: Choose
Once you assess the situation, you are able to move to the next step…choosing what to do.
Choice implies that you always have an option in a given situation. Your reaction to a situation is always your choice and your responsibility.
After assessing the possibilities, you need to intentionally choose a course of action that you believe will result in the best outcome for the situation.
In the example above, you may choose to go over to the student, kneel next to her desk and ask her what she needs to get started on the task. You may choose to tell her that she doesn’t seem like her normal self and see if she wants to stay after class to talk about it for a few minutes. You can still let her know that not doing her work is not an option, but that you care and want her to be successful. That’s a far different outcome than if you had acted on your first impulse.
Step 4: Respond
The final step is to act in the situation out of response – not reaction.
Reacting is the first (emotional) response.
Responding is the result of mindfulness – the result of consciously choosing to act in alignment with your values.
Mindfulness as a Practice
Mindfulness is getting more and more popular in pop-culture as a way to reconnect with your inner power and purpose. People who cultivate personal mindfulness, usually practice daily during quiet time, meditation, or prayer. There are apps, books, YouTube clips and more that can help you with mindfulness as a daily practice.
There are even some mindfulness resources for you to use with students! See MindfulSchools.org for resources, trainings, and lesson plans to use with students. Here are some sample exercises from Mindful Schools to get you going.
Cultivating mindfulness as a teacher is critical for teaching from your most wholehearted place. Let me know how it goes for you!
~Alison, A Teacher’s Best Friend
Want to learn more: Check out this resource!