Dropping the Ball

I always know when I’ve dropped one of the gajillion juggling balls that is my teaching job. It’s when my students’ faces have the kind of look a puppy has when it’s being blamed for something it didn’t do. They look at me all wide-eyed and wondering what just happened as they listen to me express frustration.

This frustration always happens when I temporarily forget what I know about what my students need. One time, at a moment when I was exhausted and distressed, I forgot that lecturing after 1:00pm is an utter waste of time, completely out of sync with students’ circadian rhythms.

At the time, I was so caught up in my determination to move forward on a project, that I completely ignored the signs that it was not a good time to do so.  But when I noticed those puppy-eyed looks, in the midst of my complaints about their inattention, I realized that something was wrong, and so I asked.

They reminded me that I was expecting them to focus on listening at a time when they’d normally be napping. I had forgotten that the schedule for that day had been moved forward an hour and that on any other day, they’d be on their yoga mats, listening to a recording of the sound of rain, while focusing on their breathing.

And, once again, embarrassed, I apologized.

Splotched on the tapestry that is my relationship with my students, are apologies of all kinds. Regrets for lapses in judgement, feelings of remorse for slips of anger, anguish over my inability to keep all those gajillion balls floating in sequence throughout my teaching day.

I wish I didn’t have those splotches. I wish I could always be mindful of what I say and do in my classroom. I wish I could always be attuned to my students’ energy.

But I know that would take superhuman effort of which I’m incapable.

dropping-the-ball

What I am capable of is being aware of when I mess up, and then gathering the courage to clean up.

I clean up by apologizing, of course, and then by taking inventory of what I did and didn’t do leading up to the point when the balls were dropped.

Usually there’s a missed yoga class, a missed meditation session, many missed walks, and a long list of things to do on my desk.

As a teacher, I know that I’m never going to get to zero on my to-do list but I can certainly move up from zero on my well-being list.

I love that well-being is getting lots of buzz lately now that education reform has taken a turn away from standardization and toward the critical importance of emotions and relationships in learning.

We teachers have always known this but it’s nice to have the powers-that-be elevate its importance to being a core competency in the new curriculum.

I just wish the Ministry would realize that expecting teachers to be effective models for personal and social competency while we are experiencing stress due to the effects of 15 years of deep cuts to education funding, and while we are reeling from the turmoil of a massive system change, is asking for too much.

You would think the Ministry would know that, given the fact that personal and social competency is just another way of talking about relationships, it would be motivated to change its relationship with teachers.

It would be nice to have a healthier relationship with our government, a relationship in which there was a demonstration of respect for our professional expertise.

Instead, we teachers are not only regularly maligned in the media, but we also have gone to the Supreme Court of Canada to defend our constitutional rights.

What we have here in British Columbia is the ironic situation of a government rolling out a new curriculum that situates social and emotional well-being at the centre of learning while it simultaneously undermines teachers and underfunds public education.

I bet there’d be barely any dropped balls in my classroom if I had the kind of support and respect that teachers in Finland and other countries have. This is not to say that I don’t accept the responsibility to take care of myself so that I am prepared to take care of my students.

It’s just that the BC Liberals certainly don’t make that task any easier.

Having dropped the ball on public education in 2002, there is no indication that they have any intention of ever picking it up again, funding-by-photo-op in an election year notwithstanding.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to ignore that pile of marking on my desk while I take myself for a well-being walk on this beautiful Sunday.

Anger

“Emotions are the primary gatekeeper to learning. Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning. Positive emotions encourage, for instance, long-term recall while negative emotions disrupt the learning process in the brain – at times leaving the student with little or no recall after the event.” http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

Now that the debate about the connection between emotion and learning is over, what does a 21st century teacher need to be able to do to ensure that her classroom is an emotionally safe space? A place where there is lots more laughter than there are angry outbursts?

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Understand what anger is.
  2. Notice how you do anger. What triggers you? Under what circumstances?
  3. Notice how your body signals that an angry outburst is about to occur.
  4. Channel anger in ways that do not damage, do not destroy relationships.
  5. Apologize when step 4 above fails..

Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions through our human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws.  One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works far more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that weighs and measures and considers alternatives: our pre-frontal cortex.

Have you ever done something in anger you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the pre-frontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of these other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss.  Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us vulnerable, so we are not likely to do that as easily as we are to allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a nice comfy blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.

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So, no, that student did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But, there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or two.  When you are first learning how to do this, it helps to walk away, out of the room for a bit.

It helps too if you have a regular meditation and exercise routine. You are less likely to be easily triggered if you do.

It also helps if you regularly release the energy that fuels your anger in healthy ways. ( You could learn how to do this at a course, Anger, Boundaries and Safety at The Haven Institute)

Even though you  may learn all about anger, and what to do about it, changing the way you have been angry in the past is quite difficult to do.  For a while, you’ll forget what to do far more frequently than you’ll remember.

But you need to keep practicing because the only way out is through.

You have to go through the learning curve. The golden prize at the other end is that, when you know how to control your own anger, you will be able to help your students do that too.

You will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem.

When you learn about your own anger, you will know just how really scared or worried or upset that student is underneath their anger. You will feel empathy.

And when you model empathy in your classroom, you will be well on your way to creating a learning environment that is emotionally safe for your students.

19th century classrooms were ruled by fear and coercion. Students in a 21st century learning environment feel safe to express and experience a range of emotions because their teacher is attuned to students’ emotions and knows, both cognitively and experientially,  how to respond accordingly.