We’d like to think that we will always take the high road when dealing with K-12 students. We hope that we will always remember that they are children and we are adults. We plan to stay calm. Using logic, we will diffuse the situation. Unfortunately, we are human, we make mistakes. I certainly do. Teaching and learning are emotional endeavors, it is not surprising that emotions bubble just below the surface. So, while we should do all we can to remain calm, what can we do after we’ve lost our temper? Below are some strategies that have worked for me in no particular order.
1) Take a moment to breathe. If there is one thing my wife’s yoga practice has taught me, it is the importance of breathing for both physical and mental well-being. When I take a few deep breaths, I regain my composure and begin thinking more clearly. I need to regain my rational thought because, having lost my temper, I am clearly not using my reasoning capabilities.
2) Apologize. This one sucks, but I would argue is absolutely necessary. I don’t think the apology has to be instantaneous, but I think it does need to happen. For example, I was growing increasingly frustrated with my 5th period class one day. The bell for lunch (which happened in the middle of the class period) rang and they instantly stopped paying attention. We were far enough along in the year, that they knew the bell does not dismiss them, and that was the last straw. I yelled and told them to “get out”. When they came back from lunch, I apologized. I told them that it was not ok for me to lose my temper and that I hoped they could forgive me. Then, we went on with class. If we value the relationship we’ve built with students, we have to actively maintain and mend that relationship when necessary.
3) Reflect. What set you off? In what way did the students’ behavior make you feel inadequate? What in your past might you connect to the episode? Whenever I’ve reflected on myself, I have come to the conclusion that the behavior of the students in that particular moment had little to do with why I lost my temper. By helping identify my triggers, I can work to avoid losing my temper in the future.
4) Reflect with students. I love having very open conversations with students. I learn a lot about them and myself. Depending on the incident, I might reflect with the whole class or just one or two students. I remember one student who was pushing my buttons. After reaching my breaking point, she and I met one-on-one to problem solve. During our conversation we learned things about each other that we had not known. This shared understanding of each other was what we needed. The student became one of my favorite students, a class leader, and we didn’t even need a plan, we needed understanding.
Defending our anger is easy, but understanding and making amends for our anger is necessary. Instead of feeling defensive or claiming that our angry outburst was justified, I think there are better ways forward. When we admit our mistakes, we build relationships and model important strategies for our students. I am not perfect. Admitting and making amends for my mistakes does a lot more good than trying to justify the mistakes.