How to Remain Calm in the Classroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I teach high school English. I read your column, follow your blog, and I do a good job of using the skills and strategies that you outline — when I can remember to not get angry and say things that I shouldn’t say to my students. This may be a silly question, but how can I remain calm so that I can use the things that you suggest? — Steve, Columbus, Ohio

This is the least silly question ever. You bring up a fantastic point: How can you use skills, procedures or strategies if, when a kid exhibits a negative behavior, it causes you to blow your top and yell at a kid, which is clearly ineffective strategy? This is equally useful for parents, as well.

First off, I do not judge you for yelling at kids. I yelled and screamed at kids all day long for my first two years of teaching before I started to skill up. (Sorry, kids.) Because you are a teacher in the United States, I know that you do the job of at least three people. Being asked to do the job of three people and deal with really difficult kids is incredibly hard, and it’s pretty much impossible without having explicit and systematically taught ways of holding kids accountable.

So, then, how do we stay calm enough to use these skills? The answer is by having and using one short phrase, word, or sound that will replace our potentially less-than-great reaction to a student’s obnoxious behavior. In other words, you won’t have to stop yourself from reacting, but you will be training yourself to react with calm empathy instead of anger.

Step No. 1: Pick a response. Choose something that comes naturally to you. Mine is “Oh, man.” You may like “Sheesh,” “Hmmm,” or “Oh, boy.”

Step No. 2: Practice. When no one is around, repeat this response calmly and slowly, over and over, after a deep breath, and on the exhale. As you are drifting off to sleep at night, repeat this response over and over until it gets lodged in your subconscious.

Step No. 3: Put it in action. While with your students, start saying this a lot, even when nothing bad has happened. This will make it easier to use the response when kids do things that would have previously “made you” throw an adult temper tantrum. Here’s how I do it:

Kid: I hate English class, and I hate you. For these reasons, I threw “The Scarlet Letter” out the window. WHAT ARE YOUR GOING TO DO ABOUT IT, DUMMY?”

Kid Whisperer: (after a breath) Oh, man.

Kid: What?!?!?!?

Kid Whisperer: Hmm. Well, this is rough for you. Obviously, something will have to be done about this. Try not to let it ruin your day. Thanks.

See how I was able to stay in control, avoid getting into an unwinnable power struggle and put the problem back on the kid where it belongs? All of this was possible because I was able to start by using my calm response first, instead of saying or doing something I would regret later! In this case, I would come up with a great logical consequence whenever it is convenient for me and deliver it at a time of my choosing.

By the way, you being able to remain calm is only half of the benefit. Using this strategy will also let your students know that you will always be calm in dealing with tough situations, which will calm them down!