My father used to tell stories of teachers who threw things at their students and screamed at them when things didn’t go to plan.
Happily, for most students around the world, those days are over. But many of us bring into our professional lives a tendency to become angry and even lose our temper in certain circumstances. I firmly believe that doing so is detrimental to your relationship with your students, and thereby, to their learning. As such, I believe we should never become angry in the classroom, and I’d like to share some thoughts on how to keep your cool.
Keep Your Feelings Under Control
Be Aware of the Triggers
When does your anger arise? These are some typical flashpoints:
- Being disrespected, spoken to rudely, and being ignored
- Students who lose focus and waste time
- Students who refuse to do exercises, or claim not to see the point of practice
- For ESL teachers, students who speak in L1 (their own first language) more than the agreed amount (which, I believe, should be as close to zero as possible)
- Students breaking class rules, such as using their cellphone when they shouldn’t
- Students who forget homework, particularly if there’s no valid reason
Shouting at people won’t achieve anything. It was tried for centuries, and generally resulted in resentful students who did less useful work and came to hate their learning environment. I do hope you agree that education should not be painful, or an unwelcome burden; it should be engaging, even entertaining, and should always have a point which everyone understands. There are far better methods of discipline than losing your temper.
Consider the Source
Why do your students behave badly? We all have our beliefs on this important point, but I’ll put my cards on the table straight away: There are no bad students. There are plenty of bad teaching methods, bad learning environments, and bad textbooks, but to castigate a human individual as ‘bad’ is misleading, somewhat meaningless, and an abdication of our responsibility to teach everyone well. There are exceptions, but it is possible to help almost any student to gain proficiency, regardless of their background or behavioral characteristics.
Most behavioral issues occur because of boredom. If the students a) Know what they are supposed to be doing; b) Have the means to complete the work, and c) Are properly incentivized, then plenty of good things can be achieved. If one of these aspects if missing, this invites distraction which, in turn, produces L1 chattering, cell phone use , staring out of the window, etc.
Provide a Clear Aim
So, let the students know the objectives of the class, from the outset. This provides parameters; they will have a sense of when the goal is achieved, i.e. the point at which they can accurately use the day’s target language. It gives everyone something to work towards and puts the class on a predictable, organized footing. Remember that, much more so perhaps than when you were at school, young people of the 21st century have a tendency to engage briefly with a task and, upon finding it difficult, throw up their hands before reaching for their cellphone yet again. I generalize, but it’s an observable trend; consider the half-serious meme, ‘tl;dr’: ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’.
Present Clearly and Check Often
Even if the aim is expressed - “Today we’re going to talk about things which happened a long time ago” - your students will not be able to properly achieve the objective without the right means. Your presentation skills are at a premium here. Concisely, engagingly and accurately explaining grammar and vocabulary is a hard-won skill and I urge you to regard it as such, practicing in front of a mirror, or using a recording, to pare down your Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and create the simplest and most comprehendible explanations.
Before the students begin controlled or free practice, check their understanding with a series of closed, then open questions. Only when you’re satisfied that everyone is on the ball should you continue to the practice session.
Gain and Maintain Respect
Start as you mean to go on, by creating a fast-paced, engaging classroom environment in which everyone (yourself included) is respected. Keep a balance of hard work and fun, and of discipline and good humor.
If anger management is a problem for you, read about different methods of relaxation.
- Take deep, slow breaths. It’s a cliché, but it works.
- Make a tight fist and then let it go, over and over, while exhaling.
- If holding a pencil or pen, grip it tightly until you feel as though you’ve responded to the anger, and then let it go, dispelling the emotion.
- And, most importantly…
Sitting quietly not only promotes relaxation, brings renewed focus, and helps you to find your ‘center’. When done regularly, it has been shown to increase patience and tolerance, compassion for others, a capacity for forgiveness, and yes, better anger management. It helps us to perceive things as they truly are; the relative importance of events gains greater clarity. It may help you to see that it’s simply not worth getting riled up because Xiao is speaking Chinese with his neighbor again, or that Patricia forgot her homework for the third time this semester. There’s no better way of putting things in perspective.
Keep a Lid on It
Catch yourself at that moment before you let your anger take over. Remember that raising your voice is seen, in almost every culture, as an embarrassing loss of control. I tried it in China, and the effects were the reverse of what I needed; the students saw me as less of an authority figure, not more, and ignored the noise I was making.
Most frustrating situations are ameliorated by laughter. If two of your students insist on speaking L1 together, wonder aloud to the class whether their conversation is being deliberately kept secret because they’re actually dating. If an older student becomes repeatedly distracted, ask if they’re perhaps hungover (and, by inference, can’t handle their liquor). I got serious mileage out of poking fun at spaced-out Dutch teenagers by asking if they’d had a smoke for breakfast. Whatever works for you.
Be There for Them
Remember that some issues which create distraction or poor behavior might have nothing to do with you, the class, or English. Take such students aside and see if they’re OK; very often, what’s preying on their mind is a bout of homesickness, or relationship trouble, financial problems, or perhaps uncertainty about their career or university choice. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they drinking or abusing drugs? Are they taking medications? It’s your choice how deeply into these matters you feel it appropriate to delve, but a short, honest chat - not between teacher and student, but between two people who are trying to achieve something together - can reveal much, and avoid you taking disciplinary action which might only make things worse.
If you feel a wave of anger on its way, try the age-old solution: take a few deep breaths and count to ten; it works wonders.
I hope you’re able to keep your cool in your classroom, and to create a learning environment which is happy and healthy.