By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
What do you do?
I’m a teacher.
Oh wow, I could never do that! [long pause] It must be so rewarding, though.
I’ve had this conversation at least a hundred times, maybe more. There’s the same rhythm of awkward pauses each time, where the other person looks to say something positive, and I recall small, not-so-rewarding incidents that have happened over my teaching career.
Yes, I do find my work in education, both in and out of the classroom, to be extremely rewarding when I focus on the big picture. But on a day-to-day basis, teaching can be a struggle. It’s a struggle because, contrary to popular belief, teachers do not teach Math or Science, or History — they teach students. From tiny to tall, students are actual human beings with independent identities, personal autonomy, and a will of their own. The concept of “controlling your class” is both inaccurate and impossible. On any given day, a highly effective teacher can facilitate, guide, support, foster, and nurture a positive learning environment — but we can never control it. Subsequently, creating classroom culture or managing student behaviors is a major stressor for teachers at all levels.
Many teachers maintain the myth of classroom control and as a result, they may struggle to embrace student-centered instructional strategies like peer-to-peer discussions, group work, and student choice on tasks. The more fear we have, the more likely we are to become hyper-vigilant micro-managers in the classroom, which can sometimes magnify small issues and escalate conflicts, creating disruptive and potentially dangerous power dynamics that can block off relationships and erode trust between teachers and students. None of which feels rewarding, I promise.
As teachers, we have a lot of power and responsibility to set the tone in our own classrooms and create a culture of learning that empowers students to engage in the lessons with respect for themselves and others. Here are three ways we can de-escalate conflicts and maximize positive learning opportunities for students.
Don't take it personally
The first thing we want to remember is that all of our students are actual human beings who typically live 23 hrs and 10 minutes a day without us. When they enter into our classroom after a bad morning, feeling hungry, distracted, or any number of other emotions, it’s easy for us to take their words and actions as a personal attack. This can put us on defense, or worse — on the offense.
Before reacting, we will benefit from asking a few simple questions that will help us to strategize our next steps.
Even in the smallest classes, teachers are outnumbered. As a result, we’re hyper-focused on distracting, disruptive, disrespectful, and defiant behaviors and we’re far more likely to address everything that’s going wrong, rather than what’s actually going right. Often, we’re addressing negative classroom behaviors in front of the whole class because it’s more efficient to say, “Brian, stop talking” from the front of the room than it is to walk to the back of the class and talk with Brian privately in the middle of a lesson. But culture is shaped primarily by the narrative, and as teachers, we have the privileged opportunity to set up a positive narrative in our space. By eliminating public criticism, and praising publicly instead, we have the power to create positive momentum, spotlight all the students who are doing the “right” thing, and set clear expectations for what students are supposed to do.
Reflect & redirect
Our goal is not to become afraid of addressing students’ negative behaviors directly, but rather to begin addressing them strategically. If we can remove our personal feelings from the situation, we’ll be better positioned to find a method for motivating students to fully commit to a proactive and positive learning environment. Part of that methodology is public praise — the other part is personalized reflection and redirection. Especially when working in a culture that is vastly different from one’s own, focusing on short, private conversations when it’s necessary to address a negative behavior can only have a positive impact on the culture.
Our classroom spaces will feel physically and psychologically safer when we acknowledge that students’ behavior is a form of communication, even when directed towards us. When we allow ourselves to be personally offended, we are likely to simplify the situation and vilify the student. This leaves us more likely to respond defensively, criticize, and engage in power struggles. Each of these instincts are likely to increase tension and escalate conflicts at the exact moment when we know that diffusing the situation would be more beneficial to our students and ourselves.