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Students Can 'Sense' Teacher Frustration

(This the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)


The new question-of-the-week is:

When do you feel most frustrated in the classroom and how do you handle it?


In Part One, Valerie Ruckes, Christine Hertz, Kristine Mraz, Maria Walther, and Kevin Parr offer their suggestions.

Today, Dr. Victoria Lentfer, Heather Stinson, and Dr. Mara Lee Grayson share their thoughts.

Response From Dr. Victoria Lentfer

Dr. Victoria Lentfer is a Corwin author of Keep Calm and Teach: Empowering K-12 Students with Positive Classroom Management Routines. She is an educational consultant and founder of the CALM Classroom Management Program, which is a comprehensive behavior-management and teacher-leader program that provides communication models to guide teachers and students to an inclusive and productive classroom. Dr. Lentfer offers professional learning for new teachers and veteran teachers in the area of classroom management and teacher leadership:

There are many variables that may cause a teacher to become frustrated. The important aspect of frustration is being able to identify when the frustration is negatively influencing the learning environment. When the teacher is frustrated, the students will sense the frustration and begin to follow the teacher's lead, which can lead to a toxic environment.

There are several techniques you can implement right away to alleviate the frustration. First, be aware of your feelings and recognize when you are reaching a frustration level that may adversely affect you and your students. A few indicators that you have reached your tipping point are feeling exhausted from raising your voice or repeating instructions, feeling unmotivated and a negative disposition.

Second, you have a choice. You can choose to remain frustrated and remain in a negative state of mind or you can choose to have more positive disposition. Taking a positive disposition once you've reached that level of frustration seems impossible, but the good news is with practice it can be done. This can be accomplished in several ways. Once you've recognized your state of frustration, you can immediately divert your attention to a different topic or step away from the situation for a few moments and gather your composure. In either case, you are giving yourself a few moments to gather your thoughts and make a decision that is better for you and your students. If you are still feeling frustrated, you can conduct a task analysis.

Third, conduct a task analysis. Frustration is often associated with behavior. After class, take a moment when you are in a calm state and identify the specific behavior that is causing the problem. Try to be as specific as possible. For example, teachers often identify excessive talking as a leading cause of frustration. Ask yourself a series of questions: What type of talking? Is it talking out of turn?  Is it during small groups? Are the conversations off-topic? Is it not enough talking? When does this occur? Is it during small groups, whole-group instruction? 

Fourth, once you have found the specific behavior, then you are able to address the situation with the class. Be open and honest. Have a class conversation in a calm, inviting manner. Indicate the specific behavior that is causing the frustration. Empathize with them and let them know that you understand it can be hard to (insert the desired behavior), but we can work as a team and build a better community if we try to improve (insert the desired behavior).  

Invite the students to problem-solve to find the solution. This creates community in the classroom. It's a message that you value your students and want them to be an active member of the learning environment. It also indicates that you trust and believe in them to develop a solution and follow through with the expectation.  

When you choose to concentrate on positive thoughts and actions, the outcome is sure to attract a more enjoyable and satisfying result. Students will follow your lead in communicating and working with a positive attitude. Concentrating on the positives will build momentum, and students will want to come to your class and work!

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Response From Heather Stinson

Heather Stinson (CAGS, MED, S/LP-A) received her master's degree in education of the deaf from Smith College in 2006 and has a graduate certificate in children, families, and schools (with a concentration in research methodology) from the University of Massachusetts in 2012. In addition to her many years of experience working with children with hearing loss who communicate using listening and spoken language, Heather has also worked as a preschool classroom teacher. Heather has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to mainstreaming students with hearing loss and is a contributing author to Odyssey magazine. Heather currently works as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech:

As an itinerant teacher of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, my role is to travel to mainstream schools and provide support to students who have hearing loss and communicate using listening and spoken language through the use of assistive technology. Each school year, I do a comprehensive training for teachers that includes instruction on how to use the assistive hearing technology that my students require to access classroom instruction. This may include hearing aids, cochlear implants, and Hearing Assistive Technology (HAT systems, formerly referred to as FM). I emphasize the importance of consistent use and, whenever possible, include my students in this training so they can advocate for their own needs with my support.

I have had many experiences with students refusing to use their amplification, but it's much more frustrating when the adults neglect to use it. Rather than reacting, I try to understand why the teacher is refusing to use the technology. While my initial reaction is often frustration, I also recognize that if the teacher does not see the importance of my student's hearing technology, maybe I haven't done my job. Effective strategies include verbally reminding teachers of the importance of using the HAT system consistently. I also reminded the teachers that despite the fact that my student's speech may be strong, it is much more challenging when students are required to listen to (and absorb!) new information in a classroom setting. Creating charging areas in the classroom and establishing procedures for device setup and testing can also help teachers to feel comfortable if they are overwhelmed by this unfamiliar technology.

Sometimes, enlisting support from the school nurse or speech pathologist can be effective. I am in and out of school buildings, but adults who are in the building consistently may be good resources for teachers. 

In the end, my objective is for my students to have access to communication in their classrooms. The more strategies I have to overcome barriers and frustrations to this access, the more likely my students are to succeed.

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Response From Dr. Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her scholarship and creative work can be found in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Education, English Journal, Columbia Journal, and Fiction, among other publications. Her book, Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing, provides practical suggestions for instructors seeking to implement anti-racist curricula in the composition classroom:

The Pop Quiz: A Story of Frustration

Once, and only once in my decadelong teaching career, I gave a pop quiz. Sort of.

This is what happened: One Monday afternoon, I wrote on the whiteboard: "What was your initial reaction to the video you watched?" The homework assignment had been to watch a seven-minute TED talk on YouTube. I began with this prompt because I knew that if I asked the question aloud, I wouldn't get any responses.

My undergraduate composition classes are heavy on discussion, and I don't generally have to pull teeth to get students to contribute. This particular semester, however, had been a logistical nightmare—between the usual holidays, an inordinate number of snow days, and one monster flu bug that infected most of the freshman residence hall, we'd missed as many class meetings as we'd attended. As a result, we were behind schedule; students barely knew one another; and no one seemed interested in participating, either through verbal contributions or by submitting the assignments.

It was obvious that no one had watched the video. A few students pulled out their computers; others plugged earbuds into their cellphones. One turned to a classmate and, in a failed whisper, asked: "What was it about?"

I was irate. Did they think I was too naïve to recognize that they hadn't watched the video? Or too meek to call them on it? Or that I just wouldn't care?

"Headphones off," I said. "Computers away. This will be collected. Two paragraphs on your reactions to the video. You've got 10 minutes."

One student raised her hand. "Can we just email it to you later today?" Was she kidding me?

Their vague responses confirmed what I already knew, and I went back to my office after class feeling low. The truth is, though, that it wasn't my students that got me frustrated. In fact, I'd been frustrated since I'd been informed that morning that there was no room on the fall schedule for the course I'd proposed. I was frustrated that my salary had remained practically the same for two years. I was frustrated that I'd earned multiple graduate degrees, only to be making less per year than my students paid in tuition. I was frustrated that my friends who worked in engineering, public administration, and restaurant management earned two or three times what I did annually.

Despite the lip service paid to teachers via film and television, we get the message all too often that the work we do has little value. Teaching has some of the lowest pay of professions that require a similar level of education and experience. We take our work home with us. We use our own money to buy supplies. After spending all week educating other people's children, many schoolteachers work weekend jobs to support their own families. On college campuses, the prevalence of adjunct labor has resulted in an astonishing number of faculty living below the poverty line.

We continue to do this work, despite the lousy pay and lack of respect, because we love our students. That afternoon, when it seemed that even my students did not care about the work to which I have dedicated so much of my time and energy, I felt unvalued. I felt invisible.

I don't think I'm alone: In November 2017, faculty at Ontario's public two-year colleges went on strike, as did part-time faculty at Chicago's Columbia College. In early 2018, public school teachers went on strike in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, demanding little more than fair wages and school funding. In February 2018, graduate employees struck at the University of Illinois.

When my students do—or don't do—something that frustrates me, I remind myself they aren't to blame for the inequities of a system they likely don't fully understand. I remind myself that I am not alone and I direct my energies outward: I connect with other colleagues; I do research that addresses the inequity of our education systems. I never graded that pop quiz, but the next week, all of my students completed their homework on time.

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Thanks to Victoria, Heather, and Mara Lee for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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