Ways Teachers Can Handle Feeling Frustrated
(This the first post in a two-part series)
The new question-of-the-week is:
When do you feel most frustrated in the classroom and how do you handle it?
All of us teachers are human, and, no matter how patient we might be, occasions arise when we feel frustrated.
This two-part series will explore ideas on how we can handle those moments constructively.
Valerie Ruckes, Christine Hertz, Kristine Mraz, Maria Walther, and Kevin Parr offer their suggestions in today's column.
You might also want to explore a previous three-part series on how teachers can handle "bad days," as well as A Look Back: "Flowchart for When a Day Goes Bad in Classroom Management."
Response From Valerie Ruckes
Valerie Ruckes is in her 18th year of teaching and currently teaches 1st grade with the Rochester Community Schools in Rochester, Mich. Val is involved as a mentor for the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP) in her district, and she serves as a member of the Instructional Leadership Team in her building. On Sunday nights, you can find Val on Twitter (@valruckes) where she co-moderates #1stchat and connects with other 1st grade teachers:
There is one thing that teachers want to do more than anything else. Teach! After all, that's what we were hired to do, right? I feel most frustrated in the classroom when I'm unable to teach. This is sometimes due to challenging student behaviors that disrupt teaching and learning time. Over the years, I have discovered a few tips (or tricks) that have helped me keep my sanity and be able to effectively teach, even when dealing with challenging behaviors. I've learned some of these tips the hard way and some from colleagues. However, I've learned a lot of my tips and tricks from my students. Our students will usually teach us what we need to know in order to teach them, if WE pay attention.
Tips and Tricks for Dealing with Challenging Student Behaviors:
- Stay Calm. This tip is super important. When students are not self-regulated, they can become very emotional. They could display any range of emotions, (hopefully not all at once) from crying, to yelling, and to throwing or kicking things. When students are emotional, we can't afford to become emotional, too. The best thing to do is take a few deep breaths and stay calm.
- Give Students Choices. If a student is disrupting the lesson or not following directions, give the student some choices. Actually, two choices work best. The choices should be two things that you, the teacher, can live with. For example, if I'm teaching a lesson and one of my1st graders is playing with an object that was in his/her pocket, I might say something like this. "You may place the toy in your backpack, or I can hold on to it until the end of the day. What's your choice?" This almost always solves the problem. However, let's prepare for the unexpected. What happens when a student won't accept either choice? My response to that situation would be, "Making no choice means that I will choose for you. I'll give you 15 seconds to make a choice or I will chose for you." Then look at your watch or the clock and say, "Your 15 seconds starts now." If that doesn't work, have a backup plan. You may want to think through a few scenarios of other things you can try and stash those ideas away until you need them. Coming up with them on the spot can be tricky.
- Discover How You Can Help. When one of my students interrupts me in the middle of a lesson and blurts out a problem. I simply respond by asking, "How can I help you with that?" If they are unable to tell me, my follow up response is, "Please tell me when you figure out how I can help you." At that point, I continue on with the lesson.
In addition to the tips and trick above, it's really important to maintain a positive attitude. A positive attitude helps us to view any challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. When we maintain a positive attitude, we are better able to find solutions to any challenges we encounter. Choosing a positive attitude starts with choosing our words. Words are powerful. It's important that our words and actions line up with what we believe. If we really believe that all students can learn, our words and actions should reflect that belief. When you speak to or about your students, choose words that affirm, support, and offer encouragement and hope.
Response From Christine Hertz & Kristine Mraz
Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz are teachers and authors of Kids First From Day One. They highly recommend baked goods at the end of tough days. You can find out more and reach out to them at christinehertz.com and kristimraz.com:
Sometimes people think school is just filled with fun and laughter all day. This drives us bananas. Yes, it can be glorious and fun, but as always, when you are dealing with human beings, especially ones without fully developed logical thought, there will be moments of great frustration. Naming this is important.
Often, the times I feel the most frustrated are when there are the greatest distances between what I think we should be accomplishing and what is actually happening. Like when I am trying to read aloud a book and everyone is running to the window to look at the snow, or when I am trying to get through a lesson and the rug is filled with rolling squirming bodies. I used to sound like a broken record, "eyes up here, eyes up here," until I realized I was pushing my agenda on the children in my room, often without regard to their needs or perspectives. In doing so, I am missing an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and develop the warm relationships so essential to teaching.
So how do I handle that moment now? For starters, I take a deep breath. I want to intercept what is happening in my body before it turns into something closer to anger. Sometimes I will say, "I need a moment to breathe deeply and calm my body." This is both modeling the kind of self-regulation I am teaching children to have and also actually calming my body. Then I ask myself a series of questions, starting with, "Is what I am teaching life and death?" Usually the answer is no, so what are children showing me they need? A break? A chance to look at the snow? A more interesting story? Is it safe and reasonable to follow their lead in this moment? I used to be afraid that if I closed the book and said, "Hey, let's go look at the snow" I would somehow be seen as weak or teach kids to walk all over me. Yet, the opposite is true; in listening and responding to what children need, I am showing myself to be a trustworthy, compassionate, humane individual, which in turn leads to better relationships and better communities. Often making that choice lightens the stress I feel, and after we all have a good look at the snow or a few moments of running around, we can come back to that story or that lesson.
In the times when following children's leads is not feasible, when I feel that frustration creeping in, I still need to do some self-care. Sometimes this involves having a 30-second conversation with a colleague to blow off some steam, sometimes this means being a little silly or singing a song, sometimes it means visualizing my couch and the good book I have waiting at home. Underscoring all of this is holding onto empathy for the children in my room. Children are meant to be silly and loud and should want to play all the time. Acting in such ways are the rights of children, expecting and demanding otherwise means you create your own frustrations. Roll with it if you can, laugh, take yourself less seriously, and invest in a foot bath and calming essential oils.
Response From Maria Walther
Maria Walther has taught 1st grade since 1986. Her practical resources, including her co-authorship of Next Step Guided Reading Assessment (Scholastic), guide teachers in creating joyful literacy experiences. Find out more about them at http://www.mariawalther.com. When she isn't teaching, you'll find her tweeting about books @mariapwalther:
When I reflect on my 32 years of teaching, the thing that makes me the most frustrated doesn't occur when I'm in my classroom learning with children. Instead, my frustration stems from top-down decisions that impact my ability to create a cohesive, joyful, and engaging learning community for kids. If frustrating decisions come your way, I'd suggest the following three actions:
Join with your colleagues to learn as much as you can about the new practice, program, test, etc. Weigh the information you gain against your professional judgment, which in this case means an understanding based on "reason, deep knowledge, wide experience, data analysis, and knowing the students in front of us" (Regie Routman, "Literacy Essentials," 2018, p. 384). Share your research and beliefs with the decisionmakers. If your school or district has a leadership team, curriculum committee, or other decisionmaking body, sign up! Invite school board members and high-level administrators into your classroom to experience a day (or at least an hour) in your students' lives. In the end, remember that you know your students the best. Trust your professional judgment and research-guided beliefs to advocate on their behalf.
I've been fortunate to have teaching teammates who are always willing to think outside of the box. When faced with frustration, together, we ask, "How can we put our own spin on this? How can we make it work for our kids?" Now, I'm not going to lie. We usually start by worrying and (gasp!) sometimes even griping. But once we put our heads together, we find that some of our most innovative teaching ideas were born during the problem-solving process. Like the child in the picture book What Do You Do with a Problem? (Yamada, 2016) discovers, problems are opportunities to learn, grow, be brave, and do something! With the PLCs available through social media, you, too, can reach out to others to brainstorm and find solutions to frustrating situations and problems.
MAKE DECISIONS THAT MATTER
I believe the decisions you make in the small moments in your classroom matter. What do you choose to do with five extra minutes? I opt for reading aloud, doing a quick book talk, or promoting reading in some other way—these actions help my students understand my beliefs and priorities. When you look across your day, week, and month, there are many small moments. If you make a conscious effort to use each moment to communicate your joys, passions, and beliefs, your students will notice.
Sometimes frustrating decisions take time to change. Be patient. Stay the course. While you're waiting, I'll loan you a quote from Debbie Miller that I keep tucked in my plan book, "Do what you have to do; in the end no one can mandate how you feel about children, the ways you interact with them throughout the day, and the things you say and do that reflect who you are and what you believe about teaching and learning" (Teaching with Intention, 2008, p. 20). Keep saying and doing what you know is best for kids—the students who are sitting in your classroom right now are counting on you!
Response From Kevin Parr
Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher from Wenatchee, Wash., and an ASCD Emerging Leader:
Like any profession, teaching is not without frustrations. While many frustrations manifest themselves on the systemic level, more often than not, the things that can frustrate a teacher the most occur in the day-to-day life with a room of youths. Furthermore, the comments students make can flip a teacher's switch quicker than any policy decision or federal mandate.
Personally, I find it frustrating when students respond to an assignment with the comment, "That was so easy." My frustration—and solution—is two-fold:
Inappropriate Challenge: First, I let the student know that I failed them in providing the appropriate level of challenge and promise to challenge them more with future assignments. Saying this lets the student know that the goal of school is not simply completing seemingly easy work but to find and expand the edges of their learning. In addition, by taking personal responsibility, it moderates the feeling by putting me in the center of the solution and eliminates any chance of blaming the student.
Lessons in empathy: In addition to admitting my role, I also call attention to how the student's comment ("That was so easy") can be perceived by others. We all bring different strengths and weaknesses to our work, and students need to realize and appreciate that what was easy for them may be a monumental struggle for a peer. The perspective from a student who is challenged by the same activity may be, "Well, if this is supposed to be so easy, why is it so challenging for me?" It could, unfortunately, lead them to lose hope and give up. As an alternative, I always suggest that a student who sees someone struggling at something they themselves find rather easy, should acknowledge that person's struggle and help them find their next step. A simple comment from a peer such as, "I notice you are trying very hard at this. How are you thinking about it right now?," can build up a student's confidence instead of tearing it down.
Many frustrations in the classroom only exist because we let them. Also, how we react to frustrations is paramount because if we lose our patience with students, it adversely affects the relationships we have with every child in the room. By taking some responsibility and teaching students a better ways of reacting, we can help eliminate frustrations and honor all of our students.
Thanks to Valerie, Christine, Kristine, Maria, and Kevin 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.
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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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Look for Part Two in a few days.