Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm

 

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Like most Americans, I associate success with passion and intensity. The Detroit Pistons of my youth would have never won back-to-back championships without the intensity of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Indiana basketball would have never been Indiana basketball without the passion of coach Bobby Knight. Fiery speeches never cease to motivate me, whether delivered in person or on the silver screen. I admire outward displays of passion.

This belief shaped my early years of teaching. I enthusiastically presented a lesson one moment, snapped angrily at misbehaving students the next, and passionately motivated my students to do their best on even mundane tasks. To be any good, I reasoned, I had to be intense. I had to bring it every day! Every lesson! I needed to be, as Anton Chekhov said, “an actor, an artist, passionately in love” with my work.

I have since come to believe that I was wrong. I now believe it is far better to spend nearly all of my teaching day in a consistent state of CALM. In fact, I try to be calm 90% of the time.

Here’s why:

In my article Why Teachers Are So Tired, I talked about four things that exhaust us: making too many decisions, using willpower, experiencing high-intensity emotions, and worrying.

High-intensity emotions wear you out because they activate your body’s fight-or-flight response system. Your heart rate rises, your sweat glands activate, you startle easier. This happens regardless of whether your high-intensity emotions are positive or negative. So getting angry at Billy for sticking a straw up his nose for the third time is just as draining as passionately introducing a lesson on fractions.

There are many teachers (and non-teachers like Chekhov) who believe that the only way to be a good teacher is to be intensely passionate, to put on a show! If I suggested to Dave Burgess that it’s better to be calm than intense, he’d likely throw his book, Teach Like a Pirate, at me.  Certainly, there are some teachers who can maintain a high amount of energy class after class, day after day. The rest of us are tired just thinking about it.

A calm teacher benefits herself and her students in many ways. First, students tend to reflect their teachers. Calm teachers lead to calm classes, and calm classes allow for more focused work. When was the last time you tried to concentrate while feeling intense emotion? It’s not easy. In fact, brain-imaging research shows that when we are feeling intense emotions, our amygdalas activate. We need to then use other parts of our brain to calm ourselves enough to get our work done.  Think of the last time you learned something new. Did you pump yourself up with some AC/DC? Did you do fifty jumping jacks to elevate your heart rate first? I doubt it. Those kinds of activities might be good before a football game, but they’re not very helpful if you’re trying to learn Portuguese.

Second, staying calm will allow you better self control. People who are calm have the ability to choose their actions instead of reacting emotionally. If you think of the worst decisions of your life, I bet they were made when you were experiencing high-intensity emotions–both good and bad. By staying calm, we can react to anything that happens in our classroom in a way we won’t regret later. So when Billy shoves that straw up his nostril, you’ll be calm enough to smile at Billy and say, “Throw the straw away,” and not “For shit’s sake, Billy, how many times do I have to tell you to stop sticking straws up your stupid nose!?”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re role models. When we seesaw back and forth between high-intensity emotions and when we react emotionally to events around us, we are modeling to students that it is acceptable to do the same. How many times have you told a student to think before they acted? Take your own advice.

Third, your emotional moments will have more impact. I’m not suggesting that teachers never show emotion. I am suggesting that we deploy emotions strategically for maximum effect. There are times when we need to be intense to get students’ attention or to get them excited about an upcoming lesson or unit. Go for it! That’s one of the joys of teaching! But there are other times–most times–when calm is the better choice. When you intentionally use emotion you’re still in control, and because you’re not always emotional, you’ll have more impact when you are.

The biggest reason to stay calm is your own energy. Remember, high-intensity emotions drain our bodies. When teachers get tired they do stupid things. They say things they regret. They damage relationships with students and colleagues. They fire off curt emails that they later wish they could retrieve from cyberspace. One study even demonstrated that, as the day goes on, people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. They also burn out, and burned out teachers are far, far worse than calm ones.

So how do you stay calm? I use three strategies:

1-–Self-Awareness–I regularly check my own emotions at work. How am I feeling right now? How’s my heart rate? Am I calm? Do I feel edgy? I make it a challenge and see how calm I can be. When a student misbehaves, that’s when I really force myself to remain calm. A lot of the time, my seeming lack of interest has the effect of deescalating the situation.

2—Deep Breaths and Perspective–When I feel myself feeling anything other than calm, I take some deep breaths and engage in self-talk. I like to use perspective, so I might say something like, “Is it worth getting upset about?” or “In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?” or “Just three more hours and I’ll be home with a beer in my hand.”

3—Classroom Management Plan–the best thing I can do for my own emotions is have a classroom management plan that I consistently follow. When students misbehave, my plan tells me what to do. I don’t need to make decisions, and there’s no reason to be emotional. I just institute the predetermined consequence and move on.

I also remind myself that while Bob Knight had 902 career wins, John Wooden, a much calmer person, won 10 championships. He also lived to the ripe old age of 99.

What tricks do you have for staying calm in the classroom? Share in the comments so we can steal your ideas!

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Schedule Your Workouts

This post is from a chapter of my book The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss, available here.

Schedule Your Workouts

What you schedule, you do. When you add something to your calendar, you’re adding it to your life. You expect yourself to do it. You feel obliged. Teachers especially are so used to having lots of scheduled events that we can use our scheduling habit to our benefit.

Teachers, more than other people I know, are always on time. We have to be. If something is scheduled to start at 8:05, you can bet we won’t roll in at 8:10. If the school day begins at 7:35, I better be in my room when the students arrive. There will be hell to pay if I’m not (not to mention a lot of problems to deal with in the classroom).

I’m sure you’ve already experienced this carry-over in your personal life. I know that my 17 years as a teacher has made me extremely intolerant of tardiness. I just can’t understand how people aren’t always, always on time. It’s gotten so bad that if I know I am going to be late, I sometimes won’t show up at all. That’s how mortifying the idea of missing a scheduled start time is for me.

So chances are you already have a punctuality habit. Leverage your experience with scheduling and promptness to help you lose weight. Decide on a workout schedule that works for you. Put those dates and times on your calendar. If your calendar is on your phone, set a reminder. If not, use whatever techniques you already have for meetings and other events. Then use the habit loop you’ve already established. Mine goes like this:

  1. I see an upcoming event on my calendar.
  2. I take care of potential conflicts (like child care) ahead of time so I don’t miss the event or show up late.
  3. On the day of the event, I get anything I need and put it in my car.
  4. I make sure to give myself enough time to get to the event before it starts.
  5. I arrive to the event on time and participate.

Treat working out like any other important event in your life. Put it on your calendar, engage your habit loop, and you won’t miss another workout.

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

In a previous post, I listed four things that contribute to teacher fatigue: making decisions, using willpower, experiences high-intensity emotions, and worrying. In this post, I addressed how teachers can make fewer decisions. Today, I will share how teachers can use less willpower so they have the energy to make good decisions, even after a long day at work.

First, it’s important to understand that willpower is like a muscle: it can be strengthened with use, but it can also be overworked, leaving you unable to use it without recovery time.

Teachers, of course, use willpower all the time. Recalling last Friday, here’s a partial list of times I needed willpower:

  • Garbage truck in front of me on the way to work. I wanted to pass, but it wasn’t safe.
  • Arriving at work, I had a bunch of tasks to accomplish, most of which were tedious. I didn’t want to do them.
  • Resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to an email.
  • Donuts in the lounge at lunch.
  • Students playing with something in their desks instead of paying attention. Wanted to publicly scold.
  • Wanted to just sit and relax during my planning time, but forced myself to plan for the following week and prepare materials.
  • Lesson interrupted by the office PA system. Wanted to swear.
  • A student walked in late to class and interrupted. Wanted to lecture.
  • A student was on a game website instead of doing research. I wanted to take his Chromebook and throw it through a window, since this is the 100th time it’s happened with him.

You get the point. I’m sure you’re already mentally making your own list. In every one of those instances, willpower was required. By using it, I depleted my store of it, making it less likely I would have any left at the end of the day and also seriously taxing my body. No wonder teachers are pooped.

So how can we use less willpower at work?

Plan Ahead

Most of the time, we can anticipate those things that will require us to use willpower. I know that certain students are going to press my buttons. I know that if I don’t work now, I’ll be stressed later and have to use even more willpower to accomplish things. I know that when I get on the highway at 5 pm, I am going to get frustrated with traffic and have to use willpower to remain calm at the wheel and avoid bad decisions. (Fun fact: most car accidents occur between 3 pm and 9 pm. You might attribute this to the high number of commuters, but those people drive to work in the morning too. Might it be depleted willpower that contributes to poor driving decisions?)

If we can anticipate these events, then we can plan for them. This is exactly what Starbucks did when they introduced their LATTE training system to improve customer service. Starbucks gave their baristas very detailed systems to use when dealing with stressful situations, especially for when their willpower was low.

You can do this too.  Prepare ahead of time for how you will handle behavior problems. Implement your classroom management plan with strict fidelity and calmness instead of anger. Leave work 15 minutes later or take a different route home if you know your normal path will frustrate you. Emails from your principal usually piss you off? Don’t read them until dismissal.  Do you snack at night? Quit buying snacks and having them in your house. Does Kathy the science teacher annoy the hell out of you? Don’t go where Kathy goes. Identify your likely triggers, and plan ways to avoid or deal with them.

Distract Yourself

If you’re a teacher you’ve likely heard of Mischel’s  famous Marshmallow experiment. The “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object, or singing to themselves.

It might not be in many teacher training courses, but sometimes you just have to walk away or direct your attention to something else. Elementary teachers are masters at this. Instead of saying, “Steven, get your hands out of your desk! I’ve told you ten times already!” they will turn to angelic Sarah and say, “Sarah, I really like the way you have your hands folded in front of you.” If you make this a habit, you’ll use less willpower.

You could also distract yourself by thinking about all the beer you’ll drink after work, but that might not be as healthy.

Delay

Postponing can be effective if you’re trying to break a bad habit. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister explains that people who tell themselves “not now, but later,” are generally less tormented by the temptation of something they are trying to avoid. So if you find yourself using willpower to not check your email throughout the day because it usually stresses you out, then simply tell yourself you will check it at the end of the day.

Vent

It takes a lot of willpower to suppress your personality, beliefs, and natural inclinations. Psychologist Mark Muraven and his team found that people who exert this kind of self-control to please others were more depleted than people who held true to their own internal goals and desires. When it comes to willpower, people-pleasers are at a disadvantage.

Instead of suppressing your desires, you need to get them out. But you can’t go around telling off Kathy and you can’t respond to the principal’s email with your honest opinion because that would get you fired. Here’s a method I’ve used:

I sometimes receive an email from a parent or supervisor that angers me. My instinct is to fire back. That’s a bad instinct, but that doesn’t mean I have to hold in those feelings. It also doesn’t mean I should vent to other teachers or my wife because they’ve got their own problems and nobody really wants to hear about mine. What I do instead is write my honest, no-holds-barred response into a Google Doc and put it in a file. It gets my anger out and it’s there for me to revisit. On those few occasions where I have reread it, my anger is gone and I wondered why I was so pissed off at the time. If you do this a few times, you begin to realize that your initial feelings are likely an overreaction and it becomes easier to avoid indulging them.

Other Ideas

Other recommendations I have seen are getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and meditating. All of these things can help in any number of ways, but they’ve also been shown to help people manage willpower.

What about you? What do you do to avoid using up your willpower? Tell us in the comments!

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Those Whiny Teachers

If you’ve ever scrolled into the comments section of just about any education article, you have undoubtedly been greeted by the sentiment that teachers are, by and large, a bunch of whiny losers.

My article, Why Teachers Are So Tired, elicited a number of comments, most of which were verbal nods of the head. This wasn’t surprising. This is a blog written by a teacher for teachers, and I don’t know any teacher who wouldn’t like more energy at the end of the day. But there was one comment that ruffled a few feathers. Strider opined:

Come on. Draw such a high salary with the most number of protected time other jobs don’t offer. And still can complain. Then don’t be a teacher, become a cleaner then u will know what’s the real “tired.”

It got me thinking why there is such a chasm between what teachers say about their jobs and what non-teachers believe.

Our Faulty Imaginations

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (which is excellent, by the way). Gilbert is a Harvard social psychologist who specializes in happiness. You’ve probably seen him on YouTube giving TED Talks and on TV standing in front of a large wall of blue dots.

Much of Gilbert’s book addresses how terrible people are at what he calls “affective forecasting.” It turns out humans really sort of suck at predicting how they will feel about future events because they fail to consider all of the details.

I had a dental appointment recently. First, I had a cleaning and then I was getting a crown on a chipped tooth. I figured it would last two hours. I was not looking forward to it. But when I got there I waited less than a minute before being called back. I had my favorite hygienist, and we enjoyed an excellent conversation about Caribbean cruises. When I told her my wife had been ill, she gave me an extra toothbrush so we could toss the old, possibly infected ones. The crown went on easily and my fake tooth looks better than the original. I was out of there thirty minutes earlier than I expected and left with a sore mouth, bloody gums, and a good mood.

Imagination is our brain’s greatest ability. No other animal can do it.  It constantly and automatically works as a prediction machine, adding our past experiences to our present in order to create a concept of the future. But like it did when I imagined my dental appointment, it gets things wrong a lot.

I think it’s our faulty imagination that leads non-teachers to conclude what it must be like to be a teacher.

Filling the Gaps

If you have ever wondered how the memory can store a lifetime’s worth of experiences, the truth, according to Gilbert, is that it doesn’t:

Our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating – not by actually retrieving – the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.”

In this way the brain operates like the blind spot of an eye, filling in gaps with material from around the area. Gilbert provides an example of being invited by your wife to accompany her to a party. Your brain may instantly create an image of a dull cocktail party in some anonymous hotel with bored waiters carrying trays of canapés past a bored harpist.  Gilbert writes:

We predict our reaction to the imagined event with a yawn that sets new records for duration and jaw extension.  What we generally fail to consider is how many different types of party there are – birthday celebrations, gallery openings, first nights, orgies, wakes – and how different our reactions would be to each.  So we tell our spouse that we’d rather skip the party, our spouse naturally drags us along and we have a marvelous time.  Why?  Because the party involved cheap beer rather than classical music and was precisely our style.  We liked what we predicted we’d hate because our prediction was based on a detailed image that reflected our brain’s best guess, which was in this case wrong.

Teachers Have It Easy

For most non-teachers, the only experience they have with teaching is their memories from their time as a student. As we just learned, these aren’t very reliable. Instead of remembering with perfect clarity, our brains fill in the gaps. Most student experiences are relatively benign.  People have some general memories of sitting a lot, listening to a teacher, doing some work, hanging out with friends. You might remember a particularly unique lesson or that time you got in trouble.

When you recall your elementary years, your memories are probably even pleasant: That art project your mom still has. The school musical. Listening to the librarian read James and the Giant Peach.

Unless you’re the child of a teacher (who tend not to leave whiny teacher comments on blogs), you don’t have memories of your teachers staying up late checking papers, attending boring meetings, dealing with unreasonable parents and administrators, or constantly being interrupted during lessons. From the perspective of a student and his faulty memories, a teacher’s job doesn’t seem very hard at all. So if teachers are complaining about it, it must be because they’re a bunch of whiners. Nothing in the non-teacher’s experience suggests it would be very difficult. Certainly not as hard as cleaning.

The Best Way to Predict

Gilbert’s research has shown that one of the very best ways to find out if you’re going to enjoy taking a job is simply to see how happy the people who work there are.  Gilbert says:

We found two things in our studies. One, using this method of making predictions can increase people’s accuracy dramatically. Two, absolutely nobody wants to do it. In our experiments when people are given a choice between using their own imaginations or using information given to them by other people who are actually having the experience that they would only be imagining, we find that virtually 100 percent of participants prefer to use their imagination. And they believe their imagination will lead them to be much more accurate. In fact, they’re wrong.

Of course, this advice works for teachers, too. When I imagine being a cleaner my memory creates a mosaic of having a lot of time on my own, working at a leisurely pace, joking with colleagues, and taking as long as I want on the toilet because I can just explain that I was in there cleaning the whole time. There are some disagreeable parts like unclogging the trash compactor and cleaning up puke, but overall, not that bad.

And that’s because for a time in college I worked as a cleaner in two dorms. Those are the things my memory has chosen to fill in the gaps between all the details I’ve forgotten. It’s almost assuredly as inaccurate as the vision Strider’s imagination conjured for him. If I really wanted to know what it’s like to be a cleaner, I should ask some cleaners.

And if people really want to know what it’s like to be a teacher, they should listen when teachers tell them.

 

When has an experience you predicted would turn out one way, actually been much better or worse? Tell us in the comments!

 

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Fewer Decisions = More Energy

Every teacher I know wishes they had more energy at the end of the day. They want to give their best to their family, just like they gave their best to their students. They want to exercise, work on a hobby, play with their kids, talk with their spouse, and some of them even wish they had more energy for checking papers and planning lessons.

In my last post, Why Teachers Are So Tired, I wrote about the four reasons teachers are so drained at day’s end.

This week and next, I’ll look at what teachers can do to reduce decisions, use less willpower, avoid emotional peaks and valleys, and handle worry so that they go home with more energy. In this article, I’ll tackle the first of those: making fewer decisions.

How to Make Fewer Decisions

It sounds simple enough: just make fewer decisions. And for some people in some jobs, it might even be possible to simply, through force of will, decide fewer things at work. But as teachers, we are inundated with situations that require us to decide. Planning is nothing but a series of decisions. We decide every time we check papers, when we rearrange seating charts, when a student asks to use the bathroom, how to handle a behavior problem, and on and on. We don’t have the luxury of simply not deciding. Our principals, colleagues, students, and parents are all waiting for us to choose. So how do we decide less?

Actually, we’re already doing it. Now, we need to do more of it.

Make it Automatic

Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt to work every day. When asked why he said:

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.

Zuck’s ‘Drobe:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama explained his wardrobe this way:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.

Steve Jobs, Henry Rollins, Christopher Nolan, and even Albert Einstein later in life all subscribed to the same belief. They knew that the more decisions you make, the more tired you will be and the less energy you will have to make more important decisions later in the day.

Choosing your outfit is one decision you can easily remove from your day.* Once you start thinking about it, you will find there are many other decisions you can automate, and some you already do.

Most of you follow the same route to work and back every day. You don’t decide, you just do it. Same for nearly all of your morning routine. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re bothered when your morning routine gets thrown off for some reason.

You probably automate much of your banking. Thanks to technology, I make many fewer financial decisions than my dad did. I don’t have to decide when to deposit my paycheck, when and how much money to move into my daughter’s college fund, when to pay the bills, or how much to put into savings every month. All of that is set up ahead of time and now just happens.

It’s the key to making fewer decisions: automate as many of them as possible.

Go through your entire day. How many decisions do you already automate? What else could you automate? How about your workout routine? If you get to the gym and decide which equipment to use and what order to use it in, you’re using energy. If you just do the same thing every time or follow a predetermined schedule, you’re saving energy. Analyze every part of your day and eliminate as many decisions as possible. Don’t decide what to have for dinner every day. If you plan your meals for the whole week, then eating dinner goes on autopilot.

Decide Less At Work

At school, we’re well practiced in this. We call them routines, but the reason we teach them, model them, and have students practice them for the first two weeks (or two months) is so that they’ll become a habit and no one will have to waste energy thinking about them. How many other parts of your school day can you automate? Your entire morning routine? Your end-of-the-day routine? How students line up to leave the classroom? You probably already do these, and thank goodness. Can you imagine having to decide, every day, how you want students to line up?

Since many teacher decisions happen as a result of student behavior, a solid classroom management plan is a must. It can prevent problems that will require decisions from you. If consequences are clear and consistently enforced, there is no decision to make. You simply follow your pre-established plan. For more information on classroom management, I highly recommend Michael Linsin’s blog, Smart Classroom Management. He knows way more about it than I ever will.

Do a decision audit. List out everything you do in a typical day. How many of your decisions are already part of an automatic routine, and how many more could be with some simple, proactive changes?

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*If your principal has a problem with your wearing the same thing every day, just tell them that if it’s good enough for Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, then maybe they should worry about more important matters.

What other decisions could you automate? Share your ideas in the comments so we all benefit! Thanks.

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Sources:

8 Reasons Successful People Are Choosing to Wear the Same Thing Every Day

Why Mark Zuckerberg Wears the Same Clothes to Work Every Day

The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha