Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm



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 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 de-escalating 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 this really worth getting upset about?” or “In the grand scheme of things, does this matter all that much?” 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 deliver 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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I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

22 Replies to “Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm”

  1. Staying calm is definitely key. If students don’t get a “rise” of of you, they will most likely discontinue or at least cut back on certain behaviors. I find that if I continue to have a problem with a student who doesn’t respond to my lack of interest, I will have a little chat with him or her. I usually ask from the approach of concern, rather than annoyance.

    1. I think that’s it. We can’t blow our tops and then get upset when students handle their frustrations the same way. Well, we can, but then we’re giant hypocrites.

    2. I almost always have the attitude of “who will benefit if I blow up?” Will the students see me as strong, or someone who has no control of situations?
      Students may become scared of teachers who lose their temper on a regular basis, and will straighten up for a few minutes, but there will definitely be almost no respect earned from either side.

      I tell my students that I am modeling professional behavior so that they will have the opportunity to gain a very important job skill. (This, of course, is in addition to building positive relationships, and accepting differences.)
      Also, eating healthy food helps. I find eating foods high in magnesium helps.
      Magnesium, 120 mg. Magnesium is a calming mineral with muscle relaxing and antioxidant properties. It may also help people with high blood pressure and improve symptoms of depression. There is even some evidence that suggests magnesium may reduce the overall risk of cancer.

  2. I use questioning to remain calm. When a student misbehaves I would ask them what they had just done and why. If they become defensive, I would tell them that I wish to understand the situation further instead of becoming “unreasonable”. So as I question them in a composed manner I can help myself stay cool.

    1. Most kids who lose control have many more background issues and have no idea why they they behave like they do. Asking them to explain just builds their frustration. Calmly explaining why the behaviour was unacceptable in your opinion and giving them the opportunity to move on works much better for me.

    2. I never ask my students why they did something. It gives them a chance to wriggle their way out of giving a straight answer. I always ask them for the reason they did something. “What did you do?” “What’s the reason that you did that?” I usually get better results than asking them “why”.

  3. I have a sound machine in my room. Some days I choose the sound of the day and some days I allow the class to decide. It is amazing the calmness that brought into the classroom for me and my students.

  4. This is a good reminder to those of us who sing, dance, and “act” things out all day too. Being calm doesn’t necessarily mean holding your temper. … it can also mean reserve your energy!

  5. I definitely agree it’s good to be calm, but it’s when I’m tired and feeling stressed that I lose control and get angry with students. I hate it and know it’s not a good thing, but it seems to be happening more and more recently. I really want to know how to stop it.

  6. I’m sure you’ve all heard this before, but if it’s possible in your day to spend 5 to 15 minutes in a quiet place where you can either meditate or just sit quietly with your eyes closed… it really, truly can make a huge difference, especially if it becomes a regular part of your day. The effects are cumulative. Also, your body and brain will begin to anticipate this quiet break with a calm sort of excitement.

  7. Music. I use music in the morning for arrivals. I use it during a lesson, especially classical or zen music during writing. Instrumentals are great, especially acoustic guitar during math. I create a playlist for each subject and put it on repeat. The decisions were made while generating the playlist. The next step is to press play.

  8. I handle misbehaviors by inviting the student to meet with me one on one and then I ask them to consider why I’ve asked for the meeting, to evaluate the impact the misbehaviorhad on the class community and finally, what she or he thinks is a reaasonable consequence. Srudents are surprisingly reflective and remorseful when they realize I’m not angry and not set on punishing them. I think they also appreciate (though it may be at a subconscious level) that I have opted to not embarrass them.

  9. Whenever I start to feel frustrated with a student I lower my voice. That automatically calms me down. I also have stopped speaking publicly to students who are having difficulty self regulating. I pull them aside and ask them how they’re doing. Do they need a body break or a drink of water or a snack. We expect our students to sit too long and concentrate. We expect too much perfection too. I use praise for little successes. I read stories to my students with animation and we do a lot of singing. I’m very sensitive to the tone of the classroom and the students needs. At the end of the day I’m usually still energetic much to the chagrin of my fellow teachers. I go for a long walk with my dogs to relax and refocus for home life. I leave school at school. That’s how I survive.

  10. Really love what you have been writing. I am a future teacher out of, The University of Northern Iowa and I love your blog. I hope that I to, can remain as calm as you in the classroom and not lose all my energy early in the day. Thank you and keep writing!

  11. Your articles have been so helpful to me. This year, I have finally been able to feel comfortable going to work. While there will always be times of stress, I have avoided almost all of them and we’re 4 months in. I enjoy my work and have time at home.

    My kids are calm. When one has a meltdown, we talk it through and I use my systems.

    Thanks for your great advice.

    1. Thanks for the question. I keep it pretty simple. I use Warning-Time-Out-Parent Contact-Office Referral and hold Lunch Detention in my back pocket in case I need it. I keep track on a checklist. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that and no plan works for every student all of the time. The best resource I can point you to for all things Classroom Management is Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management site and books.

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