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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