One recent morning, I’m standing next to my desk, flipping through piles of permissions slips and saying hello to students coming through the door. Some have walked to school in the dark. Others have just gotten off the bus. Some have climbed out of cabs or mom’s van, or have been dropped off by foster parents or other caregivers. They amble into my classroom, half-sleeping. Most say hello, drop their binders onto the table, and march out to the commons to get a breakfast that isn’t available at home.
One student sits in the chair next to my desk and rubs his eyes. He knows I’ll ask about his weekend, as I always do. It’ll be hard for him to answer—and I can see the mental gymnastics as he replies to my questions, the same ones I always ask: What did you do this weekend? How’s your dad? Are you awake?
I have a plan for the day, but I’m also willing to change it based on a student preferences or ability levels. What I don’t yet know is that the most important lesson I’ll teach today isn’t actually in the lesson plans at all.
Later that morning, one of my students was typing a story she had written. She’d worked very hard and was clearly proud of it. I asked that she use the computer to focus on her revising and typing skills. After working for only five minutes, she stood up and exclaimed, “This is so stupid—I don’t want to do it.”
Rather than respond to her outburst publicly, I requested to speak to her in the hallway. When I calmly asked her what had made her so upset, she told me that the red and green colors that signaled the errors in her work just made her mad.
I explained that it’s okay to be upset and that it’s fine to take a break from a frustrating task. I told her that when she feels ready, I would help her fix the writing errors so she could complete the assignment. Her issue was not really with the task itself, but with the computer (and perhaps the errors in a story that she had viewed as perfect).
She agreed that it was important to learn how to get through the task, even though it was raising her emotional temperature. I reminded her that she might need to use computers in her future workplace and that this kind of frustration wasn’t unique. She was breathing again. She was calmer. Most importantly, she seemed to understand the importance of working through the issue and learning from it.
By the way, this same tactic likely wouldn’t have worked a year ago. Back then, I watched with difficulty as she continually reacted to her emotions alone and achieved the same bad results. But lately, things have changed.
I teach students with little or no awareness of how they respond to their own emotions. I try to help them recognize and achieve a balance between their feelings and their responses. It requires time and empathy. Indeed, the world can be a discouraging place when so many things that are easy for others are harder for you. It must be uncomfortable to interact and communicate with others when so often you’re misunderstood.
When you teach a student a tool for coping, you teach them a behavior that opens a door for communication rather than closing it. This is certainly a life skill that each of us should learn. I feel like this particular student of mine has come a long way. Outbursts that used to land her in the discipline office are routinely resolved in the corner of the classroom or the hallway. Perhaps most importantly, she’s begun to realize that although I’m always there to help, she’s often capable of handling her difficult moments on her own or within her peer group.
But every now and then she still needs a little support to get back on track. Just like the rest of us.