How can I develop emotional resilience, in a teaching context?
October 21, 2014 11:44 PM   Subscribe

As a graduate teacher assigned to a difficult class, I felt like the students were personally attacking me. The general advice given to me was "Don't let it get to you" or even "Don't let it show if it does". How do you do that? More info inside.

I graduated from teaching in June of this year, and accepted a job teaching an upper primary school class part-time (11 and 12 year olds). Before this, I was working as a Teacher Assistant in a very small community. While the students in my previous school were challenging at times, the nature of the community meant that I felt I knew them and knew their families - and they knew me and mine. Students would sometimes come by my house in the afternoons, or see me at the local swimming hole, and there was a general feeling of liking and respecting each other. Plus, as an assistant, I was not actually in charge of discipline.

Fast-forward to my new job, in a much larger city. I was coming in half-way through the year, to take the class about half of the time, as the previous teacher (much-loved) increased her responsibilities elsewhere in the school. The students hated the change and I think disliked me because of it. A few in particular were obviously trying hard to find ways to "get" to me. For example, on clarifying my name, one student said, "It's Miss Tworedshoes, not Mrs, because no one would ever marry her!"

Of course, the students had no way to know if I was actually married/partnered/single, but they did hit a nerve and I think it showed. Other comments followed and, after a period of weeks, I ended up leaving that position. Rationally, it shouldn't have mattered to me what a couple of pre-teens that I barely knew had to say about me or my personal life, and yet it did.

My question is not "Should kids be allowed to get away with that?" or "How much do we expect teachers to put up with?" I genuinely want to know how to brush off comments or attacks like that in a classroom situation.
posted by tworedshoes to Human Relations (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Empathy. The radical crappy kind that means you don't even get to be righteous any more because even if there is absolutely nothing at all in that kid's life that justifies their behaviour, they're still behaving that way and that's really fucking sad.

We can't pretend things said to us are meaningless. We can accept our own feelings and concentrate on what we do instead (so no wallowing, no ruminating, no harrumphing, just acceptance and ensuring we have a support network).
posted by geek anachronism at 12:12 AM on October 22, 2014 [12 favorites]

It might help to realise that they are not saying those things to you as a person, but to you as a teacher. In other words, they are reacting to the role you are playing, not to who you are.
Maybe you could try to see the role of a teacher as something that surrounds the real you, a kind of shell, and think of such remarks as something that only reaches that shell, and not the real you inside of it.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:08 AM on October 22, 2014 [18 favorites]

By keeping in mind that kids like that don't really care how they get to you; they just care that they get to you. These kids weren't acting out of any deep-seated social prejudice against single people and they weren't judging you for being single; they were just looking for anything that would get a reaction and they latched onto that. It's a game to them, and they do it more for their amusement than to hurt you. If they had gotten a reaction out of the fact that your favorite color is orange they would have made "orange sucks" jokes for four months, left Minute Maid frozen orange juice containers on your desk, worn Halloween shirts to class every day, and whatever other dumb crap they could've come up with to keep the joke going.

Also, just for clarification: were you upset because of the specific comments that were made, or do you think you would have been that sensitive to any kind of teasing? If you're especially sensitive about being single, then one solution would be just taking steps that make it likelier that you won't be single anymore--online dating, joining clubs, working on your confidence, all the usual suspects. These things, needless to say, are also helpful when you're getting used to a new city.
posted by urufu at 1:09 AM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing I learned while teaching elementary school was to appreciate the stuff the students said and did to each other as a sort of social Brownian motion.

I mean, I could see that in some sense they were all just constantly bouncing around emotionally, bonking into each others' feelings every day and reacting without much reflection. You're part of their environment, so they're going to do that to you too. But you have the greater ability to put on an inner smile, relax, and consider that they're just doing what people naturally do when their emotions get the better of them (even as adults).

Honestly, I found the whole thing relieved me of more personal doubts than it created: all the little junk you remember from your own childhood, like other kids saying mean things to you or you saying stupid things to other people? Brownian motion. You were almost certainly a decent kid just having ordinary childhood experiences. And so are the students in your class. The truth is that you're all mostly fine.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:29 AM on October 22, 2014 [15 favorites]

I just focus on the things I can control, like getting through the lesson plan. Did I get through the lesson plan? Yes. Was it a successful class then? Yes. Did students throw me some shade? Yeah, but I got through the lesson plan, who gives a damn.
posted by angrycat at 3:36 AM on October 22, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far: much appreciated.

In response to urufu - yes, being single is an area of my life I am not currently at peace about, so the comments did get under my skin for that reason, but it was more that the students were so obviously looking for a way to do that. I wasn't expecting that.

Too-Ticky - I love your idea of the shell. I think that is what I need. Mental hacks to deflect the comments and get on with teaching!
posted by tworedshoes at 3:52 AM on October 22, 2014

I find it really helpful to watch other people dealing with similar problems, particularly TV programs that follow UK police (lots of cheery professionalism in the face of obnoxious insult), and episodes of Scott and Bailey, in which two detectives who are clearly real human beings with real lives visibly don their Professional Masks to behave all Professionally while interviewing violent criminals or asking a murdered person's spouse where they were at the time of the crime.

Watching this stuff helps me see that the obnoxious person is not being obnoxious at someone personally. They are being obnoxious at a concept, like "police officer" or "teacher" or just "authority". The kids aren't fighting you; they're fighting the school system, and your job is to defuse that fight and channel their energy more productively. No different to if you found them outside kicking the bin.
posted by emilyw at 5:32 AM on October 22, 2014

I'm a teacher, and I work with kids in that age range.

I try to always keep in mind that I'm the only person in the classroom who is there by choice.

Also, it sounds cheesy, but you could look at that student as having something to teach you about patience and tolerance, and about what your triggers are. If you were at peace with being single, that comment wouldn't have stung.

Also, I think sometimes people look at kids as testing teachers to see what they can get away with, but I also think that some bad behavior is a way for kids to test teachers to see if that teacher is "safe." To see how big a margin of error a teacher will give, how quick to anger they are, so they can decide how much risk is okay.

Also, you may want to check out the most recent episode of This American Life, which talk about discipline in public schools, and its impact on minority students.
posted by alphanerd at 6:22 AM on October 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I feel you on this one, the disrespectful behavior is what drove me out of the profession. Middle school is the hardest because at that age range, their brains turn to pudding with the flood of hormones. Basically if you could just Velcro them to the walls and tape their mouths shut it would be heavenly. But they're humans so you have to adjust.

One thing I wish I had done earlier on was call the parents to discuss the behavior. Once I started doing that, it didn't always get the result that I wanted, but in some cases it helped. Here's how you do it.

"Brad seems to be an intelligent student, and I'd like to see more of that in class. He's been acting disrespectfully and it's disruptive to the class and affecting his grade. Today he did Foo, Bah and Blah. I was hoping you could speak to him and perhaps get him to focus more on school work and less on impressing the class with his wit." I'd say about 50% of the time, the student will come in chastened, because the parents will actually do something.

I made that phone call more than once to parents who said, "Yeah, he's like that to me too. I don't know how to deal with it," or "I'm 9 months pregnant and I can't be stressed out. You're stressing me out," or "Gee, you must be antagonizing him. Don't do that." I expect the kids to be assholes, they can't help it, but when the parents abdicate their responsibility, you can't help but gain some insight.

So how do you not let it get to you? I don't know exactly, it got to me plenty. The actual bullshit they, childish. It was the idea that it was okay for them to do it is what infuriated me. A lot of the problem is that in our administration the discipline was spotty, haphazard and basically pointless.

However, go through the motions. If a kid was disrespectful, I'd give detention. If it happened again, I'd call home. If it happened again, referral to AP and perhaps internal suspension. If that still didn't solve the problem, I'd insist that the kid sit in IS until I could have a parent come in and speak with me and the AP about the behavior.

I will say this, be consistent. Nail everyone in the same way, with the same process.

Now, I'll admit, I sassed them back. It was very fun, and it gave me satisfaction. But it was very, very wrong, and unprofessional and it made me a terrible human being. I also felt really, really guilty when I would get big laughs from the class at the student's expense. No, I'm lying, it was great.

So it's a good thing I got out of teaching.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:51 AM on October 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

During my first year of teaching I replaced a well-loved, inappropriately chummy teacher as part of a general overhaul of a small high school staff. I was sexually harassed, razzed and just generally hazed that whole first year. It was terrible. But with the new principal's support, I didn't quit, and ended up spending my last five years teaching pretty happy there.

You got the shitty end of the stick in that assignment. Oh well. As a current substitute I can tell you that being the "new guy" all the time means a whole lot of that hazing meanness goes on in my life. I have the luxury of refusing to take that assignment again (as a sub) if it's really bad. And I'm not paid well enough to take it these days. Not to mention the fact that I'm always at a disadvantage if I don't know kids, they don't know me, and I'm maybe never going to see them again.

What I've learned though is that a difficult class can be handled pretty well with the "hacks" as referred to above. You represent something that troubles them, authority, or whatever. They don't dislike you personally until you've earned that dislike with your actual behavior. (And that can happen, if you break and act unprofessionally, like lose your temper. If that happens, later on you apologize kindly and succinctly and move on. Yeah, anyone would lose their temper, but this is your job, so there you go. They will be impressed you had the stones to apologize, because teacher's don't do that very often.) So, there have been times when I had to turn away, or spend a moment in the bathroom stall getting ahold of myself--which is often not possible in the midst of it. But now I know, with years of experience, that the only way to deal with consistent baiting behavior is to be consistent right back. You pick the ringleader, and you send them to ISS. Best bet is to talk to the disciplinary professional, who ever, that you are going to break this kid's bad behavior habit with their help. And you stick with it. You don't get angry, you don't sass, you just tell them in advance what's going to happen. One warning, second warning, and you're out. Have the security people's phone number on speed dial to escort them if necessary. After awhile, your consistency will earn the respect of the class, if not their undying love.
posted by RedEmma at 7:29 AM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

When this sort of thing happens in my classes, it makes me feel a bit better when I think of the sort of stuff I used to say about my teachers. And I was a polite, well-behaved pupil who, for the most part, liked and respected the people who were teaching me.

But I think some part of me never really believed they were actually people. I wonder now why my pupils think it's so outrageous when they see me outside school, and why former pupils I'm in touch with still never call me by my first name (even the one who's now in the final year of her DPhil herself). It's because, to their pupils, teachers aren't people in the way they are: they can't possibly have a life outside school (or even leave it at the end of the day...) or a first name or parents of their own or anything that would make them ordinary and human. So it's easy to forget that they have feelings too. I know I did, and I was one of the "good" kids.

I sympathise hugely though. I don't take any kind of criticism well, even from teenagers who I know rationally don't mean it personally. Take one class at a time and whatever you do don't dwell on it. And good on you for doing a tough job bravely - I really do feel that the difficulties of teaching are so rarely acknowledged.
posted by raspberry-ripple at 7:37 AM on October 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

It might help to realise that they are not saying those things to you as a person, but to you as a teacher. In other words, they are reacting to the role you are playing, not to who you are.

This is so true. I remember the handful of times, in elementary school (40 years ago) that a teacher reacted in a way that showed her vulnerability to student rudeness -- her reddening face, her look of total sadness, or once the screech "You're brats!" as she sat down and put her head on her desk. Yelling and punishing did not have this effect, only the display of human vulnerability. In each case I remember the palpable group shock and communal shame that overcame the class. No, the kids were not ashamed of themselves for being mean. We just experienced shame because somehow the performance of Teacher had been exposed as a performance. Her feelings kind of shattered the fourth wall. It was, in the weird world of childhood, terribly embarrassing to realize you could hurt the teacher's feelings. This didn't make kids respect her more, necessarily, but I think it did make us realize that this was a person, not just a Charlie Brown WAAHWAAH voice who was keeping us inside on a beautiful day and making us sit still and representing something we didn't know how to protest in a rational way.
These are kids and so they are not in a position of power. They want to feel a bit more powerful and they do it in ways that can really sting. But if you humiliate them, that's an abuse of your power. Still, you can't allow them to humiliate you.
That is why -- ideally, not always, but ideally -- you should deal with this by thinking: "this too is teaching. I'm going to teach them how to be civil." Keep your teacher mask on as best you can and use the role to teach them: We don't talk to people that way, and if you do, there will be a consequence. (Like making them leave the room, something to that effect.) Imagine that you're teaching them to behave and be better people in these circumstances in exactly the same way you'd teach them if they said something equally rude to one of their peers.
posted by third rail at 7:43 AM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also: remember that even if it co-incidentally pushes your buttons, there is literally no way an 11 year old knows what is attractive spouse material to other adults and I do not believe for a second he knew he was pushing your specific buttons. He isn't going to even be thinking of you as someone with emotions on that level. Seriously, this is just an immature joke on the Miss/Mrs title. You could be the most sought-after woman on the planet, totally confident as you dismissed suitors lining up in your yard, and if this kid heard the Miss/Mrs confusion, he would have said the same thing. If it pushed your buttons, remember it's like a generic "Your mama" joke insensitively but ignorantly said to someone who has unfortunately lost their mother. We tend to project some kind of ESP onto kids and dogs, as if they somehow "know" or sense these secret things about people. It's not true.
posted by third rail at 7:59 AM on October 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

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