Saturday 15 July 2017

Should Teachers Show Their Emotions?

I tried to write a blog that has nothing to do with chess but I did not succeed. 

I'm an emotional person. I cry after bad lessons where I feel I haven't managed to teach my students enough. I cry after (OK, fine, sometimes during) meetings with senior management when I feel like I'm not doing my job well enough. I cried this year after I left my year 11s in the exam hall, about to start their first Maths GCSE paper, and I cried last year on results day when I saw my year 13s' A-Level results. I'm a crier. My colleagues love me for that.

I'm not just a crier though. I experience a whole range of strong emotions whilst in school. I experience extreme annoyance, when I feel like I might spontaneously combust. I rarely experience anger, but once or twice in the past year I have properly screamed at a student to leave my classroom and never come back. I experience elation, when I am so happy about my job and my students that I can't stop laughing.

I recently attended a short CPD session about behaviour management, focusing on de-escalation techniques. I thought it was a really good session, and that it all made a lot of sense. However, one key point that was mentioned has really made me think. It was: never respond emotionally, always act detached, objective, and professional.

On the one hand, I can see that this makes a lot of sense. If you are trying to de-escalate a situation, adding your emotions to the child's emotions is probably not a good idea. Additionally, there are some children who misbehave purely to elicit an emotional response from someone, because their family life lacks emotional responses and they need to get it from somewhere, even if it is negative. Students become very good at learning exactly what triggers you, so that they can be rewarded with a strong and immediate emotional response each time. Therefore not giving them this response removes the incentive to misbehave.

But although I know this all makes logical sense, part of me feels like there's something not right about it. Teachers are human beings. We have feelings. Students learn about human interaction and feelings from observing us. If we choose to wear a poker face when a student calls us something nasty, how will our students learn that their words can hurt other people's feelings?

More importantly, is it really possible for a student and a teacher to form a relationship if one side shows no emotions? Would students even be able to think of you as a real person if you didn't show human emotion?

Let me give you an example. This is, of course, fictional, because I would never write about a real incident in my classroom on a public and non-anonymous blog, would I? Lets imagine I'm teaching a year 8 class and one student says something nasty to another student. I of course tell the first student off, and warn them not to say anything else, and follow the school's behaviour policy perfectly. Let's say that student then makes another nasty comment to the same student. I of course follow the school's behaviour policy and deal with the situation professionally. Then let's imagine that by this point the recipient of the nasty comments is starting to look a little bit wet around the eyes, and let's imagine the commenter then goes in for the kill and says something absolutely horrible to the same victim. How do you think I responded? How do you imagine I might respond?

Option A: Calmly refer to the official school behaviour policy. Robotically give the stock phrases from the handbook and ask the student to step outside, call for a member of staff to come and escort the student to the time-out room, and go back into my classroom, pick up my whiteboard pen and carry on simplifying my fraction as if nothing has happened.

Option B: Scream between gritted teeth (yes that is possible) "get out of my classroom and never speak to one of my students like that again!" (Adding two extra words between the "get" and the "out" but only saying those internally). After the student has left, apologise to your class for going mental, sit down for a second, wait for your face to stop resembling a tomato, then pick up your pen and simplify your fraction.

Is option A definitely the better option? It is definitely effective at de-escalating the situation. You are unlikely to end up with broken property or fisticuffs or verbal abuse towards you. There is a slight chance, with option B, that the student will shout right back at you. If that happens, taking control of the situation will be more difficult. They might respond by throwing a chair or kicking a wall, in which case you may have put your students' safety at risk. OK, when I put it like that, I'm actually starting to think Option A really is the best approach. Should I even bother continuing writing this?

Let's talk for a moment about the downsides of Option A and the benefits of Option B. Think about the other students in your class, the bullied student and the onlookers. What are they thinking and feeling during all of this? Let's start with the victim. They're feeling upset at first because they're being bullied. Their self esteem is getting lower and lower. They're trying desperately not to cry. They feel slight relief when the teacher takes action the first time. When it happens again, they're losing faith in the teacher's ability to protect them. After the third time, when the bully is removed, they feel a sense of relief, but they may worry that this will happen again in their next lesson. Their opinion of you as a teacher is that you can keep them safe in this classroom. The onlookers may be feeling quite neutral throughout all of this, and may not even be aware that anything is going on. Their feelings towards you as teacher have not changed. Now what about Option B? The victim may feel like you care about them. They might feel grateful that you stuck up for them. They may see that you understand how they're feeling, and that you see how painful it is to be called names like that. The onlookers see that you don't tolerate bullying, and they see that bullying is a serious matter.

The great thing about writing a blog like this is that it allows you to reflect. Looking at it now, I can see that Option B is unwise. It is an example of only looking one move ahead. Looking two moves ahead, you realise that blowing up like that could cause the situation to escalate and get out of hand, putting your students at risk. This forces you to look for another option, an option that involves two moves rather than one. And that's this: apply Option A. Once the offending student has been safely taken to the time out room, show the remaining students your emotional response. Tell the class that you despise bullying and that you won't tolerate it in your classroom and you can even say that you almost screamed but that you had to hold it in in order to deal with the situation in the best way. Maybe talk to the bullied student one-on-one and tell them how much you empathise with them and how sorry you are that they had to experience that in your classroom and how you're going to try really hard to make sure that never happens again. Talk to the bully, maybe at the end of the day or the next day, and explain how upset you felt on behalf of the bullied student, and that their actions made you feel angry.

I think what I've realised, by writing this, is that showing your students your emotions is good, but not spontaneously. Think it through. Emotions without an audience are also probably better. Talking about how you felt in the past is also probably better than talking about how you feel right now. "I was really angry yesterday when you said ---- to ----, do you understand why?" This allows them to understand that what they did was horrible, but they can look at it more objectively because it's like you've both taken a step back and they're on the outside looking in.

Of course I'm now thinking that me being so emotional is the reason why I'm not as good at chess as I'd like to be. Maybe I respond too emotionally and I'm being too reactive? In case you're wondering, I played three matches yesterday against real people, and lost all three. But I'm losing better than I used to lose. I played against the computer yesterday and today (on level 3 now!) and won both. Because computers don't have emotions? Probably not, actually. I think of the computer as a real person, and have been known to swear at him once or twice.

What do you think? Should teachers pretend to be emotionless, or should we try to resemble human beings as much as possible?

Emma x x x


  1. In my opinion that teacher emotions play a big role in their personal methodic. I wish you the best of everything!

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