Emergency Calm for the Classroom Teacher
Breathing Through Teachable Moments
The Sunday before Memorial Day, a devastating thing happened to me in terms of being a writing teacher. The online platform that I use to house my students’ creative writing malfunctioned, and I lost all of my students’ writing...from the entire year. I was mortified. I was stunned. I cried. I resonated on one of my students who refuses to do literally anything else besides work on his story that is now (was) almost 1300 words. 10 minutes later I started receiving student emails about the system not working. Many of my friends and family members had a variety of responses:
“Give them all A’s…it will be okay.” (Like I just hand out grades...not happening)
“They will understand.” (Yes, but I don’t understand, what will an 11 year old do?)
“The experience of writing is what matters...not keeping the final product.” (Do you know what I would do if my notebooks burned up?)
I grabbed Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo for some book therapy or bibliotherapy. If you know what happens in this book, you know what section I immediately flipped over to in the novel-in-verse. I read and reviewed this section, just anticipating what my students were going to do and say. I couldn’t replace the work they had done or the comments they had given each other on their writing. They had built a community of writing online and it was gone in an instant. I dreaded going back to school on Tuesday, and I found myself dealing with some major teacher anxiety.
This post outlines the emergency response to helping you calm your teacher brain. This is what worked for me in a big moment like this example, and also in small moments when I feel like everything is piling up. Both types of moments can call for a teacher to scream, “TIME OUT,” and take a moment to breathe. This isn’t the first time I have written about teacher stress, but I wanted to share what worked for me when I was having a particularly difficult time dealing with the amount of stress.
Recognize the Emergency
It is important to realize that with the awesome ability to design our own classes and come up with an unending list of ways to try to engage students, we are ultimately setting ourselves up for being overwhelmed. Whenever I feel a teacher emergency setting in, I pause and ask myself, “Is this an emergency I am causing myself or is this an emergency that is happening to me?” It is important to realize the difference between the two types. An example from my classroom is from two years ago. I had made final drafts of papers due two days before the end of the marking period, I hadn’t graded my students’ 158 portfolios yet, and I was behind on other miscellaneous grading. I remember sitting that day at lunch with my teaching team, and one of them commented on how I was staring off into space overwhelmed. A teacher emergency of my own design.
This was a great example of how the art of planning helps the teacher avoid piling work upon themselves when they are in a quest to be great. We can’t do it all even if we think we can. The “first responder” language associated with teaching places this mentality on teachers. We are constantly “putting out fires” or making “minute-by-minute” decisions. Like the language about schools being like families in the interview with Jennifer Gonzalez and Angela Watson, I think it is also dangerous to put this language into school norms. Yes, we are superheroes. Yes, I believe reading and writing can change peoples’ lives. Teachers are game-changers. However, we are not the entire game. And by game I am implying the extremely large metaphor of life or death. Too many problems in education can mask feel like end-all be-all emergencies, but they are not what they seem.
Some teacher emergencies that pop are not by our own hands. An example of this is that we had state mandated testing this past week. I’ll save you the time checking the date on this post, the last full week of June I was testing my students in reading. Do you know what this feels like? And while I know that the polar vortex in Michigan caused so many snow days and this was out of my control, I still ended up working through a pile of testing that is 25% of my evaluation that my students had given on in terms of morale and endurance. It is June. They were tested out, and I couldn’t blame them. My grade level partner and I looked at the data like a kid looking under the bed for the big scary monster. While I make fun of this moment, it angered me to think about how evaluations are done for teachers. What are we saying to teachers when we value them on standardized tests? I can differentiate my instruction, but I standardize my tests? I took a breath. I paused. I had to remind myself: I am not my data. My worth is not defined by my data. This is not an emergency of my own doing. We are taught as young ones that sometimes things happen that are beyond our control, we can only control our response to the situation.
Whether the emergency is self-induced or not, here are five strategies or responses to use just in case they are needed for a rainy day.
Emergency Calm Strategies
Strategy #1:Use mindfulness and breath work
The staff at Mindful define mindfulness as: “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” It is easy to just throw out buzz words when it comes to stress and anxiety, but the difference between regular stress and emergency stress is that we are not able to calm ourselves down as needed. Being present in the moment and turning off the ability to react cause us to slow down and really process where we are in terms of physical reaction and emotion. One of the easiest ways to respond to a teacher emergency is to use breath work and focus on derailing the negative thought train.
I love the Calm App. Not only does Calm have a session called “Emergency Calm,” but I often find that just listening to the background noise in the app will cause me to readjust my focus. The four main pillars of the Calm app are meditation, sleep, body work, and the use of music. All have a plethora of research behind them for helping with stress and anxiety. These types of apps focus on breath work, being still, and taking a pause. I reach for the Calm app as a first response and also as a daily practice when it comes to building by “mindful” stamina (i.e. having the patience to breathe deeply).
Strategy #2: Stop catastrophic thinking
This one is easy to do for those that worry. The dreaded question of “What if?” can cause the most planned and organized teacher to still wake up at 3 am. As a self-proclaimed planner, I am trained to think of different outcomes. Naturally, teachers are trained to deal with catastrophes. If my plan A doesn’t work for a lesson, I have a plan B and C. There is always a plan. I was trained on this phenomenon. This is also why this skill is really hard to focus in on in the midst of a problem that is deemed an emergency.
I try to focus on the most current problem and make action steps for each one. I am a checklist person. I like to mark off lists in order to feel the physical check of progress on paper. I have also had to train my brain to be okay if I am only making a few checks at a time each day. Marking something of my never-ending to-do list matters. Every little thing we do matters. The big part of catastrophic thinking means we feel like we have to solve the whole problem all at once. An example of this was working with my data this year after standardized testing. It isn’t feasible for me to solve all the problems with my data and my instruction in just 24 hours, and it is unfair to my teaching to focus in on the negative in terms of test scores. I do plan to work on some strategies over the summertime, but I need to remind myself to not try to solve all of the issues in single sitting.
Strategy #3: Cause a distraction
After my writing mishap and meltdown from the story at the beginning of this post, I immediately asked my husband if we could watch a movie. He knew I needed a distraction. I had stopped doing all of the work that I planned on doing, but I needed to immediately focus my energy on something else. Sometimes it is too easy to say, “I have to do this now.” If it is a matter of your mental or physical health, you can afford to put the problem to the side and cause a disturbance in the pattern of your thinking. The simple act of watching a movie made me take a timeout from focusing on how bad I thought the issue was at the time, and then I was ready to jump back in with potential solutions.
An extreme cause of a distraction is to also simply remove yourself from all things related to teaching work. Go for a walk. Draw. Write. Sing loudly in the car. I blog as a way to reflect on teaching, I read as a way to go into other worlds, and I write in my journal as a way to think. Stop working if you need to do so. Give yourself permission to not work on school if needed. My goal this summer is to plan my lessons in a way that allow me the flexibility to work outside of school as I need to, but I still want to give myself the option of focusing on my personal life as well.
Strategy #4: Write, write, write, write, write
If you have read my posts, you know I think all teachers are writing teachers. Notice I said write, not work. The art of journaling and writing in and of itself is a release of pent up emotions and energy. I will often do morning pages, or I will try to do a “brain dump” when I am overwhelmed. There is something about putting all of my thoughts on paper that makes them easier to organize, more tangible. I have used bullet journaling as a way to merge my love of doodling with journaling as well. My notebooks i not always beautiful, but it is written in each day.
If you are not the creative writing type, simply make a written dialogue between yourself and the problem. I like to sometimes personify the issue so that there is a conversation. While this can seem a little ridiculous, it is also ridiculous to personalize our emergencies and manifest them as more stress. If I create an issue as something I can banter with, my problem does not seem as huge as what it may have seemed at first.
Strategy #5: Time your panic
As a person who worries, whenever I read blog posts or articles that have advice like I just listed here, I laugh a bit. If the problem is big enough, I almost can’t stop myself from thinking about it. If this is the case for you, and you are like me, get in the habit of timing your panic. I like to set a timer for 10 minutes, and I grab a notebook. I allow myself to perseverate on the problem for those 10 minutes. I don’t focus on mindfulness, I don’t worry about my breath, I allow myself to be a ball of worry. But, only for those 10 minutes. When that timer goes off, I intervene with another strategy like strategies 1-4. The goal is to not to feel like you are limiting yourself, yet the goal is to also be in a position to control your reaction to the problem in question.
Writing Mindset Reflection: What helps you remain calm during teacher emergencies?
Stephanie Hampton is a Middle School English Teacher and a teacher-blogger at www.writingmindset.org. She found a love of writing in the pages of poems as a kid and began to journal every day. As a Kalamazoo Promise graduate, she returned to teach in Kalamazoo Public Schools and has been there for the past nine years. You can often find Stephanie doodling in her journal, writing poems, and talking about the world of teaching.