Teaching Opinion

Response: A Bad Day In The Classroom ‘Will Pass’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 05, 2013 8 min read
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(This is Part Two in a multi-part series on this topic. You can read Part One here)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

What do you do when you’re having a bad day in the classroom? How do you get over feelings of frustration?

Who among us doesn’t have a bad day now-and-then?

This post is Part Two in a multi-part series responding to this question, so there is plenty of time for readers to continue sending in their suggestions. Part One included responses from Roxanna Elden, Allen Mendler and Julia Thompson.

Today’s post includes contributions from Terry Thompson, Renee Moore and Cindi Rigsbee.

But, first, I’d like to share a few comments of my own. In Part One, I wrote about the steps I take to prevent bad days in the first place. Today, I’ll briefly write about what I do when none of those preventative measures work.

I am only human, after all, and some days I’m not going to successfully implement all the preventative actions I mentioned in the last post. Plus, even though I have an enormous amount of control over what takes place in the classroom, I cannot control what goes on in students’ lives outside of school. Holiday times, which is when some of the challenges facing students become particularly difficult for them, can increase tension levels for many at the same time. Any type of disruption in routine -- whether it’s coming back from a Spring Break or if the class schedule temporarily changes to accommodate state testing -- can do the same.

Here are some actions I take “in the moment":

Look at my “Show Patience” Sign: I have a sign in the back of the room (for my benefit) and in the front (for my students) that says “Show Patience.” When I might begin to lose “it,” the sign is big enough for me to catch in the corner of my eye and -- sometimes -- cause me to act on its message.

Slow down and be conscious of my breathing: If I begin to lose my patience, I try to become more aware of my breathing and slow it down, which generally has a calming effect.

Throw-out the lesson and play a learning game for review: If the “bad day bug” is affecting multiple students, getting them in small groups to play a game can work wonders. You can see a list of simple games I use and their instructions here and here.

Apologize for my part in it all: I apologize to individual students if I have showed impatience with them. I might also apologize to the whole class for the part I have played in the class having a bad day. Saying “I’m sorry” is a good way to “de-polarize” a situation. This might happen near the end of a class period if nothing I’ve tried has worked. After I briefly share my apology and the things I think I could have done differently, I usually ask students to take a few minutes to write down what they think they could have done differently, share it with a partner, and then we’ll have a short class discussion. My starting thing off with an apology and accepting responsibility will often encourage students to reflect on their own roles.

Now, here are responses from today’s guests:

Response From Terry Thompson

Terry Thompson is an author, teacher, and consultant living in San Antonio, Texas. He trains teachers of readers and writers in grades K-8. Currently a reading interventionist, Terry has served as a classroom teacher, basic skills teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, and literacy coach. He holds a master’s degree in psychotherapy and cognitive coaching and travels throughout the country consulting with classroom teachers and literacy specialists. Terry is the author of Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension (Stenhouse) and is currently writing his second book, Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds That Empower Readers and Writers:

Let’s face it--no day in the classroom is perfect.

Our energies are pulled in so many different directions that things are bound to get hectic from time to time. Considering how we merge time crunches, curriculum crunches, and even personality crunches, it’s easy to see how the occasional off day could derail us.

That being said, teachers are caretakers at heart. We want so much for our students to succeed, it’s frustrating when difficulties throw us off track. When a day in the classroom unexpectedly slaps you in the face, remember the following:

1. Your frustration is real. Too often, we push our feelings back in the name of helping children, refusing to acknowledge that what we’re going through is affecting us deeply. This isn’t helping.

2. Your frustration is valid. In our caretaker role, we commonly dismiss our feelings as unimportant. After all, we argue, we’re here for the children, so our frustration pales in comparison to their needs. This only makes things worse.

3. You are the first domino. When we’re stewing in frustration, we pass that tension down to our students. So, for the sake of our own sanity and the learning community we’re guiding, we have to tend to it.

Admitting that our frustration is both real and valid is only the first step. And, as uneasy as this can be for caretakers, it’s even more difficult to address these feelings.

Before we can resolve our frustration, we have to consider its origin. Often a smaller matter gives us carte blanche to attach other concerns to it, causing that original small issue to expand and--before we know it--completely take over. I wouldn’t call it overreacting, but when we’re depleted and frustrated, we often bring other unrelated feelings along for the ride. Pinpoint the exact cause of your frustration so you can handle it directly.

Once you’ve done this, center yourself and make a plan to address the issue. Have you been avoiding a conversation you need to have with a particular student? Is it time to schedule that difficult parent conference? You might decide to consult with your teammates to help craft an action plan. Or perhaps you need to have dinner with a trusted peer simply to vent.

Either way, take some sort of action. Don’t ignore it. Frustration will wait you out. If you don’t deal with it constructively, it will only get worse.

Response From Renee Moore

Renee Moore, NBCT, teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. She is 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year; member of the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory; co-authored Teaching 2030 (2011) and blogs at TeachMoore:

I remember the days in my first year of teaching when I would go crying from my high school English classroom across the street to talk to one of my mentors; Mrs. Dorothy Grenell. She would always start by reminding me that I had not done permanent harm to the students, and that they would be okay. Then, she’d help me sort through what to do tomorrow.

Today, 25 years later, I am surrounded by reminders of what past students have said or sent me about the differences I made for them. I refuse to fear or quit.

Most important: I ask myself whether I am upset because I’m embarrassed, because I feel I have lost control, or because I don’t think I’m really helping the students? The answer to that question determines whether I need to jerk the slack out of my self-pity, or seek out my professional learning network for some growth.

I made myself a promise never to grade students when I’m frustrated, and if necessary to apologize to the class if I ever speak to them in an unprofessional manner because of my mood.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified Teacher currently serving as a Regional Education Facilitator in North Carolina and working on recruitment and retention initiatives. A finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009, Cindi is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make:

The first thing to remember is that every teacher, in fact, every human being, is going to have a day or two like this. It may seem more prevalent in a school (I say that we stand in front of thirty “variables” every day.) But I have been known to chant this little mantra that a school principal said to me once: “This, too, will pass. This, too, will pass.” And it will.

When the school day ends, I try to reflect on any successes that occurred throughout the day. Was I prepared for class? Did I enjoy my lesson? Did an unusually quiet student volunteer to answer a question?

When I first started teaching, I had so many bad days, I had to play a little game with myself. I called it “Who was it today?” I had to be able to name at least one thing I did that made a difference to a child. Even if all I did was impact a student’s self confidence by complimenting her on her outfit, I had to end every day knowing I impacted at least one. As I gained more and more experience, I realized that my list of “who it was” got longer and longer and my bad days occurred less frequently.

Thanks to Terry, Renee and Cindi for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including many readers’ comments in the next post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for Part Three, the final post in this series, in a few days...

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.