First Person

The Anger Teachers Don’t Feel Comfortable Expressing

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Teachers experience the full spectrum of anger in the course of our work, ranging from mild annoyance to blinding fury. Yet most of the time, we swallow it down. We keep smiling, even when that smile becomes more of a grimace.

There is a strong taboo against teachers admitting to our anger, let alone expressing it. We are supposed to be sweet, kind, patient, and docile.

Part of this norm involves gender. In a profession where women make up more than 76 percent of teachers but fewer than 25 percent of superintendents, women are often expected to accept mandates handed down by men without objection, let alone anger. The tired phrase "monitor and adjust" might be better translated as "accept the unacceptable without complaining."

So teachers' anger remains hidden like a badly kept secret.

Teaching is an incredibly hard job under the best of circumstances. For most of us, the circumstances are far from ideal. As revealed by the series of strikes and walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and other states, teachers often have to fight for basic materials and living wages. The past few months have shown that teachers are willing to engage in those battles until they are won.

Take a grueling job and a pervasive lack of support. Add the simple reality that teachers are human, with a range of emotions and all kinds of life events ranging from sick children to marriage problems to ailing parents. You have the ingredients for a whole cauldron full of anger.

What do we do about it?

I love teaching. I love the students, the parents, and the shyly grinning little brothers and sisters. I experience joy, laughter, and a deep sense of purpose on a daily basis. I also teach in that rarest of unicorns—a high-poverty school with supportive, stable leadership at the school and district level, which makes our staff turnover almost nonexistent.

Still, I feel the full range of anger—from annoyance to fury—in any given school year. When I admit that uncomfortable truth to my colleagues, they laugh. They think of me as someone who generally keeps his cool and treats his students with patience and respect. They don’t see the grumpy jerk who lurks within, popping out at stressful moments like an irritable jack-in-the-box.

"There is a strong taboo against teachers admitting to our anger, let alone expressing it. We are supposed to be sweet, kind, patient, and docile."

Part of that contradiction can be explained by the walled world of the classroom. My colleagues aren’t there to witness those moments when I raise my voice at the class or snap at a student for a minor infraction. Like most teachers, I have had that awful experience of my principal or some other adult walking into the room right when I’m rebuking a child with all the grace of a bad-tempered drill sergeant.

When that happens, I do a sudden, unnatural modulation into a kinder and calmer tone, mortified that my secret identity as an angry teacher has just been revealed.

After 18 years in teaching, I think it’s safe to say I will never attain the Zen-like demeanor of tranquility for which I once strived. Instead, I have learned to accept anger as a frequent companion in this magnificent but wearying profession. I have also found four ways to calm, anticipate, and steer that ill-tempered beast.

1. Admit anger exists.

Kids need us to teach them how to handle anger. That starts by acknowledging its existence.

The first day of school, I ask my students, "Is it OK to feel angry?" The 6-year-olds shoot sidelong glances at one another, unsure of the answer. Some shake their heads fervently; others give a tentative nod.

"It is OK," I tell them. "In fact, you can’t even control it—anger is a feeling that just comes, whether you want it to or not. But we can control our actions. It’s not OK to yell, push people, or throw things, but there’s nothing wrong with the feeling itself. You’ll get angry at me this year, when I get you in trouble or won’t let you do what you want to do. I’ll get angry at you sometimes, too. We just have to learn how to handle that feeling."

When students do get angry, I have them spend some time talking about, writing, and drawing things that help them calm down. I might have them take a deep breath, count to 10, or walk down the hall to get a drink and splash cool water on their face.

We read books like When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry and talk about shades of meaning between words like "annoyed" and "enraged." The kids also learn how to resolve their own conflicts through "Peace Talks," a simple process in which two children tell each other, "When you _____, I felt _____. Next time I want you to _____," then shake hands or hug.

None of this makes the anger itself disappear. But it teaches children how to handle it—a skill they’ll need for the rest of their lives—and it saves hundreds of hours of class time that would otherwise be lost to meltdowns and arguments.

2. Take the time to figure out the real source of your anger.

When I feel mad at my students, it sometimes turns out to be misguided anger at myself—often for botching a lesson when it seems like I should be better at teaching by now. Other times my anger is really directed at the education system itself, with its haphazard policies and overemphasis on testing-challenges that make it so hard sometimes to do right by our students.

I’m more prone to anger, too, when I didn’t sleep well, when I’m fighting a cold, or when I’m having a rough week for any number of reasons—none of which are my 1st graders’ fault. Examining the source of the anger doesn’t magically make it vanish, but it can help me avoid taking it out on my students.

3. Give kids the benefit of the doubt.

A 5th grade teacher at my school once confessed that she had berated a student for her lack of focus. "What’s wrong with you today?" she asked. The student told her, "My dad went to jail last night," and burst into tears.

Last week I snapped at Ailuk for listlessly thumbing through her book rather than actually reading it. Twenty minutes later, she told me her head felt hot and promptly threw up in the trash can. I felt terrible.

I have to keep reminding myself to find out what’s wrong with students when they aren’t on task, rather than going straight to a reprimand or consequence. For younger students in particular, so much of their "misbehavior" simply stems from hard things going on at home or expectations they haven’t learned yet how to meet. Individual quirks matter, too. Some kids just have a harder time sitting still on the rug, paying attention, or keeping their desks organized.

Part of our job is to teach the kids in our care how to listen, to focus on their work for an extended period of time, or to resolve their conflicts with one another peacefully. We can’t get angry at children for things we haven’t fully taught them yet.

4. Take care of yourself.

Our job is exhausting. We often grind ourselves down in service of our students until we end up so worn out that we can’t be of any real use to them. Our students deserve well-planned lessons, and that takes some preparation. But they also deserve a teacher who is calm, happy, and well rested.

We have to build the time into our lives to get enough sleep, to take care of our bodies, and to do whatever renews our spirits—whether it’s laughing with friends, taking a walk in the woods, or having an impromptu dance party in the living room with our own children.

Anger will come in this most difficult and human of work, whether we want it to or not. We have to learn how to handle it, or it will handle us. That work begins by simply pointing to the elephant in the room and saying, "See that elephant over there? I do too. What are we going to do about it?"

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