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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

June 25, 2010

Blowing your top and hitting the ceiling- some thoughts on classroom anger management

Every teacher I've ever met can recount tales of student malevolence, ignorance or just plain bang-your-head-on-the-desk classroom numbskullery but hey teach, there's no need to get angry!

I'm speaking of course as a university teacher. Now, I won't pretend that our students have exactly the same social or emotional issues that afflict JHS or HS classrooms, and neither are we expected to be social or emotional mentors or guardians in the same way that teachers at those level are, and classroom displays of anger just don't cut it. At this level students are responsible for their own choices and if they choose to mess up royally, then by all means... hey, it's your life.

I used to get worked up, feel the steam rising in my ears, and give the students a dressing down worthy of a Bobby Knight (or Nicholas Anelka?) on occasion but either I'm maturing and am able to control my classes better or I've become more apathetic over the years. Probably a combination of the two.

Anyway, here's why explosions of classroom anger don't work:

1. The Crying Wolf effect- Blow up enough and people just assume it's your personality at work. They'll think you're a volcano and that sometimes you're the type who's gotta let off steam. Ho-hum. Hey, that's your problem buddy, not mine.

2. In response to your gnashing of teeth, students may just try to placate you as opposed to absorb whatever it is they are supposed to be gleaning from sensei's rant.

3. Most people do not respond positively, either in terms of motivation or performance, to outbursts of anger. My wife may direct the occasional tirade my way over my supposed lack of common sense regarding housework (such as not slicing carrots into the 'proper' shape) but this certainly doesn't make me want to just get up and do an extra toilet cleaning for my own edification. (Note- She doesn't read this blog. I don't think. Do you, honey?)

4. The legacy of angrily targeting an individual or group can affect classroom dynamics for a year (or longer). Your anger may be gone by the next day but your tirade will be remembered long thereafter- and not likely for its pedagogical value.

5. Positive reinforcement almost always creates better study habits than negative reinforcement.

6. If someone is actually trying to get to you and you respond with anger, they've got you. They've won. Throwing a great purple hairy (now how's that for a throwback term?) over it simply shows them your weakness.

7. So your lesson isn't going as well as planned because some students are being thick-headed. Really, so what? If that type of event is so horrific and earth-shattering as to induce an angry outburst your life must be pretty stress-free in other areas.

8. Most of the students in fact aren't doing the malevolent, ignorant or stupid thing. It is always a tiny minority who constitute the bizarre or of the mind-bogglingly 'don't get it' variety. We shouldn't identify this tiny bunch with 'our students' as a whole, although we tend to.

9. It would be unacceptable for students to explode in a similar manner so, as a role model...... Do I really need to finish this sentence?

10. Lessons aren't your 'show' when you're 'onstage' so don't treat it as if someone's trying to upstage you or steal your teacher's thunder. Treating such behaviour as a personal 'dis' indicates that pride may be a little too much of a factor in your teacher's repertoire. Most public displays of anger are just self-indulgence anyway.

But, some might argue, there are reasons to justify classroom anger. Ok. Let's think of some possibilities:

"The bad student's disruption ruins it for the good students"- This is more likely to be a factor in HS or JHS where bullying and/or intimidation will play more of an immediate role. Now, if it is at the level of actual 'gakkyu houkai' (classroom breakdown) the issue runs deeper than any shouting or waving of arms is going to fix. At this point it's too late for a teacher hissy fit. As for the university level, it's rarely long before the other students deal with the doofus in their own way- the troublemaker's social standing is not likely to remain high for long.

"Students produce when they've been told off. A little fear of the teacher can be a good thing"- At certain ages yes, but for young adults? Is this a legitimate learning dynamic at the university level? Instilling an atmosphere of fear might yield some short-term results but its long-term effect is not usually going to be conducive to developing better academic skills.

"Students will take advantage of you if you don't put your foot down. And they'll respect you more too when you do it"- Being firm, exuding strength and flipping your lid are very different things. In the first case you indicate that you are in control, but in the latter you indicate that you've lost control. Which are students more likely to respect?

Finally some common sense advice-
Dole out cautions and criticisms with regard for the students' personalities. That's right- don't treat them all the same. Some students can take a lighthearted chiding from sensei as a matter of course, and many do in fact respond well to directness and firmness, but for some- well they might just crawl into a shell and hate you and English forever and drag their friends into it (potentially sexist comment warning: this happens much more with female students it seems). And you don't need the hassle, right?

Laughing it off (while adding your caution or criticism) in classroom at the time is very effective and good for your heart and arteries too.

Calmly and carefully starting all over on a section that the students have made a hash of is more effective than wasting time hurling invective over their incompliance.

Warn sleeping, late, or inattentive students rather than get visibly angry at them. Strongly but firmly. After all, if they choose to zone out it's no skin off your nose. You always retain the power to give re-tests or to fail them.

If you reach a situation where no one seems to be listening to you, you certainly will get their attention with a tantrum but it's not the kind of attention you really want. Allowing for a little chaos at times can be liberating. Classrooms that teeter on the brink can be fun and still pedagogically viable. Teacher-mandated absolute control doesn't ensure that students are actually learning. Waiting aside for the chaotic moment to reach attrition and subside is also more effective than venting your spleen and tearing your sackcloths into ashes.

Never, ever, ever indicate that a student is, or has said something, stupid. While this might seem like the most common of common sense, many teachers make those "What-the-?", 'Duh!" "Are you nuts?" faces, or derisive snickers, without their realizing it. Watch out for those cases when, although you'd never say "Are you an idiot!?", your facial expression is betraying your thoughts.

Finally, although I hate to play the overused 'cultural differences' card, there is a very good chance that blowing your stack will be seen by students more as a Gaijin-esque cultural quirk rather than a means of enforcing whatever point you were trying to convey.

Chill. (Man, it's hard to say that at my age)

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"Finally, although I hate to play the overused 'cultural differences' card, there is a very good chance that blowing your stack will be seen by students more as a Gaijin-esque cultural quirk rather than a means of enforcing whatever point you were trying to convey."

Sadly this is true, even though I've honestly seen Japanese JHS and HS teachers 'blow their stacks' in ways and to levels that I never saw growing up in the Pacific Northwest. There have been several times where my jaw has simply dropped open in amazement at what I was seeing or hearing. I haven't seen many university classes other than my own, however, so I can really speak for what is common at that level.

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