Today I was listening to the Unlocking Us podcast by Brené Brown about day-to-day anxiety and over/under-functioning. Something she said early on in this podcast really struck a chord for me from a teaching perspective, anxiety is one of the most contagious of all emotions.
Let that sink in for a moment, anxiety is one of the most contagious of all emotions.
How does this show up in a classroom setting? Here are a couple of possible situations that might feel familiar:
1. You are being appraised and feeling anxious; you have planned for everything, ensured your students are aware of expectations and have done everything you can think of to prepare (more than you would for a normal lesson) but you are still anxious because you are being watched and you want it to be successful. And then the lesson falls way short of what you planned, you feel it was a disaster, the students didn’t respond as you expected and you are devastated.
2. At lunchtime there was an altercation in the playground and one of your students was involved, they are anxious about how the rest of the class will react and you are mindful of this anxiety. They walk in the door and you can almost smell the anxiety so you become hyper-vigilant and that raises their anxiety and the rest of the class seem more anxious… it is a tense afternoon.
3. One of your colleagues is under a bit of stress and anxious as end of term is coming. After lunchtime in the staffroom with them you feel anxious and don’t really know why but you take that into the classroom with you and have a bit of a miserable afternoon. You were feeling fine about getting everything done earlier on but now you are worried.
I am sure you can think of other situations that might be relevant too. If we go back to the idea of the Magic Brain, when we are anxious we are in the glitter room and that means we can’t think as effectively because our anxiety is in charge of our thinking. As teachers, part of our job is to create an environment where learning can occur and that means reducing anxiety where we can, doesn’t it? When I think about all of this, the quote from Haim G. Ginott comes to mind:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather…”
That’s a lot of pressure though eh? How can we be responsible for the feelings of others? The way I see it is that we can’t assume responsibility for other’s feelings but we might be able to influence the dynamic and calm the anxiety contagion if we are aware and that does start with us.
Firstly, we need to notice and name our own emotions and behaviours. In this podcast Brené talks about over-functioning and under-functioning. I know for me I go into over-functioning as a response to anxiety; I get busy, try to fix things, organise stuff and keep everything under control, I like to look like I’ve got it all together and don’t need help. Under-functioning is the opposite. Neither of these approaches is really helpful, especially if we want to avoid creating an anxious learning environment!
Once we recognise our behaviours we can notice when they are flaring and press pause. I love practicing the pause! Pause enough to notice what is happening inside us and then shift gear so we can respond intelligently to what is happening around us. This is the time for the superpower of calm to come to the fore. In the face of emotional anxiety if we can stop, breathe, think then do we have a great opportunity to stop the spread. Let’s take the situations above and add in a dose of calm:
1. The appraisal: take some deep cleansing breaths before you speak or start the lesson. Prior to the appraisal it may be appropriate to share your feelings openly “I am feeling anxious about this appraisal and just need you to know that”, you may even ask for help with it. Last year I was going to the dentist for the first time in a long time (I have a fear of dentists) and so I talked to my class of 7 and 8 year olds about my fear in the morning and explained that I was feeling anxious. I asked them for their help; they were kind and gracious with me, they also gave me great advice (some of it was my own words coming back to me). The thing was it calmed my anxious mind during that day so I could be more present for them as their teacher. (By the way, the trip to the dentist was as painful or scary as I had imagined… anxiety often thrives in an uncertain future.)
2. Anxious student: this is a situation where the power of breath is going to be really helpful. Taking a breath before you come into the classroom and staying present is going to help everyone, yes you need to be mindful of the emotional state of your learners, but it is about not joining in their storm. It might be time for a quiet coaching conversation where you can help them unpack their reality before engaging with the class. I now teach my students about the superpowers of breath and stillness daily, we are practising the skills of calmness, and I love it when they coach each other or myself in using our superpowers- this helps when we are faced with situations like this.
3. Anxious colleague: I like to think that most of us in education are reasonably compassionate people, we care about others and want to help them. In this situation joining in on the stress doesn’t really help anyone e.g. “I wish that the government, school management, parents understood how hard it is, something should be done etc etc etc”. All this does is reinforce powerlessness and makes us feel worse. Instead we can lovingly investigate what’s happening for our colleague if they want to talk about it, we can listen with empathy and understanding, we can care but we don’t have to wear the emotion. And before we return to our classroom or office we need to take some deep cleansing breaths, perhaps orient ourselves to what we love about our work or focus on what our goals are for the afternoon and go there with some positive energy.
The fabulous thing about practicing our calm is that the more we do it the easier it becomes. I know several people who I admire hugely because of their calm, they are my role models and when I get flooded by emotion and feel like I am racing towards thoughtless reaction I picture them and it helps me pause. It is becoming easier. When we use our superpower of calm we can think more clearly, we can respond intelligently, we become more like ourselves I think. And this means that we can be the best version of ourselves in that moment as a teacher or leader.
[for more links, inspiration and ideas for the classroom please follow my FB page: https://www.facebook.com/teachlearnlead/]