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We infect them with our passion – and our stress

Reading time: 4 minutes. Relevant book: How to Survive in Teaching: Without imploding, exploding or walking away

Dr Emma Kell, head of department in a north London school, and author of How to Survive in Teaching: Without imploding, exploding or walking away, offers some tips for teachers in the classroom

Neither as a parent nor as a teacher am I of the school of thought which says adults should model exemplary behaviour at all times. Raised voices and tantrums happen in our house – and, over the years, they have happened in my classroom. And the children sometimes struggle to control themselves too…

I’ve experienced the crippling guilt of an early-parenthood fail in full view of Saturday afternoon supermarket shoppers, and a German lesson when I had to turn away, stare at the board and count silently to 20 before turning to face the child who was frankly DOING MY HEAD IN. None of these incidents is ideal – but we’re all human. And, in the wise words of a friend of mine: ‘it’s important that children see that adults have limits too.’

Stop Press: Teaching is stressful at the moment. It’s very stressful. It’s so stressful that those who may have trained five years ago are reading the horror stories and voting with their feet and going for other professions instead. It’s so stressful that last academic year, 3,750 teachers were on long-term leave for stress.

‘I don’t know!’ has been the answer many teachers have been forced to give, time after time, with the overhaul of the exams. ‘I don’t know which poem will come up!’ ‘I don’t know how many marks you need for a good pass!’ ‘I don’t know what grade you’ll need to do A-level!’ Nobody knows. Increasingly shrill tones. Growing exasperation. Moments of blind righteous fury on behalf of this generation of guinea pigs.

These conversations don’t help

And yet… and yet…. A lightbulb moment last January. These sorts of conversations don’t help young people. These conversations aren’t getting the learning done. Another lightbulb, as I looked at the students who’d come to help me celebrate the launch of How to Survive in Teaching: It’s not their problem. Our stress is not their problem any more than a flat tyre on the M25 or a marital dispute the night before.

A student said to me, recently and memorably, ‘When teachers are passionate, they infect us with their passion, and when they are stressed, they infect us with their stress.’ This was quite humbling. Certain students provide a litmus test for the mood in the classroom. When I get, ahem, a little high-octane, there’s a young lady, let’s call her Sophia, whose hands will creep to her ears and whose eyes will start to roll, ever so slightly. There’s a young man, let’s call him Kris, whose head will start to droop towards the desk…

The changes imposed upon us and them have brought huge frustrations and bigger challenges. But this particular generation of students, like every generation before and since, have ‘one bite of the cherry,’ in the words of a school leader interviewed for How to Survive.

How should we approach them? In the same way as we always have, when teaching is excellent. We collaborate, we reflect. We focus on the things we can control. We know they need to understand these equations, these books, these verb tables. We build their confidence. We go back to the tried-and-tested strategies we’ve been using effectively for years. We break down exams into chunks and do loads and loads of practice, with rewards and celebrations when they go well and encouragement and clear ways forward when it all goes wrong.

Despite any attempts to prove the contrary, the vast majority of teenagers want to do well. When I speak to students, more often than not, their biggest fear is looking stupid in front of their peers – they are not, as we may at times imagine, busy forging their masterplan to sabotage your carefully-planned lesson.

This is the time of year when certain 16-year-old boys start behaving like overgrown Labradors in school corridors. This is the ‘can’t face the stress so I’ll regress to the age of five’ syndrome. Ensure they get some fresh air and exercise whenever they can. It’s been happening for years.

Introspective students might withdraw even more than usual. These students don’t value public questioning over how they are. Instead? A gentle word one to one. A hand signal agreed or a mark out of ten so you can check in each day.

By all means rage at the state of the profession. Rage in the staffroom, rage with friends, rage with family, rage at politicians and those who can influence and change things. But don’t rage at the students. Because now, perhaps more than ever before, they need consistency. They need trust, and mine apparently need an increasingly outrageous supply of sparkling, smelling, puffy stickers to let them know they’re doing well.

I never forget Bill Rogers’ words: ‘You are always the winner, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.’ We have our homes, our heating, our cars and our loved ones. Your students are still negotiating their very identity in the world. Will we lapse into frustration from time to time? Will we threaten to put a rocket up the next student to shrug when you ask her for her homework? Of course we will. Will we need to apologise to students for being a bit off-colour occasionally? If we’re modelling humanity and humility, yes.

Will we need to apologise to students for being a bit off-colour occasionally? If we’re modelling humanity and humility, yes

But make the classroom your haven and theirs. Make it somewhere where it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes. Create opportunities for laughter, and spots where students are allowed to tell you their frustrations. Count to 10 when you need to. Hell, count to 100! Consciously slow down and quieten your voice when you feel stressed (it works for me). Create learning opportunities they won’t forget. Do what you do best: teach. And go back to your reason for being there: to make a difference. Every day. Because you are making a difference – you really are, even if it doesn’t feel like it all of the time.

How to Survive in Teaching: Without imploding, exploding or walking away by Dr Emma Kell is availble to order online now at Bloomsbury Publishing.

Read more on the SSAT blog: Overcoming stress at work: an eight-point plan

 Follow Dr Emma Kell on Twitter

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