Awareness and Reactions

The following post is inspired by my recent reading of the blog Zen Habits, the work of Richard Brady, and my attempt to apply their work to my teaching.

I encounter a new situation everyday in school, yet I imagine people with other jobs don’t have this experience. People come into the office daily, repeating the same tasks with the same result.  They hear little about if they’re doing a good job or not. For me, this is far from the truth.

Consider the variables that affect each day:

  • 115 students
  • The time of day and day of the week when I interact with students (some classes meet at different times during the week)
  • The type of lesson planned for the day (kinesthetic, discussion-based, a group activity, individual reading or writing)
  • The situations that may have occurred in the hallway, the previous class or any of the students’ home lives.
  • The feedback students provide (spoken, written, through body language)

So, while habits and routines may seem repetitive late in the year, it’s easy to see how each class and moment in the class is unique. There’s no way to plan or predict the situations that may arise.

And this leads me to the important skill I’ve been working on lately: being aware of my emotions and reactions to them during class.

On any given day, the following occurs:

  • A student asks me a difficult, thought-provoking question.
  • Students struggle to grasp a concept I introduce, or struggle to understand the directions I provide.
  • A student seems shut-down and withdrawn, or especially loud and gregarious.
  • A student is excelling far ahead of peers on an activity, or lagging greatly behind peers.
  • A class is filled with interruptions like requests to leave the room, phone calls, announcements, or fire drills.

Most of the aforementioned events  requires a decision and reaction from me.  Lately, I’ve practiced recognizing my immediate thoughts and emotions about these situations, evaluating their potential effect on the situation, and pausing briefly to decide the best course of action.

Consider the class filled with disruptions.  Let’s make it Friday. Last period. I have an intricate lesson planned, and it’s one that is crucial to students’ success on the project they’ll begin over the weekend.  I arrange students in groups, distribute materials, and…the phone rings. Then, a student gets a nose bleed. Then, an adult comes to the door to speak to a student (albeit, for a valid reason). Then, there’s an important update to the athletics schedule communicated over the loudspeaker.  (Yes, I’ve experienced all these in a single class before.)

Without awareness, I would likely respond to the situation in one of two ways: stubbornly push on with my plans, facing the resistance of students who know I’m rushing to get through a lesson; or abandon the lesson altogether, feeling defeated about losing control of how class time was used.

There is a third option, which I’ve recently tried to practice. It first involves being aware of the causes of my immediate feelings and reactions: I hoped that students would get to finish the lesson; I felt offended that the lesson I planned was encroached upon. It’s probably a little bit of both.  As soon as I pause to consider these, I can control my action instead of defaulting to my gut reaction. So, I accept that the schedule has changed, give students a focused question to write about and discuss with a partner, and take a few moments to edit and abridge the lesson, which will be continued during the next class.

This habit of mind applies to interactions with individual students, whole classes or even when working and planning on my own. I don’t always do it well, but it’s something that I’m aware of and working on. While I trust experience and I often trust instinct, knee-jerk reactions are part of my teaching that I’ll continue to develop some control over.


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