Teacher in Control By Dr Helen Street

Dr Helen Street

When a teacher stands up in front of their students, they can be sure of one thing. There is only one person in the class that is fully under their control.

No, it is not the quiet kid in the front row…nor sadly is it the kid still talking at the back.  The only person a teacher can control is themselves.

Throughout life we can only control our own behaviour, as much as we might attempt to support, persuade, or even demand the behaviour of others.  We can only control our own attitude, as much as we might want to influence the attitudes of others. We can only control our own plans for tomorrow, as much as we might wish we could change the events of yesterday. These can be hard facts to take in board in a disruptive class environment.

Unlike in the classroom, adult social situations make these issues of control less of a concern.  Most adults know the rules of day to day social living, and with the exception of the odd overzealous night out, will abide by them most of the time. This means that generally speaking, other adults will behave in socially acceptable ways and allow us to do the same.  What’s more, If we don’t like another’s attitude or behaviour, we can choose to confront them, negotiate with them, and if all else fails, we can often choose to walk away.

Not so at school.

In the classroom the adult rules of social engagement rarely apply.  Children and young people of all ages are a work in progress both social and psychologically. They are still developing social and emotional competency, they are not yet socially and emotionally competent.  In fact, recent research advises us that the human brain is not fully matured until at least the age of 23.  As both teachers and parents we are dealing with people who are primarily emotionally driven, behaviourally immature and often unskilled in expressing their thoughts and feelings in an assertive manner.  Students often talk instead of listening.  They may struggle to see another’s point of view.  They frequently react emotionally instead of rationally. If they don’t want to be in your class, it shows.

This means that although working with young people is a joy in many ways, classroom life can leave a teacher feeling overloaded and out of control.  Feeling out of control quickly leads to feeling stressed. It can also result in unhelpful attempts to control others with dogmatic rules and authoritarian teaching styles.

So how does a teacher manage challenging student behaviour in a flexible and effective way and still manage to have a sense of control over life?

For many teachers the answer comes in the form of strategies to increase classroom cohesion and develop positive class behaviour.  This equates to improving social and emotional competency in the students. There are now many programs on offer to schools to increase the social and emotional competency of students of all ages. Many of these are well researched, and based on good theoretical principals.  They encourage assertive behaviour, shared values and mutual respect. As a result, many programs can indeed make some difference to both the classroom environment and the overall learning experience.

This is all good news; however, most school based programs are only as effective as are the staff who deliver them.  This means that if you are the overloaded and worn out teacher of a difficult class, your school’s wellbeing program is going to be far less effective in your classroom than in the classroom where the kids are already doing well.  Not good news for teachers feeling overloaded.

Unlike theoretical learning, social and emotional learning is a modelling process more than a fact learning process.  It is not enough to impart the rules of a ‘happy class’, the notion of wellbeing has to be demonstrable in the teacher.  What’s more it can’t even be faked. Kids are far better than adults on reading faces and emotions no matter how much we attempt to put on our best cheery smile.

This means that while it can certainly be of great benefit to focus wellbeing initiatives on student development, schools also need to give time and attention to staff wellbeing.  Moreover, this means that staff need to pay ongoing attention to their own wellbeing as a priority, not as a luxury.

Now, this may all make good sense in principle, but if you are a busy teacher it would be understandable if you were now protesting loudly.  After all if a teacher had the time to prioritise their wellbeing with daily yoga and time out… they probably wouldn’t be feeling too overloaded in the first place.

So when life is chaotic and crazy, what can we realistically do to regain a sense of control and wellbeing in our day to day life at school?

The following offers five realistic and sustainable strategies to enable you to feel more in control and more content even on the busiest of days.

  1. Focus on what is within your control to feel in control

The more out of control life feels the more we tend to try and control our environment (this is why the washing up matters when we are stressed, and why we are more inclined to tell other s what to do). Yet, the more we focus on what we cannot control, the more out of control we feel.  As much as we might try, we cannot control others thoughts and behaviours.  Nor can we control what happened yesterday.  You might be concerned about the size of the class but it does not mean you can ‘make’ it smaller.  You can only ever control your own behaviour, your own attitude and your own goals for tomorrow.

In any stressful situation ask yourself what can I do to help things? And make that your focus.  If a student is not listening, what can you do to present a clearer message? How can you plan to do things differently tomorrow? You may be concerned about what the student is thinking and doing, but a focus on them will only stress you further.

  1. Practice flexible thinking. There is always another way to view a situation.

If you are feeling stressed or overloaded it is easy to end up thinking about things in a way that fuels your emotions rather than calms them down.  Try not to think about the right or wrong interpretation of a situation, rather understand that there are always many interpretations of any single event. Some are helpful and some are not.  If you catastrophise or think in black and white terms you are more likely to feel overwhelmed and overloaded. In contrast, If you can interpret a situation as a single event, and not take it too personally, it will be easier to deal with.  For example, if the day goes badly try not to conclude that this means that the term (or your entire career!) is a failure.

  1.  Separate events from people

When communications escalate out of control it is easy for things to quickly become personal.  This is when it becomes really important to focus on WHAT we do and don’t like in a situation rather than on WHO we do and don’t like. Instead of saying ‘you knocked the paint over, you need to clear it up’;  it is far more productive, and far less provocative,  to say ‘the paint has been knocked over, it needs clearing up’.  This simple change in focus lets everyone know you may be unhappy about an event but that doesn’t mean you are being critical of who someone is as a person.

  1. Give yourself opportunity to worry

We all need time and opportunity to reflect on the problems of the day and to find helpful solutions.  As a teacher this can be hard to do.  After all, a teacher cannot generally go for a coffee and a chat half way through a difficult lesson. If life is overly full, try setting aside 30 minutes a day when you can worry about anything and everything as much as you like. This may mean choosing a time when you are home and have time to focus more on your own thoughts and needs.

During the rush of the day, when something goes wrong, mentally put it on the list to consider during your designated half hour ‘worry time’. You will instantly feel better for giving your concerns the acknowledgement they need. And when worry time arrives, the concern will often have diminished.

  1. Be kind to yourself every day

Even the most popular and successful teacher in the world messes up every single day.

When things go badly, be kind to yourself. Wellbeing is about embracing our humanity and being human, it is not about being perfect.


Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (www.positiveschools.com.au)


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