De-Stressing the Classroom

Stress is a fear of the unknown, and whether we like it or not, part of the human experience. Stress is our response to a perceived threat, and can be either good and bad, depending on how prepared we feel to tackle the threat.  Good stress readies students for performing at a high level, be it taking a test, giving an oral presentation, or working with others on a complex problem. Good stress is temporary, and alleviated through resolution of the perceived threat. Bad stress is another story, and unlike good stress, is chronic and contagious.  Bad stress lingers, eliciting anxiety and other undesirable outcomes. 

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Rational or not, a fear of the unknown can debilitate students, rendering some as learner helpless.  So what can we as educators do to reduce the “unknowns” in our classes, and lower stress levels for our students? It’s really quite simple.  Make the “unknowns” known through rubrics, essential questions, daily agendas, formative assessments, prompt feedback, affirmations, demonstrations, sharing of exemplars, etc… Clearly communicate one’s expectations, and give students ample opportunities to rethink and revise their understandings.  Offer retakes on exams, extra credit for extra work, one on one time….  

People often do their best work when deadlines loom, and we can thank stress for that. However, people can also do their worst work when deadlines loom and they have no clue for what is expected of them.  How did we manage our first years of teaching?  Our first classroom observation?  Our certification exams? We managed by preparing ourselves for the unexpected, and so it goes for students.  It’s our role as educators to remove the uncertainties in our instruction and de-stress our classrooms. To clearly communicate our expectations to students and allow them to see failure as part of the growth process. To add levity and lightness to our classrooms through humor and play. We won’t eradicate stress in the world, but we can certainly make it manageable for our students in our classrooms.

Anxiety and The Classroom Environment

Anxiety is a pervasive problem in today’s society, crossing all demographic lines.  It is as ubiquitous as the technologies that drive it, making for a complicated and worrisome world, particularly for children with their developing brains. According to a 2018 Pew Survey, 70% of teens say anxiety and depression are major problem for peers, more so than bullying, drugs, poverty,….  What’s an educator to do? How does one balance students’ social-emotional needs with the content and state assessments within their disciplines? There are no easy answers, but one tried and true approach is through the classroom environment.

Maya Angelou’s oft-cited quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” is worth heeding when attempting to reduce student anxiety. Most state teaching standards identify the classroom environment as key to effective instruction; Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, recognizes The Classroom Environment as one of four key teaching domains; and “Environment” is found across the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Setting the appropriate classroom environment is a logical, highly effective way to reduce student anxiety.

Building a culture of trust in the classroom is key to creating a positive learning environment.  Other ways include promoting respect and rapport between and amongst students and teachers; getting to know one’s students and their parents; making time for play and laughter in the classroom; organizing physical space so students work together at tables or centers; honoring the brain’s working memory limits through smart planning and preparation; and showing love, forgiveness, and compassion. There are so many ways to create a positive classroom environment, each of which helps lower student anxiety and promote social-emotional well being. Anxiety is something society may be stuck with, but teachers can do their part to reduce students’ troubled minds when in school.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

My Teacher is a “Cook”

The unorthodox teacher was many things to many people, but for one 14-year-old boy, the unorthodox teacher was a “cook”. Yup, clearly etched into the top of his wooden oak desk read the line, “Mr. Danna is a cook”. To be honest, the engraved declaration was not as pedestrian as his Earth Science teacher working as a cook. Rather, the boy had creatively proclaimed in bold black number 2 pencil stained wood etchings, “Mr. Danna is a cock”. It was only through thoughtful editing by a colleague who chiseled the second “c” to an “o”, that the unorthodox teacher transformed from sexual organ (cock) to someone who could make a good burger (cook).P1040370

Kids scrawl into wooden desks the darnedest things, particularly when they are forced to be with an adult they detest one hour each and every day of a dreadfully long school year.  Micah was one of those angry struggling students during my first year of public school teaching. He saw me as part of a rigid and uncompromising institution, and I saw him as a pain in the “bass”. Truth is we earned each other’s disdain for a lack of understanding and trust. I had set an unrealistically high bar for him, and he rightfully put me in the same box he had put most of his teachers. We didn’t click. We didn’t understand where the other was coming from, and since I was the one in charge, he was forced to communicate in more subtle, creative ways.

During my two prior years at a small Catholic school, students called me “Dr. Detention” for the amount of after school detention I doled out on a daily basis. I had no tolerance for students not doing homework or goofing off in class, and “punished” any rule breakers with an hour after school cleaning “dishes” (lab ware) and completing assigned work. Detention with me was, in my humble opinion, a pretty good deal. St. Mary’s Academy students liked soaping up Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, and other glassware while I graded papers and made small talk with them, and they appreciated leaving with their class work done. Micah didn’t see things that way, and detention for him was a bad thing. He and I would have a bumpy relationship for most of the year, and eventually I grew to realize how little I knew of the boy’s difficult home life. And with that realization, I stopped assigning Micah detention, and Micah begrudgingly played the game as best he could. I would instead make calls home to chat with Micah’s mother, a woman who was rarely available to take my calls. The unorthodox teacher would learn a lot those first few years about poverty’s impacts on children, and he would become much more sensitive to the burdens of poverty on children.

My Teacher is a Russian Communist

“My mom said you are Russian Communist”, commented Audrey, one of the brightest 8th grade students in my physical science class as I handed back the classification of matter quizzes. The unorthodox teacher of Sicilian and Hungarian ancestry smiled and asked, “Why does your mom think that way?”. “It’s because you make us take tests in groups, and we only do as good as the group. And that’s not fair.”  Hmmm. Audrey did have a point, but the unorthodox teacher was innovating, trying something different to engage more reluctant learners. Attempting to break the cliques he saw forming. He guessed the stakes were too high. Lesson learned. No more group tests.Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 9.34.00 AM

An observant teacher will figure early in their career how important grouping is to teaching and learning. One can make or break a lesson, classroom culture, or a student’s self-efficacy by randomly grouping students without rhyme or reason. In my early attempts at grouping strategies, I did have heterogeneous groupings for many activities, including, on occasion, tests. My logic was the less successful students were underperforming, and putting them in a mixed abilities group would inspire them to work harder. The high-end student had more at stake, and would work doubly hard to do well and to motivate their group members. I found the end results to be mixed, and nixed that group testing strategy (after the communist comment) in lieu of other, less high stakes ones.

There’s a time to group students by ability, and a time for mixing groups up. I am a firm believer in heterogeneous classrooms, as long as the teacher has effective strategies for differentiating instruction. Students need to learn how to work with people of varied abilities, interests, ethnicity, and gender; and that must start long before they get into the workforce. Strong teachers can vary tasks, assessments, and products to challenge all students while keeping them in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development–that narrow learning channel that makes the porridge not too hot (too rigorous), and not too cold (too easy), but just right. For proponents of homogeneous grouping, rest assured children will naturally group by ability and interest as they get older and enter middle and high school. Meanwhile, maintaining diversity within groups is essential for our students to graduate high school appreciative of the diverse range of peoples in this wonderful world and able to productively contribute as members of a democratic society.