“Establishing peace is the work of education.”-Maria Montessori
We teachers love teacher movies. You know the ones I’m talking about- bad kids, low-performing schools, difficult administration, absent parents, and the rising star teacher who inspires the kids to “come together to learn and be their best selves.” And it works out every. single. time. “How do I DO THAT???” we ask from our post on the couch, covered in ungraded papers and potato chip dust. They make it look so good and so easy!
We want to create that sense of belonging in our own classrooms. We want to give our students that sense of peace that passes all understanding when they step through our doors. We want to be inspirational too! And so, we pack up our papers, adjust our ties and our attitudes, and head out in the morning ready to HAVE A GOOD DAY IN OUR CLASSROOMS AND CREATE OUR OWN PEACEFUL LITTLE COMMUNITY, DAMMIT.
And the same student that you normally have trouble with doesn’t respond to your smile and chirpy greeting of “Good morning! Welcome! It’s a great day to learn!” And the same skippers skip. And the same kid who is sullen is still sullen. That kid still got into a fight in the hallway. This kid still cussed out a fellow classmate. Your greeting didn’t matter. Your new lesson plan with an article about achieving inner peace, written by the Dalai Lama no less, and your carefully-crafted guided reading worksheet and thoughtful journal response flopped. Most of the kids refused to write the journal, and the worksheets had one or two-word answers that didn’t really make sense. You think, “If only this kid wasn’t in my room,” or “Uuuggghhhh… if those two kids were just different,” or instead of the awful “he’s/she’s a bad kid,’ we say the equally damning but more polite, “Well, she’s/he’s a ring leader, you know.” Insert extreme teacher eyeball roll here, add resigned slow head shake for full effect.
THOSE kids just RUINED it.
Relax. Take a deep breath.
One worksheet is not going to “fix” a decade or more of a chaotic home life, undiagnosed learning difficulties, substance abuse, physical abuse, neglect, or even a rumbly tummy from no breakfast and lunch.
Banishing one kid to in-school suspension every chance you get isn’t going to help your classroom climate more than temporarily. Blaming the classroom disruptions on one kid as the “ring leader” and wishing for their family to suddenly move away isn’t going to make your classroom Hollywood perfect either.
There are some things you CAN do, however.
Things that aren’t blinking neon arrows that say “HERE IS THE WAY TO PEACE AND HARMONY!” They are subtle and quiet, they don’t require you to chang e your seating chart (which we all know is a nightmare), or for you to send out “that kid” again.
1. Do some self-care.
Normally we teachers see this at the bottom of lists like these, as an afterthought. But you know that whole “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” cliché? It works for classrooms too. If you, dear teacher, are tired, stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out, your classroom is going to feel that stress, and your stress negatively impacts everything you are trying to do. The University of Groningen in the Netherlands did a research study on the effects of teacher stress on students. They found that teachers “…who showed higher levels of stress at the beginning of the year displayed fewer effective teaching strategies over the rest of the school year, including clear instruction, effective classroom management, and creation of a safe and stimulating classroom climate for their students, than did the teachers with lower initial stress levels” (Sparks).
So, whatever you do to get unstressed, do that. Use the “check plus, check, check minus” grading system for some minor worksheets if it helps you clear that stack off the desk. Ride your bike after class. Force yourself to stop grading by a certain time so you can have time for a bath and a book. And do not feel guilty about it at. all. If you’re less stressed, then you’ll be more at peace, which means that feeling will carry over into your classroom too.
2. Watch your mouth.
Sometimes, we are own worst enemy. I teach high school, and every year I hear stories about “the mean thing that Ms. So-and-so called me when I was in 3rd grade…” or a class reminisces about how they drove Mr. So-and-so to yelling in 5th grade and how red his face gets. Those throw-away words stay with a kid FOREVER. They internalize the “Oh my god, why are you so stupid??” comments. They never forget the “You just need to shut up” snap. The frustrated “What is wrong with you? It’s a simple word!” sinks into the deepest parts of them, and it trickles up to effect that student’s response to every teacher they have after that. It’s hard for us to look at ourselves in the mirror and think, “Ohhhh… I’m the problem here,” but many times, we are. In the article “When The Teacher Is The Bully," one teacher admits that he bullied his students, particularly special education students. He was eventually forced to resign because of parent complaints. It took him three years to come to terms with the damage he had done, and when he returned to the classroom, he said he hasn’t raised his voice even once. Your mouth can wreck a kid for life.
3. Create a space for peace to live in your room.
“Flexible seating” is all the educational rage right now, and I am lucky enough for the first time in fourteen years to have a classroom big enough for a loveseat, a rug, and a pretty floor lamp… and thirty desks. You might not. But a rug under your desk, a glider rocker in the corner, and a nice desk lamp might be do-able. Pinterest is full of ideas for small classrooms spaces. The point is to create a physical place that the kids see, can access if they need it, and offers peace and quiet when needed. That bit of peace in your room might be the only peace they experience all day. And for a kid to know day after day, week after week that that space is there for them to use when they need it gives them something special to look forward to in your room. Montessori schools are experts at creating peaceful, safe spaces for their students. Their entire model is based on the “prepared environment” that makes for peaceful, productive learning. Make time to go check out one someday and see how it’s done.
Dear Teacher, you are the author of your own peace and the peace of your classroom. I’d like to say that my classrooms are always peaceful, but they aren’t. I teach teens, notorious for outrageous language and fights and rebellions, but every grade level is challenging for different reasons. I will say that I have very few arguments even though we discuss tough and controversial social issues. In fourteen years, I’ve had only two scuffles in my room. I do yell sometimes, but it’s mostly “STOP TALKING!!!” five thousand times. Last semester a kid gratefully threw their bookbag on the floor and sank in relief onto the couch and said, “I am so happy this couch is here. I really needed it today.” You and I can’t control what is going on at home. We have very little say in what they do from 3:30pm to 8am, sixteen hours of NOT us. In many schools, teachers aren’t allowed to touch their students at all, never mind give them the hugs they so desperately need.
We have a small window of opportunity to model for them what life CAN be like, what they can create for themselves and their futures, the endless possibilities of peace for all of us. Don’t waste it.
Kelmon, Jessica. “When The Teacher Is The Bully.” Great Schools, October 2017. https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/when-the-teacher-is-the-bully/
Miller, Alice Lawson. “Cultivating Peace In The Classroom.” Montessori Services, 2011. https://www.montessoriservices.com/ideas-insights/cultivating-peace-in-the-classroom
Sparks, Sarah. “How Teacher Stress Affects Students: A Research Roundup,” Education Week Teacher, June 2017. https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/06/07/how-teachers-stress-affects-students-a-research.html
Amanda Baker is a member of the Central Virginia Chapter of Writing for Peace. Mother, teacher, daughter, friend, writer, Amanda has been teaching high school English for fourteen years and in two states. Currently living in Southside Virginia, this Yankee transplant has been a waitress, a technical writer, a truck driver, a business owner, a corporate secretary, and an educator. In addition, she volunteers for the Halifax Dog Squad helping to rescue and transport dogs, and in the summers, she helps to sew costumes for The Prizery's Summer Theater Celebration.