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How Can We Help Students Manage Their Emotions If We Don’t Have A Handle Our Own?

'Living on the edge’ is probably a phrase that should have been written with teaching in mind, as in the classroom we are constantly on the edge of our emotions

  • How Can We Help Students Manage Their Emotions If We Don’t Have A Handle Our Own?

One element that is sadly missed from teaching training is something that affects our day-to-day life as teachers: emotions, and how to handle them.

Whatever way we look at things, our daily lives are punctuated by emotions – our students, colleagues, heads of departments and even headteachers have them too; yet, how many of us have been given strategies to help us cope with the minefield of fears, worries, dreams and insecurities they represent?

By the time I reached my twenties and started my professional career, I thought I had experienced most things life had to offer me: pain, happiness, rejection, isolation. Oh, how wrong I was.

I discovered that the phrase ‘living on the edge’ is probably one that should have been written with teaching in mind. In the classroom, we are constantly on the edge of our emotions, and always only those three simple words away from tears or joy: ‘Are you OK?’

Adolescent turmoil

However bad we think we have it, though, we need to remember that the teenagers we work with have spent a decade of being walking bundles of joy and glee, before suddenly, almost overnight, becoming slouching carts of insecurity and anger. Conscious of their failings, their flaws, and their position in the class in terms of popularity, attractiveness, intelligence, physical growth, ability and wit, they see how they now differ from each other, and they struggle to reconcile those differences.

As children, they brushed off their freckles or sticky-out ears as irrelevant to having fun and getting on with stuff; but now these innocent features mark them out as an outsider.

And then, of course, there are the adults who feature in the teenager’s life regularly – or irregularly. Adults who show them no attention and live a life separate from them. Or adults who show them too much attention, insisting on itemised lists of their homework and detailed revision plans. Throw all these teenagers together, and the confused feelings can spread like a contagious disease. One person’s insecurity easily becomes another’s worry. The cart is full, and could spill over at any moment.

So, before teachers step into the classroom, there is already a whole heap of emotional baggage awaiting us. Aware of this, we have to stand at the front of the room and set the example of how to behave – which can be hard when our daughter is ill, when we have an observation next lesson, when there is a visit from Ofsted looming on the horizon, and, more importantly, we have forgotten to buy rice for tea. But we do it, nonetheless.

We all need support

As teachers, we walk the tightrope of feelings hourly, daily, weekly and monthly. Teenagers struggle because they are unlikely to have experienced this level of frustration and anguish before. They are often discovering the raw power of their own emotions for the first time.

Adults have been there and got the t-shirt for a lot of these experiences; we have that emotional memory stored in our brains, or hearts, from where it can be recalled. Teenagers need us then, in a way, to help them identify these emotions and learn to cope with them.

Modern life is changing things for students, and the school environment can often seem much more pressured and stressful than in the past. Teachers – and parents – have an important role in teaching young people how to deal with their feelings in a way that will be constructive rather than destructive, and help them face challenges with confidence and resilience.

We need to encourage them to identify, channel, and talk about their emotions; and if we find ourselves suppressing our own feelings, with the associated cost that entails, in order to do so, it may well be time for us to incorporate ‘personal emotional management’ into our CPD planning and ask, with no embarrassment at all, for support.

Chris Curtis is a teacher and head of department in a secondary school in Derbyshire.

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