Chapter 5 – Banish Anxiety

Photo credit: weightmatters.co.uk

Photo credit: weightmatters.co.uk

Before I started my own credential program, I volunteered for a teacher on an emergency credential which meant he had little training, but got hired on the promise that he would get some. One day, the students came in from morning recess and he said, “Everyone get out your math books. No, let’s write. No, let’s make bulletin boards, yeah, bulletin boards.” This is wrong on so many levels, but one huge problem is that the children were in a constant state of anxiety. They never knew what was going on, what to do, or what might happen next. Within a chronically unsettled context, the class could never settle and learn the content.

Another problem with uncertainty is that it gives arguers a foothold for the most ridiculous squabbles.

Student: It’s time to get ready for lunch.

Teacher (while half of the students pack up): We have a few more minutes.

Student: No, we have to leave for lunch at 12:05.

Teacher: We put our books away when I say we put our books away.

Student (while students get their books back out): We need time to get lined up!

Teacher: Get back to work.

Student (rolls eyes and drops head on desk): Unh!

Teacher (two minutes later): Okay, now we can get ready for lunch.

My primary issue with anxiety and uncertainty is that it erodes trust. How can students rely on their teacher, or learn to rely on themselves, when the wind is swirling and the ground keeps shifting? It also wastes learning time. School days are already too short. Wasting minutes answering the same question multiple times or arguing with students is indefensible. Get a handle on it by creating procedures that give your students as much predictability as possible.

When my students walk in to the room, they see two agendas. One is the permanent version on chart paper that has the start times (and stop times for middle school) for each subject. The other is on the white board. It lists a teaser title for what we’ll be studying in each subject as well as any schedule changes for that day. Side by side, they look something like this (which is hard to line up perfectly in blog format)…

Chart Paper Whiteboard
Friday April 30, 2012     4/30/12   viernes, el 30 de abril
8:15 Art Celebrations – Student of the month, 60 book readers
9:15 Start the Day Class Meeting – Lost stapler, IB visitors
9:25 Reading Reading – Fluency Friday
10:30 Snack Stop & Recess 10:15 Fire Drill
10:45 Math Math – Division Triangles Practice
11:40 Word Study  Division with Remainders
12:05 Lunch & Recess Word Study – Generalizations & Independent Work
12:35 Storytime Storytime – Love That Dog
12:45 Writing Writing – Better Conclusions
1:45 Social Studies / Science Science – Habitat Research
2:55 End the Day Nobel Prize
3:00 Dismiss Happy Birthday, Helen!
Remind me to send home food bags

I started making agendas because in middle school it can be hard to remember every detail that you want to cover three periods in a row. I quickly noticed that the students ran up to the board to read the agenda every day. They also stopped reminding me about all of their concerns because they saw them listed on the board.

I do list fire drills. They are loud and scary, especially for small children. A fire drill is not a test and need not be a surprise. Build confidence and announce it. (For more on emergency drills, see appendix F.) I also use a quick class meeting to prepare children for visitors. Lost items are usually recovered simply by being noted on the board. The other item in red is to calm the children who are worried about not having enough food for the weekend. They can relax until the end of the day. So can Helen who gets a ten minute birthday party. The Nobel Prize names are for the character trait of the week. Each child nominates a student, I announce the nominees, and then I choose the winner. It takes five minutes, often during the party. But my main point is that it was all on the board. Everyone knew it was coming, no one reminded me ten times, and we spent most of our day learning.

There are other ways to keep your room calm. One of the easiest is stabilizing how children line up. Most adults have forgotten this, but being in the front really matters to children. For elementary students, it’s a measure of how important or powerful they are or how quickly they get to escape. For middle school kids, it can determine whether there is anything left in the salad bar for lunch, whether they can dress for P.E. in relative peace, or whether there is an empty stall in the bathroom between periods.

When students come to the front of the room, you need the same stability. My youngest daughter told me a story about her class meetings. The teacher did many things well. She had them sit in a circle so they could all see each other, she passed around a stuffed animal to determine who could speak, and she let students bring up topics. However, I was surprised to hear that my articulate child often missed her chance to speak. Why? They ran out of time, and she never got her turn. But the child who bullied her never missed her turn. How did this happen? When her teacher announced meeting time, everyone shoved their way to the front, and my daughter along with two others didn’t feel like shoving so they were seated last. Her teacher apparently never noticed.

As a new teacher, you will feel an overwhelming urge to select the best behaved and reward them by choosing them first or giving them a place at the front of the line. It makes you feel like you are in control. It will backfire. Students examine the slightest of your actions with a magnifying glass. They analyze everything you do or say to figure out who your favorite students are, who you like the most, who you are mad at. They go home and tell all of this to their parents. It is conjecture, you have no control over it, and you have no idea that it is going on. In upper grades it is worse. They not only check for favorites, they quite quickly jump to calling you a racist. (Don’t believe me? I once made three boys I had never met before get off of the school roof. I wasn’t even angry; I just wanted them back on the ground. One boy called me a racist simply because he was Mexican. I am still disturbed by it. My grandmother was Mexican.) Every time you select a child, someone is watching and ascribing meaning to it. You inadvertently feed the monster.

Most children have to like you, or at least respect you, in order to learn from you. If they don’t, or think you don’t like them, they stop learning, start disrupting class, and a vicious cycle begins. In upper grades, it is far worse. If gossip gets around that you are racist, some children will actively refuse to have anything to do with you. They would rather fail. So if you do point and choose, make sure it is clearly pattern free.

Letting kids vote for awards also causes tremendous anxiety. Even in primary grades, secret deals, popularity contests, and bullying are going on behind your back and voting exacerbates the problem. That’s why children who don’t seem to deserve the awards keep winning. Instead, get feedback from your students by letting them nominate one person each on a Post-it. As you collect the Post-its, eliminate anyone who nominated themselves or two kids who nominate each other. Announce each nomination and have the nominees pat themselves on the back, then let the kids drum roll while you decide the winner. In my class, I do three or four awards every Friday. We have Boyd Bobcat, a Nobel Prize for the character word, a Star Reader and/or a Math-e-magician with a Student of the Month and a Student Council rep less often. The winners get a homework pass for a week and a choice of five snacks or a prize from the teacher’s prize box. Finally, no one wins twice before everyone wins once. Knowing the rules seems to reduce the anxiety.

Even Popsicle sticks can cause anxiety and actually be unfair. I used them for a long time until I heard loud protests from the class next door. Some girls were quite upset that their sticks were pulled last for class prizes twice in a row. Then I remembered my college days. One year for college housing lottery, I drew 399 out of 400. The next year, I drew 800 out of 800. Random can be supremely unfair.

For myself, I make a list, sorted in some order (ABC, height, etc.). The list is posted in two places and is on my clipboard. We rotate through so every child knows whose day it is to go first. It determines what order the line should be in, whose turn it is to get work checked, who gets to pick the first snack, the order for picking coloring paper or class jobs or anything else that has to be chosen that day. Their day to go first has become bigger than star of the week. If someone is absent, we even make arrangements to make it up.

Because going first is such a big deal, I don’t lead my lines. In fact, I go last. There are usually a few immature children who have struggled in line recently and have to travel with me. If I’m at the front, they essentially get rewarded. Plus, fewer snowballs fly and nothing gets stolen from the room when I go last. So we have checkpoints, in our case sets of double doors, where every student knows to wait for the line to catch up and me to wave them on.

Having said all this, I still occasionally select students who may line up, but not by pointing. I go through the list. If they meet my standards – clear desktop, clean floor, sitting quietly – they may line up in list order. Otherwise, I’ll recheck them on the second time through the list. The important part is that an undercurrent of competitiveness for my attention has disappeared. Students are calmer and more focused on their own learning, a big payback for a small change.

Learning time is precious. Don’t let it spin out of control. Examine your choices and procedures for predictability and stability. Can your students trust you to do what you said? Anywhere a student draws you into a pointless argument is probably a place of uncertainty for several. Fix it, banish the anxiety, and use the time to teach.

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