Teaching is full of challenges, and experienced teachers have learned to expect the unexpected. But beginning teachers can feel anxious or alarmed when a challenge or problem arises.
I was visiting the classroom of a first-year teacher when I observed this. Carley, a dynamic and enthusiastic young teacher, was teaching her sixth-grade language arts students about the setting of a story and asked them to write a description of their classroom setting. When she finished giving directions, a student grumbled loudly, “I’m not doing that.”
Carley froze for a second, and I saw the fear flash across her face. Her concerns were likely those any new teacher experiences when challenged. How could she respond to the student without exacerbating the issue? Would she lose control of the rest of the class? How did this well-planned lesson suddenly go off track?
Luckily, she had learned to use a three-step framework for tackling a challenge in the classroom and turning it into an opportunity. By pausing, pondering, and persisting, beginning teachers can handle challenges in ways that are helpful for students and themselves. I knew Carley was practicing this framework when I saw her take a deep breath.
When teachers respond to a challenge, whether it’s related to academics or behavior, they can help or harm. Teachers are more likely to respond in helpful ways when they first pause their own emotional reactions. Strong emotions, like fear or frustration, can come on quickly, like a storm. But pausing slows down the escalation and lessens the likelihood of emotionally driven words or actions. Pausing requires both awareness of emotions and tools for managing those emotions, such as deep breathing or the use of a calming affirmation. A pause is the space between an unexpected challenge and a response, a safeguard that helps teachers respond thoughtfully and intentionally.
Following a couple of deep breaths, a glimmer of confidence returned to Carley’s face. I knew she had also been repeating an affirmation like “I’ve got this” to herself when she felt anxious. By taking a beat, taking a breath, and giving herself an affirming reminder, she was able to regain her calm demeanor. Pausing, or creating space between the student’s actions and her response, gave Carley an opportunity to choose a response that served the student and the situation better.
In the space of a pause, Carley could ponder and push aside initial assumptions in favor of a curious stance. She could easily have assumed the student was lazy or disrespectful, but she opened herself to other possible explanations. It’s easy to make assumptions about the reasons or intentions behind a student's actions, but acting on false assumptions can make a difficult situation worse. The brain seeks to quickly create explanations and close the loop, but pondering allows teachers to question their initial narratives. Being open-minded, asking questions, and seeking more information helps teachers make better decisions and yields better outcomes for students.
With genuine curiosity, Carley walked over to the student and softly asked, “How can I help you get started? What has you feeling stuck?” Carley had learned not to ask “why” questions that might make the student defensive. Asking, “Why aren’t you starting your work?” would likely have escalated the student’s frustration and not have elicited the information Carley needed. By having a dialogue with the student, Carley was able to better understand the student’s resistance and provide the scaffolding and support that helped the student begin the assignment.
Pondering takes humility; it requires acknowledging what teachers don’t yet know but need to know in order to serve students better. When they humbly inquire about challenges in the classroom, and when they question their own assumptions and seek information from students, they navigate challenges more effectively. Pondering helps teachers identify the opportunities hidden in challenges, opportunities for helping a student grow or for improving their own skills.
Consistently practicing pausing and pondering requires persistence, and persisting with these practices can lead to the powerful exercise of reframing. By asking themselves, “What opportunities are hidden in this challenge?” teachers like Carley can reframe challenges as opportunities. Reframing involves moving from a limiting or disempowering stance to a more empowering one. Instead of viewing the student’s remark as a potential problem, Carley framed it as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and help the student grow. With reframing, many classroom challenges can become teachable moments.
Managing teacher emotions well is necessary for managing a classroom well. By practicing pausing and becoming aware of initial thoughts and emotions, beginning teachers can release those unhelpful emotions and avoid regrettable reactions. By practicing pondering, beginning teachers can become aware of unhelpful assumptions. But there’s a reason that we call them practices. They require persistence, a consistent effort, and the willingness to grow through the inevitable mistakes, which can become powerful teachable moments for both students and teachers.
Teaching is full of challenges, and the way that teachers respond to those challenges can light them up or burn them out. By pausing, pondering, and persisting, beginning teachers can make a greater impact on students and find greater satisfaction in navigating the struggles.
Challenges in the classroom are levers for academic, social, and emotional growth for students. And challenges help teachers grow and become more resilient, too.