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Getting Curious (Not Furious) With Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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A short-haired, blond female teacher in a pink shirt and black blouse is sitting next to a brunette teenager girl, helping her study.

I'm not an expert when it comes to identifying trauma in students, but I've spent enough time in classrooms to recognize stress- and trauma-related behaviors. During my tenure as a high school teacher, I wanted to better support my students who were struggling emotionally. This prompted me to seek literature and training.

My work now is in teacher education, and I have continued to educate myself in this arena so that I could inform the novice teachers I work with as they bring challenging situations from their own classrooms to our discussions in the university classroom.

When their students act out, I propose the novice teachers do the following: Get curious, not furious. Let's explore what that means. Rather than a teacher resorting to traditional discipline measures, it behooves the student greatly for the teacher to realize classroom outbursts, verbal defiance, or volatile anger can be symptomatic of repeated exposure to neglect, abuse, or violence. Traumatic stress can also manifest as withdrawal or self-injury.

The Brain

As we know, neuroscience is informing the field of education. A good number of us educators as of recent have been reading about what routine distress or trauma can do to the brain and to learning. It basically shuts it down. When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it's nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.

Schools and districts are participating in professional development on trauma-informed teaching, as the benefits are clear. According to research conducted by the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, here are a few of the key benefits of becoming a trauma-informed school:

  • Improved student academic achievement
  • Less student absences, detentions, and suspensions
  • Reduction of stress for staff and students and less bullying and harassment
  • Improved teacher sense of job satisfaction and safety

Start Here

As you seek to learn more about trauma-sensitive teaching, you can also explore the curious-not-furious maxim I offer to novice teachers. Getting curious on the part of the teacher looks like this: Why might the student be behaving this way? What might be some contributing factors? Might this be a reaction to fear or insecurity? Might she be scared, hungry, lonely, or tired? Instead of defaulting immediately to a disciplinary measure (detention, off to the principal's office, a time out), the teacher chooses to first ask the child: How are you? Are you okay today? How can I help? Is there anything you would like to talk about?

Some may be thinking that this isn't in the job description of a teacher (I am not a counselor or therapist.) But this isn't about saving anyone, I assure you. In fact, I see teachers burn out, in part, because teachers can get into thinking that they can save troubled students, and when they can't, they believe they have failed at their job. But here's an important truth to remember: We can't heal or save anyone except ourselves.

Creating Classrooms of Care

What is this truly about? It's about us moving more towards what I like to call classrooms of care -- an antithetical turn or very intentional detour from the institution of schooling. When we do this, we humanize ourselves with our students and create spaces for them to do the same, going beyond the singular dimension of "teacher" and singular dimension of "student." A classroom no longer seems sterile, regimented, or threatening. In this transformation, more and more classrooms become communities of care, discovery, and learning (for students and teachers).

When teachers get curious, not furious, they don't take the student's behavior personally, and they don't act on anger. They respond to student behaviors rather than react to them. They are then able to seek what the next steps might be for supporting a child in distress and emotional pain (a talk after class, arranging a meeting with the school counselor, etc.) According to the research of Adena Klem and James Connell, students who perceive a teacher as caring have higher attendance, better grades, and are more engaged in the classroom and at school.

In my 20 years as an educator, and from observing numerous classrooms and teachers, I do know this: Compassion and care can transform learning spaces. In the words of the Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, "Our society tends to dismiss kindness as a minor virtue, rather than the tremendous force it can truly be."

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Think of the angriest you've ever been in your life. There will be that student and that moment in your career where the student perfects the moment of apocalyptic disrespect, and you, the teacher, think that all of a sudden you're in a waking nightmare. You cannot fathom how the student thinks it's okay for them to make you question your existence on Earth ... right in front of everybody else in class. But it happens, and it hurts.

My apocalyptic moment came one day, and I was so dumbfounded by this fellow that I read his student file that afternoon. I got curious. Super curious about him. So I really spent some time with it ... his file was thick and held breathtaking tales of all the mental abuse he suffered from his many parental variations ... and then I wondered how he wasn't already in prison or living in a psychiatric facility. But there he sat in my class. Always with that odd expression on his face.

After that, I was still firm in my class expectations ... behavior and academic ... but I looked for any and everything I could do that would prompt me to pat him on his back and to make him feel like he mattered, because he did. He was the smartest and most articulate student in the class.

I'm still curious. I'd give anything to know where he is and how he's doing.

Todd Kominiak's picture
Todd Kominiak
Content Strategist, K12 Insight

This is really an interesting idea - that classrooms are not just a place for one-to-many education. Instead, they should be communities where both students and teachers are open, communicative, and engaged with each other.

Marko's picture

Great read and a practice that I need to ALWAYS remember both in the classroom and with all of my relationships. Recognizing that there are reasons for one's behavior and that those reasons are rarely ever a personal attack against us deescalates conflict. Thank you for underscoring the importance of creating an environment of care. It is something we need more of in the classroom and in the world.

Teaching Possibility's picture
Teaching Possibility
I believe in the possibility of education.

Building a caring community within my high school classes is my first priority every year. Some high school teachers/administrators think it is a "waste of time" and that they have curriculum to cover and no time for creating a compassionate community. First, I can scaffold activities and lessons to delve into curriculum while at the same time help students create an environment of care. Second, when we cultivate this environment, we can do ANYTHING. We become a group of learners where we cherish all our unique ways of learning. We will learn more deeply, take more personal risks, and remember more life lessons when the class is done. Asking how someone is doing instead of assuming the worst about his/her intentions has incredible power. I try to model this compassion for others, including students, as often as I can. Isn't this how we would want to be treated?

Kat Wyly's picture

Thanks for this reminder to look beyond an angry situation for the why. This is great advice for everyone in all aspects of life since anger is a build up of expressing other feelings. Fostering a classroom spirit of camaraderie and care is a crucial focus before moving toward anything else. Redefining the role of teacher and student to include space for conversation, time, and reflection is necessary for students to feel motivated to open themselves up fully. I value that we prioritize problem solving and taking time to define how students (and teachers) are feeling at my school. Processing is not always quick and students should feel that teachers and peers are available and willing to take that time to explore their emotions. Kids often are looking for someone to listen and validate how they are feeling; with this sort of support, I am consistently seeing them become more independent in identifying their own feelings and the feelings of their peers!

Kat Wyly
Seattle, WA

Shankamal Harinda's picture

Thank you Rebecca. This is indeed a very inspirational article. A good teacher should essentially have the quality of patience and the ability to look in to the root cause of a problem. A teacher's patience and kindness can truly transform a child.

Dr_Bonner's picture
Assistant Principal, Lifelong Learner, Motivator of teachers!

Just shared the Getting Curious Not Furious article with our counselor so she can share with the beginning teachers group. I also shared it with a teacher who has a student who shuts down when work gets too hard. I am very interested to see if it helps this student. I think the article offers really great advice and give us a different approach to use with our students!

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