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When You’re Angry With Students: Six Steps to Take

Two years ago, I was asked to speak at a high school, and arrived a day early for some meetings in town. While my colleagues got some work done, I chose to take an hour to visit the school, incognito, and observe a typical day on campus.

It was enlightening.

Most of what I saw was predictable—students and teachers going through routines, students taking exams in the classrooms, and often lethargic people in the hallways. There was one reality I spotted that I was not expecting: angry educators. Teachers who were at the end of their rope that day, frustrated at something and taking it out on their students. Perhaps they had valid reasons to be angry with their students.

I can certainly understand.

Today, I remind you (and myself) of the negative impact of our anger and frustration when taken out on young people and what we can do about it. Two years ago, research revealed that, “yelling makes kids more aggressive, physically and verbally. Yelling in general, no matter what the context, is an expression of anger.” It scares kids and makes them feel insecure. Even though they may put on a front, their defenses go up; they shift into survival mode (even if it’s irrational) and slip out of a logical paradigm where they can grow and learn. In other words, our anger often has the opposite effect on students that we desire.

This, of course, happens at home, at school and in extracurricular activities. We live in a day where we are less patient than we were 20 years ago; often intolerant of interruptions; at times we feel unappreciated and underpaid, almost like we are “victims” caught in a reality we can do nothing about.

So, what can we do?

Six Steps to Take in Response to Your Frustration at Kids

1. Talk over your emotions with a colleague.

When angry, we frequently migrate into silos. We are a little embarrassed because our anger does not represent us “at our best.” The last thing we want to do is talk about it. But that’s exactly what we must do. Talk to your spouse, to a fellow teacher, to a friend. Disclose what happened and ask for support and accountability.

2. Give yourself what you would give to your student.

Ask yourself: If my student or my child got angry like I am right now, what would I do in response? Maybe you need to give yourself a “time out.” If you can do this before you lose your temper, it’s even better. This models boundaries for your kids and lets them see an adult who manages emotions well.

3. Don’t freak out.

Sometimes, we get frustrated at students because they’ve done something for the shock value of it all. The worst reaction we can offer is to be shocked. We’ve given them exactly what they had hoped for—and now they can post it on social media. Staying calm is reassuring, which makes kids feel loved and accepted, in spite of bad behavior.

4. Use equations instead of threats.

Threats have been proven to have an adverse effect on kids. They will often test them to see if you’re serious, or worse, they become angry and resentful which results in more conflict. Instead, enforce equations you’ve unveiled beforehand: when they do this thing, then there is a consequence; if they do that thing, there is a benefit. Let the outcomes speak for themselves. You can remain relatively calm.

5. Set a sustainable precedent.

Remember—whatever you do in reaction to your frustration will likely set a precedent that will continue for both you and them. Do you want yelling to be the norm? How about angry arguments? How about revenge? Or—would you like to see apologies be the norm? If so, you should be the first to model the way.

6. Don’t be a starving baker.

Check your lifestyle when you feel angry. Are you getting enough sleep—enough down time—enough margins? Are you feeding yourself (emotionally and professionally) before feeding young people? That’s the most selfless act you can practice. The starving baker is the chef who spends time baking bread for others, but neglects to feed himself. It’s the number one occupational hazard of educators and leaders.

The “Starving Baker” is one of our Habitudes® images. It teaches leaders about self-care, which is usually our problem when we suffer from chronic anger and impatience. May I encourage you to use the plan I offer in that chapter to stay “fed” rather than frustrated? We owe it to ourselves and to our young.


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When You’re Angry With Students: Six Steps to Take