July 20, 2024


Education, What Else?

Truth For Teachers – How teachers can channel their anger productively

9 min read
Truth For Teachers – How teachers can channel their anger productively

In 2019, Angela Watson hosted an incredible podcast episode with Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. I read this book in slow bits as the pandemic unfolded, finishing it in July 2020. It has become a familiar touchstone as I navigate all that I’ve been angry about these past few years.

Chemaly writes that “Anger is a boundary.” In the 2020-21 school year, and even more so, the 2021-22 school year, anger alerted me to where my boundaries were being crossed.

I pitched the idea for this article to Angela in the spring, when the anger was still palpable for me. I had a theory that perhaps other teachers felt the same, quite a few metaphorically saying, “take this job and shove it.” (Angela wrote posts here and here to help guide teachers making this decision). I had a hunch that I was not the only one who was fed up.

This theory — that teachers are more angry than usual — requires some contextualizing, though. Was it just me? Was it just because I read the book and let myself feel that anger?

By the time this is published, we will be at a new moment in society. I may process anger differently from when I first pitched this article, but anger will still be a part of me — a part of all of us — because it is part of the human experience. Chemaly calls us to learn from our anger, to have a plan to navigate this emotion whenever it floods our nervous systems.

Practice anger consciousness

Society as a whole looks negatively upon anger because it can lead to irreversible harm through impulsive actions and words, but Chemally argues that anger is neutral. It is what we do with anger that determines if there is harm.

What Chemaly asks us to do first is to raise our “anger consciousness.” This is our self-awareness that the emotion we are feeling is anger (women in particular may mislabel it as sad, frustrated, etc.). The physical manifestation of anger may vary widely as well, because of socialization. For example, someone may cry or laugh, but they are not sad or happy. They are angry. So much of the harm comes from people trying to get rid of the anger quickly before it’s even fully understood.

Making space to be anger-conscious may be extremely difficult at school. There are usually 35 pairs of eyes on you while you navigate your emotions. You may have an involuntary physical response (or be using all your resources to subdue that response). If you’re not in class at the time, you may vacillate between “keeping it professional” in front of administrators and “just venting” with other teachers–neither of which fully acknowledge the anger.

We’ll talk about what external actions to take, but right now, focus just on what anger feels like to you. Where do you feel it in your body? How are you likely to react? Think about it now, then take some time to practice just naming it in the moment.

I spent months doing this after reading Rage Becomes Her. Something would happen, and I would get this burning feeling from my cheeks to my stomach–I’m feeling it now as I write.

I would feel that feeling, and to myself, I would say, “Anger! There you are! I’m really angry right now.”

When I had the space to reflect, I would even send a little thank-you to it. “You are a big emotion–you clearly have an important message for me. Thank you so much.”

Interpret and act

Sometimes the cause of your anger may seem obvious; other times, not so much, but either way, try to pause for interpretation.

Chemaly writes, “Anger does not, in and of itself, ‘make you right.’” Examine what you’re angry about to figure out what’s your work. Sometimes it’s our thinking.

There can certainly be irritants piling up every day that can lead to anger:

  • The student who doesn’t come to class until the last week of the quarter. If you’re thinking, “This kid doesn’t care the whole time and now she wants me to bend over backwards?!” you will likely feel anger in this situation. If you are thinking, “Oh wow, she’s finally here. I’m excited to get to know her. We will take this a day at a time,” you probably aren’t going to feel as angry. I know both are possible, because I’ve seen the same student get radically different reactions across the school day, depending on the teacher, and that teacher’s thoughts. My question becomes, what kind of thoughts will lead to the actions that will create the best results for this student?
  • The student who takes things from your desk without asking. Some people see this as a sign of the student’s comfort; others as a boundary violation. If it feels like a boundary violation, it’s important to communicate that calmly and clearly. Pretending that it isn’t a boundary violation will only lead to more anger or an unintentional response. Treating it as a boundary violation when that boundary hasn’t been communicated will also lead to anger.
  • The student making passive-aggressive comments in class. This might be interpreted as a threat to the safety of the community you are building or a sign that this student is unsure of how to healthily relate to his classmates. Your interpretation will inform your next steps.

In any situation, it’s important to explore all the ways something can be interpreted before acting so you can choose the best action for your situation.

And what about in the moment when you are angry? This is your opportunity to teach students what to do. A swift, clear response is what is needed in the case of a safety or boundary violation. Anything else can wait, but you can take a minute to regroup. Normalize this so students know how to do it. Here are some possible things to say, depending on your situation:

  • “Let’s pause. I’m going to grab a quick drink.”
  • “I am going to take a few breaths and let’s start again.”
  • “Please wait, I need to write something down real quick.” You can jot down how you’re feeling or anything you need to get out.
  • If you have a preset dance party or brain break routine, this is also a good time to use that.

Before any of these actions, you may or may not choose to disclose that you are angry, depending on the situation, but if you want to highlight that you are navigating anger and not suppressing it, you can say, “I think I’m getting angry right now, I will need some time to think about it, but I’m going to reset so I can focus on being your teacher.”

Other times, it may be super clear that the anger is justified. Something like, “I feel angry because it’s important to me that…and…” could be helpful.

I know this modeling might seem kind of cheesy, and not feel like what we want to do in the moment, but this is exactly what we need students to practice. They don’t have to follow the road of anger wherever it leads. They can interrupt the moment and show themselves some care.

I worked with a student last year who engaged in physical fighting when she was angry. Through our consistent practice, she was able to stop fighting and find other ways to articulate her anger. I am so proud of her.

What about the adults?

Even though I think it’s totally okay to admit that sometimes we have class situations that make us angry, I imagine that the majority of the anger at school has to do with colleagues, administrators, and even forces and people outside the school.

Like in the situations above, after you’ve identified the feeling as anger, it’s time to interpret and act. There may be times when it’s really how you’re choosing to look at a situation that is causing your anger.

For example, is your colleague’s email really implying something negative about you? Once I’ve set aside my interpretation of a snarky-seeming email, my action is always to talk with the person face-to-face. This is the best way to clear the air and disrupt any inaccurate perceptions.

“Boundaries” have become the newest buzzword. Here’s how to actually create them as a teacher.

Other times, boundaries may be in order. The important thing to remember is that boundaries are not about changing other people’s behavior. We can’t change others, and we shouldn’t threaten them with our boundaries to make them change. Boundaries are about you and what you will or won’t do.

Let’s say you have a colleague who never has prepped what they are supposed to prep for the PLC. It’s become such a pattern that it seems they are benefiting from your shared preparations without contributing their own. You can state that you will not share what you’ve prepared unless all group members are ready to share. This protects you, and ultimately, the other person doesn’t have to change; they just won’t benefit from your work without reciprocity.

These actions can be more difficult with administrators because of the power deferential. Again, check your thoughts. Our thoughts and perspectives are often limited to the classroom. While we have a valuable lens, there are so many pieces to running a school that we thankfully don’t have to think about. In other situations, your anger may be completely warranted. If it’s a union violation, your union representative is the best person to discuss it with you–rather than venting in the teacher’s lounge (and taking no action).

Radical imagination

In the Rage Becomes Her book, Chemaly writes, “Anger is an act of radical imagination.” This is the true power and possibility when we make space for anger. Without it, we lose the opportunity to imagine outside of the way things are and into what they could be.

If your anger is related to a clear systemic issue, there are many ways to take action: organize, donate money, or connect small daily actions to disrupting the system “out there.”

Completing the stress cycle

While this structure, where you identify, interpret, and act on anger is strong and harnesses the best potential of this informative emotion, you must also attend to your body.

Emotions are a form of stress on the body, and in Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amerlia Nagoski argue that you need to deal with both the stressor and the actual stress. The former process from Chemaly is about dealing with the stressor. The actual stress, the physical sensation, in this case of anger, also needs to be released.

The Nagoskis call this “completing the cycle.” On a primitive level, it’s a way of signaling to your body that the danger has passed. Without it, our bodies begin to think we are constantly under attack. In the modern age, our bodies are stressed daily, so we need daily ways to release built-up stress.

The best way is through physical exercise, though only you know what kinds of physical movement give you that release. Other releases can be positive social interaction, laughter, physical affection, crying, or creative expression. Dialing in to which ones work specifically to release anger will help your body move forward with your mind.

Rage Becomes Her: Supporting students (and ourselves) in expressing our full range of emotions

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