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'Anger is part of the teaching experience'

US anger management expert Ryan Martin explains why teachers are susceptible to moments of rage – and what to do about it

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Ryan Martin asks himself a question whenever he’s annoyed with his students for not following instructions: “Why haven’t they done as I asked?”

“Maybe it’s because they weren’t clear about my expectations,” he says. “And if that’s true, I own some of that.”

Learning from frustration in this way is one of the coping mechanisms he uses to avoid losing his patience in the classroom. Martin has more of those mechanisms than most people, because the chair of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay specialises in the study of anger and ways to deal with it.

After growing up in Minnesota – a Midwestern American state whose residents are so conspicuously easygoing that they’re known as “Minnesota nice” – Martin earned his PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi, where the Anger and Traffic Psychology Lab conducts research into anger and aggression. This became his main research topic, and at his current university he teaches courses in the psychology of emotion, anger and violence.

Lately, he’s turned his research attention to schools. He has surveyed teachers for a chapter in a forthcoming book, asking about what makes them mad. It turns out there are numerous answers to that question.

“You’ve got student disrespect, students not following instructions, anger at administrators or public officials,” he says. “One that’s interesting is anger over the content of the course, because the material is inherently angering – the Holocaust, slavery, racism, prejudice, sexism. Those things might, and often do, anger students and teachers.”

That’s to say nothing of quarrelsome colleagues, meddling parents, student laziness or inattention, political attacks, fatigue, a lack of resources in some schools and exasperation with technology. The list goes on.

The cost of caring

“Anger is just part of the experience of teaching sometimes,” Martin says. “Teachers don’t have a lot of control, and feeling out of control can lead to anger. [Also] people might be drawn to a profession like teaching in the first place because they’re kind and caring, and because they are a little more nurturing, and that also may be associated with a tendency to lose your temper.”

A growing source of anger for teachers, he reveals, is social injustice: “All teachers have to deal with the circumstances of students’ lives outside the classroom, and that can really be infuriating, whether it’s students coming to a school too hungry to learn or having really complicated home lives. A teacher who really cares, which most do, looks at situations like that and imagines where that student could go if they didn’t have all this other stuff going on.”

Given this plethora of rage-inducing stimuli, surprisingly few teachers lose their patience publicly, Martin says.

“There are relatively few examples of teachers losing their cool,” he explains. “I can think of very, very few times when teachers became angry at me as a student, even though I probably deserved it.”

He believes this is partly down to people with bags of patience being drawn to the profession.

Experience helps, too. “Because teachers work with kids and adolescents all day, they get used to what they do,” he explains.

That’s not to say teachers don’t still get angry with students – as can be seen from Martin’s survey, they do. But he argues that being angry is not, in itself, something that should worry staff.

“It is most certainly OK for teachers, and frankly for anyone, to feel angry,” he says. “The more important question is, what do you do with it – when you’re angry, how do you handle it? Once we start actually acting on the urge to lash out, physically or verbally, that’s when we’ve made a mistake.”

In his blog All the Rage (he also has a podcast of the same name), Martin collects and advises on healthy ways to cope with anger. The first response, he says, should be to understand the cause.

People who feel themselves becoming angry, Martin says, should ask, “In what way is my situation affecting this? Am I exhausted right now? Am I hungry? Is this hitting a button for me because I have some sort of need for more admiration than I deserve? What is driving this?”

When student behaviour is the cause of the anger, there’s another question teachers need to pose, he says: why is the student acting this way? “You may come out of that thinking, ‘Yup, I should be mad’. Or you may come out of it thinking, ‘I’m escalating this’. It’s important to get a feel for the motivation.”

The next step is to fix it. “Trying to harness that anger and use it in another, more positive way is really what matters,” Martin says. “I’m a big believer in the value of empowerment when it comes to anger. Whether it’s you or your students, when you’re addressing those issues that are making you mad, try and find a way to solve the problem.”

Of course, for teachers, that could end up only elevating the frustration.

“We’re powerless in some situations,” Martin admits. “We may not be able to impact the lives of our students. We may not be able to affect administrative or political decisions.”

But simply trying to address those things can help, even if there is little chance of success. “People can get more involved in those decisions and try to exert their influence that way,” he says. “I know there’s only so much power that we have, but even trying to get involved can help with anger.”

A problem shared

Another important strategy teachers should embrace to avoid rage consuming them is sharing with colleagues.

“It can provide some community-building,” Martin says. “You have to talk it through in an intentional way – ‘I’m super-mad right now: this is why’ – and talk through the different elements.”

It is crucial that this is the right type of conversation, though.

“One of the mistakes people sometimes make when they want to talk about their anger is that they don’t just want to talk it through; they want to vent,” Martin says. “That can only make the anger worse. You’re just keeping all those angry thoughts in your mind.”

Plus, resentment can spread like a contagion through the staffroom: “There’s a difference between a thoughtful conversation versus, ‘I hate this job and I hate my students and I hate this place’. That can be a contributor to a toxic culture,” he warns.

It’s about being honest in a productive way, and the same goes for when you are in front of a class. “I’m usually pretty honest with students,” Martin explains. I will say, ‘I’m feeling super-frustrated right now because – fill in the blank – I want you guys to talk more.’ I think they respond to that.”

Dealing with personal jibes

But what about when things get really personal – say, a disparaging comment from a student or poor feedback after an observation that you feel is unjustified?

“‘Unfair’ is such a good word to describe this, because that, so often, is what drives anger,” Martin says. “For the longest time, my first review [by a student] on RateMyProfessors.com was, ‘I don’t really know why, but I don’t like this guy’. It would drive me crazy. It felt so unreasonable to say, ‘I don’t really know why’. That’s when I got angry.”

How should you respond to this type of anger? “The first thing is to reflect on the comment. If you deem it accurate, you try to fix that problem,” he suggests. “When I know it’s unfair, I would actually try to address what the criticism is, somewhat directly. That’s hard to do if it’s an overheard comment or anonymous. But I might speak up in class and say, ‘You know, I’ve heard that there’s concern about X or Y’.”

Considering the extent of the anger-inducing factors in a typical teacher’s life and how detrimental any unrestrained burst of anger might be in the classroom – for example, losing your cool is a sure-fire way of letting students know they have you on the ropes – it is clearly a good idea to take heed of the above advice.

It is also essential for teachers to stay healthy. Managing anger isn’t just a way to go home at the end of the day without a stomach tied in knots. It can ultimately help to reduce high levels of burnout and turnover in the profession, Martin says.

“I think they’re very much related,” he adds. “I suspect the number one piece that drives burnout is feeling unappreciated and helpless in your ability to get things done. And if you’re putting so much of your heart and soul and passion into this, that is only going to intensify all the emotion.”

Jon Marcus is a freelance writer based in the US