The rages of sin;Mind amp; Body

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Giving way to anger can leave you exhausted, guilty and feeling no better than before you let rip. Some experts suggest 'Freeze-Frame' - shifting the focus from troubled mind to warm heart. Can this really help when your pupils know precisely how to wind you up?

Gerald Haigh reports

Anger is a familiar emotion for most teachers. It comes in a quick surge often with a suppressed desire to do physical harm. Mostly, it's channelled into a verbal onslaught - and it can come several times a day. The most spectacular example of teacher fury I've ever seen was when a colleague, long frustrated by the poor state of the staffroom furniture, sat on a chair that creaked and swayed under his weight. A fatal mistake. Leaping to his feet, he yelled whatever is the pedagogical equivalent of "Banzai!", raised the chair above his head and beat it to death against the floor. We cheered him on until he was left holding a small piece of splintered wood, which he threw out the window.

Your body needs to be physically and mentally prepared for rage - just as it needs to be for fighting or running away. But if this mechanism for short-term survival is called upon too often, it can cause long-term damage. Many things bring on surges of anger for teachers - a bad bullying incident after weeks of patient anti-bullying work; classroom misbehaviour that seems to be directed personally at you; a thoughtless, silly decision by the boss. Any of these is capable of provoking the red mist.

But an angry teacher is not efficient; neither are fearful pupils good learners. Warwickshire head Bob Jelley says most teachers immediately regret these attacks. For one thing, he says, most schools will have pupils who are subject to rages at home that are of "a far greater intensity than we can emulate in school. I can't think of any occasion where, if you were to analyse it, rage would be the preferable option."

But knowing what you should do may not help in the heat of the moment. As Bob Jelley says: "I wish I could instinctively take a patient and quiet approach, but what happens is that you go red, your tie feels a bit tighter and you realise that you're actually losing ground."

There is plenty of evidence that while the occasional angry outburst probably does little harm, any person who has frequent episodes of ill-temper - and many teachers do - may well be in real danger from the accumulated physical effects. Any one of these can be life-threatening - several symptoms increase the risk of strokes and heart disease, and suppressed immunity increases the chance of general illness. So how do you manage anger?

The answer seems simple - stop getting angry and not only will you be a better teacher, but you will feel better and live longer. The trouble is, though, that anger is a response to a stimulus - in the words of Dr Alan Watkins, an expert on mind-body relationships, "someone presses your button and you get angry". Children understand this perfectly, and know just which buttons to press.

Numerous experts are waiting to tell you how to deal with your anger. Some advocate "releasing" it in some socially acceptable way (by banging around in the bedroom with a pillow and shouting, for example). But you cannot apply this technique at the moment you need it - when you are in a confrontation at work.

Psychologist Stephen Palmer of the international consultancy, the Centre for Stress Management, feels that teachers should step back and "examine the attitudes they take into the classroom". Angry people, he believes, are in effect making demands on others. "They're saying 'must', 'should', 'ought to', 'have to'. The teacher is saying 'I must be treated fairly, the children should listen to me!'" This leads, he believes, to labelling people. "Instead of saying that this student has a learning problem, the teacher says this student is a right bastard."

He also suggests teachers look at what he calls their "low frustration tolerance". "To those who say, 'I can't stand it any more, I've had enough', I say, how long have you been teaching? You're living proof that you can stand it."

His approach, therefore, is to show people that they can change their attitudes and begin to see that "while things might be bad, they are not awful" and, in many cases, to accept things the way they are. "It would be preferable if the head-teacher were a better manager, but he doesn't have to be."

Looking at your basic attitudes, perhaps in a group with the support of a psychologist, looks a lot more promising than shouting and hitting the bed with a pillow. It is not really, though, an "on the spot" firefighting method.

One such technique is Heart Math, an American way to manage emotional responses that is increasingly being used by British businesses.

The technique uses the way that the brain, emotions and heart interact. Thus if I pick up my little grandson and talk quietly to him, then not only will I feel calmer, but my heartbeat will become steadier and smoother. From there it is a short step to the idea that just thinking about holding my grandson will have a similar effect.

The Institute of Heart Math has done considerable research and work into this interaction between emotions and physiology, and has developed a series of techniques to be used when the anger wells up. The most commonly mentioned is "Freeze-Frame" - Alan Watkins, who is also a Heart Math trainer in the UK, describes this in five steps beginning with "Recognise the stressful feeling and Freeze-Frame it. It's like pushing the pause button on your video."

The steps involve shifting the focus away from the troubled mind towards the area round the heart, and then recalling - and trying to re-experience - "a positive, fun feeling or time you've had in your life".

It sounds complicated, but Dr Watkins claims that it "is simple, powerful, effective and becomes automatic as you practise".

Heart Math's corporate clients include Motorola, Hewlett Packard and Shell. For Carol Mortimer, director of healthcare at Hewlett Packard, the importance of the technique is that you can employ it on the spot, at the moment that the mental pressure begins. "With practice you can do it in seconds, with your eyes open in the middle of a sentence," she says.

It is not so much a matter of defusing stress, as stopping getting stressed in the first place. "You switch it off and prevent it happening."

One result, for her, is a more efficient pattern of working. "You can prioritise better, and you become more creative. I now go home on time because I work better."

A school is a place of learning, and learning is not compatible with fear and rage. When they have time to think about it, teachers usually recognise this, and anything that helps them to tackle the onset of the red mist has to be welcome.

Enquiries about Heart Math to Hunter Kane Resource Management, 26 Broad Street, Wokingham RG40 1AB; Centre for Stress Management, 156 Westcombe Hill, Blackheath, London SE3 7DH

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