You wouldn't like me when I'm angry

18th January 2013 at 00:00
When the red mist descends, Catherine Paver summons all her strength to keep her cool

I have always had a temper and teaching makes it worse. There is so much to do and so much stopping you from doing it. Anger does have its uses, though. It can have a certain theatrical value in the classroom - if you can control it.

When I started teaching, I was unprepared for the fury that some pupils provoked in me. I once filled a piece of paper with swear words in a lesson to stop myself from shouting them out. "It's the pupils who should be getting lines, not the teacher," said a helpful colleague. Which was true, so it made me very angry.

The turning point came one day when I was watching Looney Tunes. Slumped and exhausted, I was happily chuckling at Sylvester the Cat. With mounting dismay, I realised that I was watching my own life. I was as angry and powerless as Sylvester. Instead of just one infuriating Tweety Pie, though, I had 30. And I was predictably spluttering "Sufferin' succotash!" every working day. Bad puddy tat.

I looked at some anger management websites. These just made me angry. They were all so bloody reasonable, and they always wanted me to change. What I wanted was the child I was currently angry with to change. Still, I persevered.

Ignoring the strange choice of a red background on one website, I read the section on language. Use "I" rather than "You" statements and be specific, it said. OK, I thought. I'll try.

"I would like to hit you nine times."

Hmm. What's next? "Express your feelings clearly."

"I feel frustrated that we have to share the same planet."

"Try to present a logical case... "

"I know you did that because you are very stupid."

"... and avoid using the word 'angry'."

"I am strongly dismayed by your continued existence."

None of this was helping. Later, I read a news story about two anger management gurus who got angry with each other. The report included some of their maddening dialogue: "I am not being aggressive. I am being firm and clear about how I feel."

Visualisation often appears in anger management advice: green spaces, the sea, etc. Well, the first time I was enraged by a pupil, I imagined putting her into a box and carefully nailing down the lid. That calmed me down. She calmed down, too, probably because she thought I was listening to her.

What makes you angry and what calms you down? The best advice on anger addresses this. Knowing what sets you off helps you to stay in control. Some people hate lateness. As someone who struggles to be on time, this does not anger me. Yet if someone talks when a child is reading work aloud, I twitch.

"Watch out - she's getting angry!"

That comment in a Year 7 lesson taught me that the way pupils see us when we are angry is crucial. This changes at puberty. Small children worry when they see signs of rage. Teenagers think rage is hilarious. Once I realised this, I began to use it.

For my younger classes, I started practising my pre-rage signals. These may never lead to a real explosion. The carefully graded frown and the lowered, menacing voice. Practise these in front of a mirror or a laughing friend. It's fun and can make you a better teacher, as it makes you more aware of how others see you.

If you teach teenagers, though, your anger no longer frightens them. They see you as a human firework. Will you blow up in someone's face? Will it be fun? You must not give them this triumph. Once you've blown it, you've lost it. Lose control of yourself and you lose control of the class.

One simple mental trick helps me now. If I think I'm going to lose it, I imagine that CCTV is recording the whole scene. This shuts me up and gives me time to think.

Anger glares at what is in its way and loses perspective. So I look away from a pesky pupil's face. Swing your attention away from pupils and you reduce their power. When very angry, I often forget how young my pupils are: a quick glance at their small hands reminds me and helps to restore perspective.

Anger tells you what matters to you. Controlled anger commands your pupils' respect. It demonstrates the self-control that they do not yet have. Your pupils test you to see if you can control yourself. They may find it funny if you can't. Deep down, though, many of them hope that you can.

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher. Read more from her at

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