Ryan Martin knows a lot about anger. And, after researching a chapter for a forthcoming book, he now knows a lot about angry teachers, too.
Martin is chair of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and specialises in the study of anger and ways to deal with it. And he has found that teachers are particularly vulnerable to becoming angry, as he describes in the 10 February issue of TES.
“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.”
Why do teachers get angry? It’s not an exhaustive list, but Martin can name 13 reasons:
Students not following instructions
Anger at administrators or public officials
Anger over the content of the course, because the material is inherently angering – the Holocaust, slavery, racism, prejudice, sexism
Student laziness or inattention
A lack of resources in some schools
Exasperation with technology
Circumstances of students’ lives outside the classroom, whether it’s students coming to a school too hungry to learn or having really complicated home lives
Lack of control
“It is most certainly OK for teachers, and frankly for anyone, to feel angry,” says Martin. “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.”
So how should teachers deal with anger? Some of the above list is beyond a teacher’s control, but there are options for much of the list. He recommends the following three steps:
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.”
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: 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.”