Better to Look Good than to Feel Good?

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When you enter a classroom to teach, the students aren’t the only ones watching.

I’m not talking about the principal, watching through the window, making a skeptical face and then jotting something on her clipboard – although that sounds horrible, and I’m sorry if Ms. Fictional-Principal makes these rounds to your classroom.

The other person watching is, in fact, you.

What you see can have a drastic impact on how you feel. And how you feel, in a room of teenagers, makes all the difference.

Consider the following situation:

You have prepared a lesson plan, in which students will journal about their experiences with grief and loss. The plan is that they will journal, pair up to share their thoughts on the topic, and then proceed to read a text in which grief and loss play a major role.

Half way through journaling time, someone burps.

The class goes haywire. It is difficult to get them to focus again, and you are certain it will affect their partner conversation.

There are two ways to feel about this.

It is a disaster.

It is hilarious.

It’s easy to conclude that this is a disaster and everything is ruined. And in fact, that’s exactly what will happen. You will get tense. Reactive. You will snap at the next kid who so much as sniffles loudly. A student asks to use the bathroom, just as you get the students into pairs, and you bark, “NO!” Everything that happens irritates you. The room becomes awkward, and any hope of true connection over partner-conversation is dashed.

The alternative? The same student burps. You have a good chuckle with everyone else. You say, “Glad you’re feeling so relaxed and at home.” Everyone laughs. The sniffling kid – heck, you hardly register him. And to the kid who needs to use the bathroom, you say, “No prob. Be back in 92 seconds.” He’s back in 92 seconds. The room is full of the sounds of animated sharing and reflective listening.

You’re in the flow.

Probably you’ve heard of being “in the zone,” or maybe “the flow state.” In the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the psychologist who coined the term, flow is:

  • “A sense of that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand… Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991:71)

Yes, we would all love to be in “the flow state.” But how? The school day is hectic and stressful and sometimes you just don’t feel it.

You need to see yourself having a good time.

Forget Ms. Principal-with-clipboard for a moment. The pair of eyes you need to impress the most is your own.

If you look at yourself, and you see someone who looks — who APPEARS ready to handle anything — who APPEARS relaxed, calm, and positive, then that is the direction things might move.

I’d like to share some strategies I use to build up the likelihood of “flow state,” and by doing so, make it more likely that you will shrug off the belches and hiccups of class. It will be more likely that you, and your students, will experience the kind of flow where students will be shocked to discover that class has flown by.

You may have to shove them out the door to their next class.

Trick 1: Start class with music you love – music which gets you grooving.

I’ve discovered that music at the start of class accomplishes several things. First, It sets the atmosphere – this is your party, and the students are your honored guests. Second, it dilutes the stressful noise of rowdy students at the start of class. That helps you look and feel calm. Third, a few minutes into class, after you’ve taken attendance, handled a few emergencies, and guided students into their “First Thing Work,” you can drop the music level and watch how quickly the room will quiet down. Fourth, if you sometimes bother to ask, in the hallway, in the cafeteria, what a student listens to – and you can find something you like by that artist – well, you can play it in class…and build some rapport!

But most importantly, good music will distract you from the fact that you might be white-knuckled with anxiety. As you take attendance, don’t be afraid to look like you’re enjoying your music. Notice yourself enjoying your music. Notice yourself digging the tunes.

[A word of caution. I do not recommend allowing students to pick the music. They will become entitled. Rather, allow the music to benefit THEM…but know that the music is for you.]

Trick 2: Wear something fabulous every day

You don’t need to be a fashionista/o to step up your steez. In fact, a colleague old enough to be my youngest uncle decided recently, and explicitly, that he’s wearing only suits from now on. He rocks a grey suit with a boring tie and a black suit with another boring tie. But he loves these suits, and you can tell. He has a glide in his stride. He looks great. It has a positive impact.

As for me, I may have the dubious honor of being the High School Teacher with the most gratuitous tie collection…and I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not so I’ll look good for the class. It’s so when I use the washroom between classes, I can catch my reflection, give myself the double-handed-pantomimed-pistol-shot and say, “You, sir! Yes, you! Looking snappy, sir!”

Trick 3: Cultivate Friendliness ALWAYS

Teachers who are stiff and brusque in the hallways and then try to be nice in class will be treated like phonies. Teenagers pick up on this. Instead, try being friendly — always.

When a student says, “Do you have a second?”

Say, “For you? I always have time for you.”

When a student says, “How was your weekend,” tell him one small thing, and then ask about his. Remember the story. Ask about it, later. If you go on to see the movie he saw, mention it. If a student had to work, let two weeks pass, and ask how the job is going. Ask questions. Be prepared to listen to a story.

Most importantly, when a student talks to you, treat him or her like s/he is the most important thing on earth.

Then, in class, if you need to ask for the class to be quiet, you’re not alone. You have two-dozen friendly conversations standing behind you — like benevolent but firm Saint Bernards.

Trick 4: Celebrate the Small Things

Walk around class and listen to the kids working on their projects. Sure, they may not be discovering the cure for cancer. But they could be smoking dope behind the woodshed. Or…shaking down freshmen for lunch money. Or whatever the local hoodlums do in the school next door. Your students aren’t eviscerating each other with brutal gossip. Instead, they are showing each other the edits they have made on their sculptures. So what if half of them forgot to do their homework and the lesson plan is undermined…it’s still an excellent use of everyone’s time! How amazing are you for setting up a class where they can focus on something productive for almost half an hour!  Nod approvingly, and notice yourself nodding. You’ve just won a TROPHY! Filled with…whatever naughty snack you can imagine.

Trick 5: Laugh a Lot

Do not, under any circumstance, miss the opportunity to laugh at something. This is NOT the same as laughing at someone. That needs to be rooted out if you are going to have a classroom that is safe for students and for you.

Rather, when someone says something funny, laugh. Fist bump – but only if the student has earned it.

When a student does something annoying, laugh (if off) and firmly correct him or her with good eye contact and a strong (but pleasant) voice.

When you trip over a cord, laugh.

When everything is falling apart, laugh, and know that tomorrow will be better. Tell the story to a colleague and share a good laugh. And remember what you looked like when you were laughing, and bring that image with you to class, next time. You look great when you laugh.

Billy Crystal’s “Fernando” used to say, “It is better to look good than to feel good…”

I’d suggest a slight edit. It’s much easier to make yourself look good than to make yourself feel good.

So look good, and watch — good feeling can follow.

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