Middle school math teacher Mary Yee maintains calm in the classroom by cultivating empathy for her students

How the Best Teachers Maintain Calm in the Classroom

Every classroom teacher remembers a time when we lost our cool. That day we didn’t get enough sleep, had a headache, or simply hit our limit. Those also seem to be the days our students decide to act out and push our buttons. Whatever the reason, at least for a moment, we lose the ability to stay calm in the classroom.

For many new teachers, staying centered and calm in the classroom is a daily challenge. Over time, most of us learn how classroom management and mindfulness can help reduce the emotional ups and downs.

But some teachers have a magical ability to maintain calm in the classroom, no matter the circumstances. I’ve often wondered how they manage to stay cool and collected even when students are bouncing off the wall. 

It’s possible that such emotional control is something that you’re born with. Maybe you just have it…or you don’t. But as an educator trying to maintain a growth mindset, I like to think that anything can be learned. 

Maintaining Order vs Keeping Calm in the Classroom

Step foot in any classroom, and you can tell right away if you are in a calm place.

In some rooms, students are listening intently, working quietly, or actively engaged in collaborative learning

But in other classrooms, something just feels off. The noise level might be the same. Students might even be seated quietly. But instead of a calm productive buzz, there’s a tension. The teacher holds tightly on the reins, afraid that the minute she lets go, the whole class will devolve into chaos. 

You might not notice anything different about their teaching practices. But there’s something different about the culture in these classrooms. In one room, students have taken ownership. They know that “in this room, we do things this way.” In the other, the teacher is on constant alert, monitoring and correcting every disruption and off-task behavior.

Modeling Calm in the Classroom

A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the first type of class. Mary Yee, a 7th grade math teacher in Brooklyn, has a surprisingly effective (and unconventional) way of addressing behavior issues.

Ms. Yee’s school serves a diverse population of low-income students, many of whom face hardships most of us will never know. 

As I watched her students enter the room, most sat down and cleared their desks. Ms. Yee greeted them and handed-out computers to most of them.

But one student, Martin, stood behind his chair, backpack on his desk. Ms. Yee passed him by, handing a computer to the next student. Martin protested, “That’s not fair!” Ms. Yee calmly reminded him of the expectation, and continued distributing the devices. 

Despite the gentleness of the reminder, it sparked a full-blown melt-down. Martin raised his voice and stomped around the room. He called Ms. Yee names I won’t repeat, and threw his bag on the floor.

Ms. Yee barely seemed to notice. At first, I couldn’t believe she was letting this behavior go unaddressed. What would the other students think? Wasn’t she sending the message that this was acceptable?

But then, something surprising happened. The other students stepped in:

“Martin, you’ll get your computer if you just sit down.” 

“Do you need to do this every day?” 

“Can you please just clear your desk?”

The next thing I knew, Martin was sitting down and ready to work.

Martin was looking for a battle. At first, I worried that Ms. Yee was ignoring the problem, or didn’t know how to respond. But she was addressing the issue in her own way, sending her students the message that calm in the classroom began with her.

Ms. Yee’s Journey to Calm in the Classroom

I sat down with Ms. Yee to learn her formula for making behavior issues magically disappear.

While calm in the classroom feels natural to her now, it wasn’t always so easy. She was recruited to teach in New York in 2004, during a teaching shortage. Before that, she taught at a Catholic School in the Philippines.

“In my old school, my students started each class with their hands folded on the table. When they were working, you could hear a pin drop. I could even walk down the hall to use the bathroom, and they would still be working when I came back.”

Teaching in New York presented a great economic opportunity, but it wasn’t without surprises. “Many of my students behaved poorly. Others complained that they couldn’t focus with so many disruptions.”

“One of my students told me, ‘You need to yell if you want them to listen.’”

She started raising her voice and found that it worked — at first. But eventually, “I was yelling every two minutes. It didn’t change their attitude or impact their long-term behavior.”

“I didn’t feel right about yelling all the time. Besides, it didn’t really work. I still faced one interruption after another.”

In her third year, she had the chance to work with an instructional coach who specialized in classroom management. “My coach encouraged me to reflect on my teaching. After each lesson, we would talk through what worked and what didn’t.” 

“I realized that addressing behavior during the lesson wasn’t working. My coach encouraged me to build relationships with students by talking with them outside of class. I could ignore the students who were running around the room, and continue teaching the students who were paying attention.”

Calm Begins with Empathy

Ms. Yee started to realize that empathy was the key to staying calm in the classroom. When students are disrespectful, she doesn’t take it personally. Instead, she asks herself, “what is the real reason the student is acting out?”

“Most are just looking for attention. A student once told me, ‘By the time I get home, my parents are sleeping. They’ve been working all day. And when I wake up in the morning, they’re already gone.”

Parental involvement has proven benefits for a students’ education. But low-income families face unique challenges in providing such support.

Ms. Yee acknowledges their need for attention, but without reinforcing the negative behavior.

“During the whole class lesson, I ignore them and continue what I’m doing.” Later, during small group work, she comes back to connect with the student who acted out. 

“Since other students are working in groups [link], you can talk to them without the whole class watching. And you can hit two goals at once. Once I address their emotional needs, I can also support them academically.”

Her approach is supported by research. Many educators are noticing the importance of “Maszlow before Bloom.”

If you asked 100 school superintendents for the most pressing issue facing their district, what do you think they’d tell you? You might expect to hear concerns over test scores, budget cuts, and attendance rates. And you probably wouldn’t expect anyone to bring up the importance of recess in schools. That is, unless you were speaking to Dr. Michael Hynes, the superintendent of Long Island’s Port Washington School District. Dr. Hynes has a bit of an obsession with the topic of recess in schools. Over the past 20 years, Hynes has watched American schools start pushing students in a way that is unhealthy. "It's stripping away our responsibility for their basic needs. We talk about the workforce and making sure we produce students who will be able to compete globally. Yet we learn very little from what schools are doing around the world.” A 3rd Grade-Eye View of Recess in School Dr. Hynes’ appreciation for recess in school began when he started “shadowing” his students. “I will pick a third grader, fifth grader, or senior and follow their schedule for the whole day. And what that has allowed me to do is see what life is like for students now, compared to when I was teaching 20 years ago.” On this particular day, he was shadowing a third grader. “When we went outside for recess, we're about to play kickball. We divide the teams up -- of course, I'm first, because I wanted to get the ball. And by the time the first pitch was coming out, the whistle blew to go inside." “I wanted to be outside! And just like cattle, we were all going inside, and the students all go ‘Oh, COME ON!’ The next week, I’m shadowing second grade. And it's the same thing." “I'm like, this is actually torture. This isn't a time for kids to relax. What I found was that in a 40 minute lunch/recess block, kids would either not eat lunch, or they would just wolf it down to get to recess. I was like, this is not working." “From that moment on, I said, ‘We are going to double this.' I decided to make lunch and recess each 40 minutes. I spoke with a few of our principals and teachers, and they were willing to pilot and test drive it that same year.” The Benefits of Recess In bringing this change to the district, Dr. Hynes was thinking about more than kickball. “If you focus on the health and wellness of the kids, a natural by-product will be achievement. We focus on social, emotional and physical growth for our kids.” “When their basic needs are met, kids will score better on tests, but that's not what gets us up in the morning.” maslow: User:Factoryjoe, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons bloom: Bnummer, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons Hynes believes that it comes down to how we measure success in schools. “It's about Maslow before Bloom,” referring to Maslow’s hierarchy and Bloom’s taxonomy. Bloom addressed the importance of conceptual learning, whereas Maslow focused on the emotional needs of the individual. Maszlow's central thesis was that basic needs, such as food, safety, and even love, need to met before our brains can focus on self-improvement, such as education. “Children are in class feeling emotional ‘solar flares.' If we don't teach executive functioning skills, it's going to interrupt their education. And that's why the yoga, the mindfulness, the extra recess are so important.” How He Knows it’s Working Dr. Hynes identifies four ways that the benefits of recess in school have transferred from the playground to the classroom. 1: Self-direction “For the first time in the day, students choose what they want to do." This increases student empowerment and their opinion of school as a whole. 2: Release of energy “Students had been bottling up potential energy by sitting still all day." When they get to move around, they release that energy and can better focus on learning. 3: Socialization “Students finally get to hang out with friends for a prolonged period of time." These social interactions help improve school culture, and their propensity for collaborative learning. 4: Relaxation “Students felt relaxed when they came back from recess. Previously, many students felt anxious or not in a good place." This relaxation reduced behavior issues, making the classroom experience more pleasant for both students and teachers. After speaking to the teachers, he heard that students were more attentive. “The students were happy when they came back from recess. Over time, they were learning how to problem-solve and work out their own solutions. The faculty doesn't want it to go back to the way it was.” “So how do I know it's working? If I removed double recess, I probably wouldn't have a job anymore.” Community Support for Recess in School Dr Hynes fascination with recess has not been a solo crusade. In fact, recess in school was not really a passion until he realized how badly his district needed it. “When I came to the Patchogue-Medford school district, I interviewed a cross-section of our community,” including 350 students, board trustees, teachers, administrators, parents, and vendors. "I asked three simple questions: What's working well and why? What needs to be done to make our schools better? And what do I need to do in order to stick around?" He noticed some common themes to the community’s concerns. “They asked for students to want to come to school again. For change within the school that benefits students. They wanted to see less anxiety and kids who were not stressed out all the time.” Then, he created a plan designed to address those concerns. "We have a five year strategic plan. It's comprehensive, it's rich in data, and it's supported by major educational theories.” He also understood that making changes required financial support. “Most importantly, [the plan] is backed by a school budget that allows us to put the plan in place.” “We have seven elementary schools. In about a month and a half, we'll have seven new playgrounds. That is a massive amount of money. But that is what the school community wanted for our kids. They saw how important it was for kids to be outside and to have the proper equipment to play on.” “We have about 90% of the community behind us. And we've had 45 schools from across the United States come visit our schools, because of what we're trying to do.” The Academic Benefits of Recess in School Even with community support for student well-being, Dr. Hynes recognized the importance of studying the connection between his initiative and academic outcomes. And what he found was that that time invested in recess produces clear academic benefits. “It doesn't matter if you're in a highfalutin school district or if you're in an urban school district that is struggling for resources. If you put these changes in place, you’re going to get higher test scores.” As for identifying a statistical link between recess in school and testing data, that’s a bit more complicated. “The conundrum we have, because my community is so savvy, is that we have an 80% opt out rate. Meaning that 80% of our students in grades 3 through 8 don't take the state test. We have internal scores that we use that tell us it's working, but they're not standardized or normed state-wide.” Hynes is unphased by the absence of test results. “Discipline referrals have been reduced in some schools by half. There has been an uptick in attendance, because kids want to go to school now. So we do have measurable results, but we don't have test scores per se.” Sharing the Benefits of Recess in School Dr. Hynes is happy to share what has worked in Patchogue-Medford with anyone who’ll listen. “Email me, and I'll give you a road map. Seriously. I've spoken to every school board member, every superintendent who is looking to move in that direction. Because I think the process is just as important as whatever you're trying to implement.” And he also is clear that his student wellness goals are not finished just because he’s increased recess time. “The doubling of recess is just one spoke in the wheel.” Dr. Hynes is looking several years down the road. Digging into the most persistent problems in the district, and addressing them one at a time. “Most schools and districts don't have a vision or a mission. And if they do, most people don't know what it is. They don't know what their core values are. They don't know where they want to be two, three, or four years from now." "You have to answer those questions first. You can’t just say, 'I want to double recess, because it sounds like a good idea.'” Want More Educator Success Stories Like This One? We love sharing stories like this one, of innovative educators finding ways to engage, challenge, and support young learners. To stay up to date on in the latest in student-centered learning, sign up for our free Educator’s Newsletter. It’s a weekly dose of education inspiration, straight to your inbox! And don’t forget to share your thoughts in our Facebook group, The Reflective Teacher’s Community. Share ideas, ask questions, and connect with passionate educators like you. We believe that every student deserves a learning experience that matches their interests and needs. Shouldn’t professional learning experiences meet that same high standard? Visit our services page [link] to learn how we help teachers take charge of their professional growth.
Maslow’s Hierarchy
bloom: Bnummer, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom studied the importance of conceptual learning, while Abraham Maslow focused on the hierarchy of needs. His research showed that students can’t focus on academic learning when their biological and emotional needs aren’t met.

“Many teachers see classroom management as ‘us against them.’ Either I win and the class is orderly, or my students win and it’s chaos. But we need to take a student-centered approach. It can’t become a battle where one person gets their way. Students need to have their needs met, or the class won’t work.”

Getting Started with a Calm Classroom Strategy

Ms. Yee believes that any teacher can learn her strategies for bringing calm to their classroom. It begins by considering student perspectives.

“I look back to when I was a student. We’ve all passed through the stage of adolescence. Even if our experience is not exactly like theirs, we need to look for ways that our journeys are similar.”

The first step to meaningful growth is reflection. By thinking carefully about our teaching practices, we can take ownership of our growth as educators. 

Start by reading the Guide to Reflective Teaching. This free resource includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other helpful organizers. Completing the guide will help ensure that you can manage your classroom, and give your absolute best to all of your students, every day of the week.

You can also develop classroom culture by incorporating social-emotional classroom management strategies. Learn how to bring these strategies to your classroom in our online workshop, A Social-Emotional Approach to Managing Behavior. Register today to save your seat!

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About Ms. Yee

Ms. Yee is a 22-year veteran teacher and an expert on cultivating calm in the classroomMrs. Yee is a 22 year veteran educator at John Ericsson Middle School 126 in Brooklyn, NY. Before teaching, she worked for seven years as a chemical engineer, but it wasn’t until she began teaching that she truly felt inspired. She believes that the purpose of education is to learn from our mistakes: “Teachers need to embrace the same growth mindset we expect from our students.” You can find her on Twitter at @HearYee3