This month’s educator spotlight shines on Mary Yee, middle school math teacher at John Ericsson Middle School 126 in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Yee gets the most from her students by always being a source of calm in the classroom.
Does it ever seem like some teachers have a magical ability to keep their classrooms calm?
Last year, I had the chance to visit a 7th grade math class where I observed a surprisingly effective (and unconventional) way of dealing with inappropriate behavior.
As her students arrived for class, most found their way to their seats and cleared their desks. Ms. Yee was passing out computers to those who were ready.
But one student, Martin, decided to make a scene. He stood behind his chair, backpack on his desk. She passed him by, giving a computer to the next student. Martin protested, “That’s not fair!”
Ms. Yee calmly reminded him of the expectation, and continued distributing computers to the rest of the class.
This was enough to bring on a full melt-down. He raised his voice and stomped around the room. He called her names, and threw his books 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 type of behavior was acceptable?
But then, something surprising happened. The other students took ownership:
“Martin, you’ll get your computer if you just sit down.”
“It’s the same every day.”
“Why don’t you just clear your desk?”
The next thing I knew, Martin was sitting down and back on-task.
At first, I worried that Ms. Yee was ignoring the problem, or that she wasn’t noticing. But she was addressing the issue in her own way. Sending the message that calm in the classroom began with her.
How the Best Teachers Cultivate Calm in the Classroom
If you walk down the halls of any school, you’ll find some classrooms where students are listening quietly, hard at work, or engaged in productive discussions.
In other classrooms, you can actually feel the difference. The noise level might be the same. And it doesn’t necessarily matter whether students are seated or moving about the room.
It’s hard to even describe what’s different. But something just feels off. The difference in classroom culture is obvious. But it’s not always clear what the teachers are doing differently.
After seeing Ms. Yee handle this behavioral issue without losing her cool, I spoke to other teachers in her school. They had all noticed the same thing. She never gets frustrated, never raises her voice. Yet even the most difficult students show her respect and follow her directions.
Clearly there was more to it than just ignoring problem behavior. I sat down with Ms. Yee to learn her formula for making behavior issues magically disappear.
Seeing Class from a Student Perspective
Ms. Yee cites empathy as her key to staying calm. When students are being disrespectful, she doesn’t take it personally. Instead, she focused on the real reason students act out.
“When a student disrupts class, they are looking for attention. Many aren’t getting enough attention outside of the classroom. Their parents work very hard, most have multiple jobs.
“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.”
Ms. Yee wants to acknowledge their need for attention. But she doesn’t want to reinforce the negative behavior.
“During the whole class lesson, I ignore them and continue what I’m doing.”
But later, during small group work, she comes back to connect with the student who acted out.
“Since other students are busy with other activities, you can talk to them without the whole class watching. And you can hit two goals at once. I ask them what happened, why they acted the way they did. Once I address their emotional needs, I can more easily get them back to doing their work.
Her approach mirrors that of many educators today, by recognizing the importance of “Maszlow before Bloom.”
Bloom’s taxonomy is a way of thinking about the conceptual rigor of learning experiences. We all want students to develop conceptual understanding. But we need to remember that students can’t learn when their basic needs aren’t being met. This is where Maszlow’s Hierarchy comes in. His research helped show that human needs go beyond food and shelter. We need our emotional needs met before we can think about self-improvement.
The Journey to Calm in the Classroom
Today, Ms. Yee feels comfortable and confident about instilling calm in the classroom. But it wasn’t always so easy for her.
She began her teaching career at a Catholic school in the Philippines.
“In my old school, my students would start each class with their hands folded on the table. And you could hear a pin drop whenever they worked independently. I could even walk down the hall to use the bathroom, and they would still be doing their work when I came back.”
In 2004, New York City schools were going through a teaching shortage. School officials came to the Philippines to recruit teachers. Ms. Yee was hired along with about 200 other teachers.
She loved the school where she was teaching, but coming to New York presented a great economic opportunity. “In the Philippines, I made $200 per month. My new starting salary was thirty times that amount.”
But coming to New York was also a culture shock. “When I first came, my voice was calm and sweet. I didn’t even know how to yell and scream.
“Many of my students behaved poorly. The students who wanted to learn 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, it became constant. “I had to yell at them every day. It quieted them for a few minutes, but it didn’t change their attitude or impact their long-term behavior.”
She started to feel the limitations of so much yelling. “It just didn’t feel right to be constantly yelling at my students. I still faced constant interruptions, and I couldn’t complete my lessons.
The Importance of Reflective Teaching
During her third year in New York, Ms. Yee had an extremely challenging class. The school decided to address their behavior issues by putting all of the challenging students in the same class.
“My students would literally run around the classroom, every day. No matter how much I yelled at them, it wasn’t making a difference.
“I was fortunate to work with an instructional coach who specialized in classroom management. She 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 talk with students outside of class. I realized I could ignore the students who were running around the room, and continue teaching the students who were paying attention.”
This became her routine. To this day, she does her best to ignore disruptive behavior, while not ignoring the disruptive students.
Getting Started with a Calm Classroom Strategy
The key to Ms. Yee’s strategy is relating to her students.
“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.
“In middle school, I was a quiet student. But at home, my parents were having a lot of difficulty. There were issues that caused me a lot of emotional distress. I didn’t act out, but my brother did. So I can relate to my students by thinking about him.
“And I was able to talk about my experiences with the school’s guidance counselor. It made me feel a lot better. But many of my students don’t have access to that kind of support.
“Middle school is a challenging time. Their emotional needs are even more important than their academic needs. It’s normal for students to seek attention. We need to balance the need to give them their attention with the need to teach the lesson.
“Even when students curse or yell, I don’t take it personally. It’s just that they just can’t control themselves. I don’t react to them or get upset. I just wait until we can discuss the issue in a calm manner.
“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.”
And while it may seem like some students want to create chaos, everyone wins when teachers are able to cultivate calm in the classroom.
Calm in the Classroom Begins with Reflection
Good teaching shouldn’t hurt. If you’re finding it hard to maintain calm in your classroom, don’t be too hard on yourself. Pick one calm classroom strategy, and try it out for a week.
Think back on your own time in middle school. Or look for similarities between you and your students. Maybe have one out-of-class, heart-to-heart conversation with a challenging student.
Whatever you choose, the first step to meaningful growth is reflection. By thinking carefully about our teaching practices, we can take ownership of our professional growth.
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.
About Ms. Yee
Mrs. Yee is a veteran educator, with 22 years of classroom experience. 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