You are here: Home / Blog / Managing Emotions (Yours): Dan Cotton on Strong Voice

Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.22.14Managing Emotions (Yours): Dan Cotton on Strong Voice

yoga-classroomOver here at TLaC Towers we’ve been doing a bit of thinking about Strong Voice.  We know it’s important to an effective classroom and we know that Quiet Power is a key part of it–going quieter and slower when you’re under duress.  But of course that’s easier said than done.  A recent observation piqued my colleague Dan Cotton’s thinking about some tools to allow you to keep calm when calm seems elusive.  He shared this post:

As one student struggles in a sixth grade classroom to read aloud a difficult word, a classmate suddenly mocks her with a guffaw. The teacher – stunned, a bit angry, and eager to protect the intellectual safety of her classroom culture – starts to stride over towards the offending student.  She’s about to issue a public rebuke, voice raised. If she does, the student may mirror her tone and respond loudly, “I didn’t do anything!” All focus on learning will end. Students are likely to remember the ensuing confrontation more than the message of non-negotiable mutual respect the teacher intends to reinforce.  The teacher’s pulse will go soaring.   But she can’t just tolerate a student being mocked for striving.

The teacher, though, is a champion, and after her first few steps, she turns her direction of travel to buy herself a few seconds.  She’s still going to take on the situation, but she knows a few precious seconds will buy her something critical to high expectations: her own composure.

The invisible driver of effective Strong Voice in charged moments is emotional self-regulation.  Champion teachers create small pockets of time and space in which they manage their own emotions before responding to a student, thus ensuring that the interaction with the student begins productively, ends successfully, and keeps instruction for the rest of the class on track.

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath present the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor for the emotional and rationale sides of our brains – the Elephant and the Rider:

Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rationale side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completed overmatched (pg. 7).

Most of us, probably, at some point have been victims of our own Elephant when redirecting or responding to an upset student – speaking with and  projecting more anger than, in retrospect, we wish we would have. Yes, the muscle memory achieved through practice helps us respond with a default of Square Up/Stand Still, Do Not Talk Over and the other principles of Strong Voice. Yet how else do champion teachers help themselves make sure the Rider is guiding the interaction with a student and not the Elephant? From studying and speaking with champion teachers, here’s three tools:

  1. Task for the Class: When a skilled teacher knows she’s going to have a potentially tense interaction with a student, she ensures that the interaction will take place  off-stage, that is, not just privately, but when no other students are watching . She achieves this by giving the class clear, meaningful work they are able to do independently – “You’re ready to try this on your own! Take 90 seconds to complete the next 4 problems. Go!” While the rest of the class is working, the teacher can now engage the student in a genuinely private conversation. With no one else looking, the pressure to win, to preserve face – for both student and teacher – is now relieved. Taking that pressure off allows you, the teacher, to enter into and move through the conversation more calmly– it aids emotional self-regulation.
  2. Circle To, Not Bee-line: As a teacher at a recent workshop pointed out – reflecting on his own mistake that day – if you make a beeline to the student immediately after giving a task to the class, it’s still not really private. It’s pretty clear – to the student and the rest of the class – what’s on your mind. Furthermore, if you stride right over to the student needing a correction, chances are you might be in the grip of the Elephant rather the Rider. The most skilled teachers arrive at the student needing the private conversation with finesse. Perhaps they drop off a tissue to a scholar who needs one first, maybe they stop and skim the quality work of two students on the way. Again, “circle to, not bee-line,” is a tool for emotional self-regulation.  Pausing to notice the students meeting expectations and working hard first is calming –an  opportunity to remind yourself, “I’m alright. I am serving my students well,”  and then move  a half-step more slowly, letting your more deliberate pace continue to bring your Elephant back under control of your Rider.
  3. In Task: Arriving at the scholar, champion teachers often begin with an “in-task” – “Track me,” “Pencil down” or “Please scoot your foot under the desk” – a bite-sized, concrete action for the student to take. The in-task serves two purposes: (1) Since it’s truly bite-sized and can therefore be easily done, it gives you a quick assessment if the student is ready and willing to meet expectations; (2) The in-task is, again, a tool for emotional self-regulation. When the student looks up right away, or puts her pencil down, or scoots her foot under the desk, it’s calming, giving you the evidence and the opportunity to tell yourself, “Great! This is going to go well.” The boost in self-confidence and calmness is often a self-fulfilling prophesy: Your increased confidence and calmness, in fact, do make the interaction progress productively and positively.

Teaching is incredibly demanding – intellectually and emotionally – and the reality is that sometimes, what we project, is less than our best self. A recent piece in the NY Times presented new evidence of an age-old truth: When teaching values, what we do has a much more lasting impact on our students (and our own children) than what we say. What tools do you use to help yourself in emotionally charged moments? What concrete actions do you take so that you’re not just preserving but enhancing your relationships with students and modeling the culture you seek to foster?