Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Tears, Tantrums, and a Little Improvisation

A 22-year-old educator in rural Mississippi takes us inside the wild world of teaching in her ‘Diary of a First-Year Teacher.’

Learning to deal with tantrums in the classroom is an important task for a new 1st grade teacher. (Photo: svetikd)

Nov 12, 2012

Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

The golden rule of improv is to say “yes and.” The reason anything ever happens in an improv show is because the actors are trained to run with whatever occurs. An improviser is ready for anything because they know all they have to do is say “yes” and they will find story in the madness.

There is a lot of madness and chaos as a first-grade teacher. There are a lot of problems you can't avoid and ones that leave your class in disarray. As a veteran improviser, I decided to take some notes from my days on stage, and try “yes-and-ing” my classroom antics. And surprisingly it worked. Here’s the back story.

Six year olds are emotional. They have strong feelings about getting called on, who they work with, whether they get recess, and so on. Six year olds are also expressive. They express feelings through groans, stomping, shrieking, and tears. There are a lot of tears in first grade. And a lot of tantrums.

More: Diary of a First-Year Teacher: An Experiment in Teaching Compassion

Typically depending on my level of patience, I vacillate between responding to these meltdowns in two ways: putting everything on hold to respond to the tears, or ignoring the behavior until the child recovers. Both options are imperfect. The first is unfair to the other students, and rewards the attention-seeking desire of the crying child. The second is also ineffective, because, especially with my most volatile children, ignoring the crying only makes the child cry louder. After a few passersby pop their head in to make sure all was well in my room, I decided the ignoring tactic was a no go.

One child’s tantrum quota in particular had peaked out at about four per day. From accidental bumps to actual pinching situations, Talia would go off the deep end if anything went wrong.

After a day of four meltdowns, I decided to reach into my old bag of tricks and start the day ready for anything. Instead of hoping for peace and quiet, I decided to embrace each situation and conflict that arose and make the most of them. In other words, I was going to say “yes and” to the drama and emotions of my students.

The wisdom to my madness was two-fold. First, I validated her emotions. No one needs someone to tell them they're feeling the wrong way. Even if they are responding in an inappropriate way, their emotions are still valid. Thus, by taking a moment to hear her out, and say, “Yes, I understand how you feel,” the battle was halfway won.

Second, coming into the day with a ready-for-anything attitude set me up for success. Who knows what will happen at my job each day? I can prepare (and should prepare) to prevent conflict and problems, but they are going to happen. And so instead of panicking, I am going to say “Yes, and…” and keep the show going. Or, er, the class going.

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