When life stands in your way

We all know there are days when the last possible place you want to be is in class. And there are days when you just can’t seem to engage with what’s going on around you.  Even as someone who enjoys school for the m0st part and wants to spend the rest of my career in a school building, I have had plenty of those days. And in many cases, there may not even be a particular rhyme or reason for them. But for some students that is their everyday. We have a responsibility to make sure that the stress and trauma from the outside world doesn’t stand in the way of a student’s success and growth.

Everyone has needs

While I would argue that education is a necessity, it can be very difficult to fulfill that need if there are other basic needs that aren’t present. On a basic level, this makes a lot of sense. If a student doesn’t feel safe and cared for, you’re going to have a tough time convincing them the periodic table is worth all their attention. An educator named Maslow came up with a more elegant explanation of this.

The idea behind the hierarchy is that in order to fulfill higher needs, you must first resolve the lower tiers. For example, its very difficult (or impossible) to achieve any sort of self-actualization if you don’t have love and support from those around you, and especially if you are struggling with a need as basic as food or safety. Again, education is incredibly important, but I think it sits up close to the top of the pyramid. If we are facing the facts of the situation, we need to understand that many of our future students will struggle with even the first level.

Keep a level head

There will be students in our classrooms who are struggling. It will happen, guaranteed. Ideally, we will become more and more aware of these student’s adversity, but inevitably we won’t always know what exactly a student is going through, or how we might be getting in their way.

“Kids growing up in a chronic “state of alert” have learned early on to take cues from their environment. They watch those around them—parents, teachers, other adults, and other children—to identify the strategies people use to manage stress.”

Souers, Kristin. Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom. ASCD.

At least in my opinion, the first step in doing no harm is providing an environment in which students can feel safe and secure.

The classroom can be a hectic and chaotic place. This can be especially true when students who are experiencing trauma misbehave. “For children and their caregivers, living with chronic stress and trauma can be challenging, to say the least. It is not uncommon for children to cope by stirring up chaos in their environment.” It is our responsibility to step in and deescalate these situations, but it matters HOW we do it. It may seem like a good idea at first to yell or confront the situation by pumping more energy into the room but this is just as likely (if not more likely) to make it all worse. Instead, we need to bring patience and compassion to the room and work carefully to resolve the chaos.

First, do no harm

It’s also important to understand what can trigger these outbursts and misbehaviors. Of course,  there are any number of things that could bring a student out of sync with the class or cause them to react, but Kristen Souers and Pete Hall have come up with a list of common triggers to be aware of in the classroom.

  • Exhaustion
  • Previous bad experiences
  • Challenges to our belief system
  • Preconceived notions
  • Fear

Each of these factors may trigger a student and throw them out of the rhythm of the class or push them to disengage or misbehave, but the authors make the point that these are triggers to look out for in ourselves as well. We are susceptible to being disoriented in the same ways students are. We need to be able to readjust and continue providing a stable presence in the classroom. Dealing with classroom chaos can be draining and hectic. Self-care might be just the thing to keep us going.

Keep on keeping on

As we move through the day, the week, the month, the year, managing the stress of a classroom and taking on the struggles that students bring with them can be exhausting. If we are to continue to support these students who need the most, we need to be able to keep ourselves healthy.

In this TEDTalk, Kelly Hopkinson shares some of her history and her struggle with burnout as a teacher. She provides some insight into how easy it can be for a teacher to become overwhelmed and start to lose the patience and compassion required to care for students. Self-care is essential to keeping ourselves moving and working at our best.

At the end of the day though,

It’s not about you

It’s incredibly important to remember that the reason we are doing this is not to serve ourselves. We decided to teach because we believed in something bigger. We wanted to serve a purpose. We wanted to serve students.

Souers includes a few questions she asks herself regularly to stay focused on what is most important.

  • What is my role?
  • Who am I working for?
  • What is about to drive my behavior?

Following these thoughts and reminding yourself of your purpose in teaching is one of the best ways to make sure that you are able to serve. Students are why we chose to do this. And that can be the motivation to do whatever it takes to support every student, regardless of what they may need from us.





  1. Peter,
    Great post! I really liked how you emphasized points about it not being about you, doing no harm, keeping a level head, etc. Its so important to be able to support your students the best you can and work to help them. Of your bolded headlines, which one do you think you will struggle the most with?

    • Margaux,
      I think I tend to struggle the most with taking care of myself especially when I’m feeling particularly busy or stressed. I also know that I will have some difficulty with letting go of the problems I am unable to solve. I trust that I will do what I can, and seek help when I cant, but I have a tendency to hold onto issues that either I’m struggling with or someone I care about is struggling with. It is something I will need to work on in order to keep myself going even when I am discouraged or overwhelmed.
      I think what will help me the most is that I have a strong sense of purpose.

      Thank you for your question

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