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I teach middle-school students in an after-school program, which itself can be challenging. But one particular kid really knows how to push my buttons, and he’s the ringleader when it comes to stirring up trouble. I do my best to stay calm, telling myself that their intention is to get me worked up and I can’t cater to that. That the instant I lose control, they’ve “won.” But the other day, everything I knew about classroom management went right out the window.
I’ll share what I learned from this experience so that hopefully you can avoid a meltdown at work!
Here’s how it went down
They were acting up the entire class. Talking over me. Being defiant. Making a million excuses for why they didn’t do their homework, study for their vocab test, or come prepared with their books. Coming up with all manner of reasons for why they had to leave the classroom, like, “My eye hurts” or “I sprained my arm” or “My thumb is swelling…No, really! Look at it!”
Just generally being brats.
Then my boss, who’s always peeking through the window to make sure the kids are “in line,” came in to yell at one of my students who wasn’t sitting up straight. Then he turned to me and said, “You have to discipline them.”
I wanted to tell him that’s ALL I had been doing the whole class period. Couldn’t he hear me yelling at them? But of course that meant I wasn’t in control. If I was in control, I wouldn’t HAVE to yell at them.
This is about when I — or “Miss Kate,” as they call me — lost it. Not only were they making my job 100 times harder, but they were making me look bad in front of my boss!
After one more incident, I yelled at them, “You are the worst class I have ever taught in all my years of teaching! It just boggles my mind how disrespectful you all are!”
Or something like that. It wasn’t that articulate or grammatically correct, and I probably rambled on for a good minute about how bad they were. At that point, I was near tears and words were just pouring out of my mouth.
Of course, it could have been worse. What I really wanted to tell them was to shut the f* up.
But my words definitely had an impact. They were stunned. The “ringleader” looked like he was about to cry.
My outburst did make classroom management easier, at least for the short term. The kids behaved much better for the rest of the class.
Naturally, though, I felt bad.
I never wanted to be one of those teachers who insulted my students or abused my authority by acting like a tyrant
Sure, I’ve learned a lot from my early days of teaching where I was too easygoing and permissive. I have to enforce some discipline.
But I want my students to walk away from my class feeling inspired. Not like they’ve just been through military school.
Here’s what I learned from my experience.
3 Ways You Can Avoid a Meltdown at Work
1) Pause Before You React
The “final straw” before my outburst is actually kind of funny in retrospect.
We were doing Caught Ya! exercises, where I write a grammatically incorrect sentence on the board and the kids correct it. The sentences follow a story that involves a soap opera starring Harry Beast, Wilfred the Warthog, and Hilda the Hippo. It’s the “fun” part of our lesson after the grammar drills.
Each sentence has an unfamiliar vocabulary word which the kids are supposed to define based on the context. I had already told them the meaning of the word in this sentence, which was “gaffe” — a mistake.
Once the students have identified and fixed all the errors, we move on to the next sentence.
We were about to move on when the kids told me there was still a mistake. Mind you, this was immediately after I was disciplined for not disciplining the kids enough, followed by another kid insisting he was bleeding and me trying to figure out if this was yet another case of crying wolf, so I was pretty tense.
I thought the kids were just being smart-asses. That’s when I lost my cool.
“No, Miss Kate!” they insisted. “You said it was a mistake!”
Then I realized they were referring to the meaning of “gaffe.”
If I had taken a moment to pause, I would have kept my cool and recognized the humor in the situation.
Which leads me to my next point.
2) Don’t Lose Your Sense of Humor
Even if they weren’t trying to demonstrate their mastery of “gaffe” and they were being smart-asses, at least they were being (somewhat) clever.
Middle-school is a tricky age to teach because their humor isn’t as refined as high-school students (of course, they think they’re world-class comedians), and they’re not as cute as elementary-school kids. Plus with little kids, you expect them to be immature!
With middle-school, I’m always a bit astounded by the gap between maturity levels and their perceived sense of sophistication. Pre-teens can also be downright mean!
But in order for us to all make it through the school year without wanting to kill each other, I have to be willing to have a sense of play. When they do say something that hits a nerve, instead of jumping to my default reaction of being offended or annoyed, I can say something sarcastic in return. Or ignore them, if it’s clear they’re just trying to provoke me.
And really, isn’t that the key to life? Not to take things so seriously? Not to take yourself so seriously?
Because that’s what it comes down to. I was already feeling peeved because I was not, in my boss’s eyes, doing the only thing that really mattered, which was to enforce discipline. And on top of that, I was looking bad in front of my students.
But in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter what my boss or my students think of me?
Sometimes I’ll get worked up over the little things my kids tell me, like making snide comments about my handwriting on the board. One time I even yelled at them, “For the last time, there are no capital letters in this sentence!”
But then I think back to the things my classmates would do to our teachers in middle-school. There was one teacher they were especially cruel to. Once they locked her out of her classroom. Another time they poured sand in her coffee.
This makes me realize:
A. I’m lucky.
B. I shouldn’t take things so personally.
So every once in a while, it’s okay just to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
As they would say back when I worked in take-out at the California Pizza Kitchen, “It’s just pizza.”
3) Make the Experience More Fun for Everyone
The thing is, I don’t really believe in the dichotomy of “good kids” and “bad kids.” Sure, some students are more difficult than others.
But I have to put myself in their shoes. This is an after-school program, so they’ve already been in school all day. Now they have to go and sit in two more hours of class, usually against their will.
These are, as I’ve mentioned, middle-school students. Middle-school is a tough phase for anyone. They’re going through puberty and have all kinds of energy, especially the boys.
The past couple years, I have to admit, I’ve been spoiled. The kids have been polite and obedient for the most part, which has allowed me to be complacent.
I could get away with teaching the same-old-same-old when it came to grammar and reading comprehension.
But how can I expect the typical pre-teen to get excited about subjects and predicates when I’m not even excited about that stuff?
So the challenge is finding ways to make the lessons more interactive and more fun for everyone, including myself. I’m already doing this a little bit with the Caught Ya exercises and the Unjournaling writing prompts, which the kids love, but I could certainly be doing more.
Of course, these types of activities tend to be the ones where the kids become loud and rambunctious…hence why they’re a challenge. But isn’t it better that they act up because they’re excited about the lesson and NOT because they’re bored and want to rebel?
How This Applies To You
Ok, so maybe you’re not a teacher. But you can still adapt these lessons to your workplace situation.
As noted in Tickled Think’s article, 5 Small Things I Do To Overcome a Bad Day, one element that leads to workplace meltdowns is overwhelm. That was certainly true in my case, as it wasn’t one single incident that sent me over the edge but rather the accumulation of everything that went wrong that day. I’m sure you’ve had days like that. In the article, she suggests that you approach the situation one step at a time rather than trying to address everything at once.
If you have some particularly difficult customers or coworkers, think of ways you can make light of the situation and maybe even brighten their day. Back when I worked in take-out, my coworker had a way of making even the meanest, grumpiest customers smile. When you think about it, these are the people who crave love and attention the most! Even a dorky joke could be enough to turn their day around.
Have you ever had a meltdown at work? How did you handle it?