Personal Growth

How to Avoid a Meltdown At Work

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avoid a meltdown at work
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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

I teach middle-school students in an after-school program, which can be challenging. But one day, a student really pushed my buttons...and I lost it. I'll share what I learned from this experience so hopefully 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?


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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?

14 thoughts on “How to Avoid a Meltdown At Work”

  1. Middle school teachers are superheroes! I taught high school and elementary, and had my worst teaching day ever at a middle school. Such a difficult age, kudos to all teachers who put themselves in the firing line! Great tips. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Amanda! Yes, I absolutely agree that middle-school students are much more difficult than elementary and high-school because I teach students in those grades too! It is really just a difficult time in general. I definitely had a tough time at that age and while I did not take it out on my teachers, I did take it out on my poor parents!

  2. Okay so I clicked on this blog post because it spoke to me, I just had a meltdown and it made me feel a tiny bit better that it’s so common. I really enjoyed reading your story. I am really struggling with taking myself way too seriously, I don’t know how to not do that! But it’s ruining my mood and sanity, so I should definitely try.

    1. Yes, I agree it can be hard in the moment! I’m also gullible so sometimes I’ll get worked up about something and then realize it was just a joke haha. One thing I’m working on is awareness and if I can catch myself in the act of taking myself too seriously and letting my emotions get the best of me, then I can lighten up and relax a little bit.

  3. i am no teacher but i have coworkers who act like kids too! it’s so draining and i just started this job. i dont know how anyone can handle situations like these. all i know is never bring your current work/job to your home!

    1. Oh yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about in regards to coworkers! I completely agree that you need to leave the work at the workplace–as soon as you enter your home, you’re entering a new zone!

  4. I have been on the brink of so many meltdowns at work!! These are great tips. I’m not a teacher, so I have the luxury of being able to walk around outside to cool off, I can’t even imagine what your days are like!! I’m sorry you had such a rough time! UGH.

    1. Yes, that was a tough day! Funny thing is, I came back this week to discover that the “ringleader” had quit the class. As much as I would have liked the challenge of seeing how I handled the situation this time around, I must admit I was quite relieved!

  5. Before I left the classroom, I learned some weird–but pretty good tricks for keeping the kids busy (so I could keep my sanity). The beginning of the school year is always hard–sometimes you just have to be tough. But I would time them–or pretend to time them: “You have 3 minutes and 37 seconds.” Why does that work? I would pass around with a mysterious stamp and stamp the kids who were on task–or wander with my magic clipboard making notes of ‘group work’ or ‘goofing off’ on my’ super official’ seating chart. My favorite–to get them back to the seats after an ‘up’ activity is to say…Uh-oh, don’t miss the spaceship!!! Then we count backward from 10 and dive dramatically back into the seats. Would you believe it worked in High School too–who knew? With older crowds that I knew better, I’d just tell them I was about to crawl under my desk and have a nervous breakdown….or become old, withered and bitter. That technique sort of works even in junior college–but they have to like you enough to care 😉 Also, calling any student’s name in opera or ‘rap-style’ is generally so horrifically embarrassing to them that it will stop them in their tracks. Call that the nuclear option? Any ridiculous humor helps because teaching middle, high school, and let’s face it–junior college requires you to care for your sanity…

    1. I love that! Those are definitely fun and creative options for classroom management. That’s interesting that it works even in high-school and college! I guess people love any system that has a gamefied element no matter what their age. With the after-school program, I don’t have much leverage in the way of grades, which makes it difficult to enforce repercussions for their misbehavior. Unfortunately their parents don’t really care about their grades in the program for the most part; they’re just looking for a way to keep their kids out of trouble until they get off work. However, one repercussion that HAS worked well is taking away their cellphones, even if it’s only for a few seconds!

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