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Teacher Advice: What to Do When You're Angry

Friday, February 19, 2016 by Brian Collier, Ph.D.


If the Church is the people, then obviously the Church gets angry. Even the holiest of among us get angry sometimes.

Take my first boss at a school, Sr. Patrick Marie. She was kind, patient, and saintly in every way. She was quick to laugh and compassionate to a fault, but even she got angry sometimes.

In my early years of teaching, I would regularly get frustrated at many of the little things, and I felt like this was some sort of large-scale shortcoming on my part.

I have to admit, working in a Catholic school was the first time I had ever seen a religious sister angry. When Sr. Patrick got angry, it was usually about things that she couldn’t control: poverty that placed our students in harm’s way, violence locally and globally, irrational bureaucracies that got in the way of her helping our students.

So, naturally, when I became a teacher, I rationalized that when I got angry with students, it was because I was upset in the same manner that Sr. Patrick Marie was. Things were out of my control. But, oh, how wrong I was. In my early years of teaching, I would regularly get frustrated at many of the little things, and I felt like this was some sort of large-scale shortcoming on my part.

I had all of the examples of God’s love that I extolled in my Theology class. But this was different. I would find myself getting angry that all the students crowded around me at the end of class to turn in their papers. Sometimes, I’d find myself angry that the class was too loud. I was angry that Warren’s paper was late, or crumpled, or upside down, or not in cursive and chewed on a bit. Time and again, when I was frustrated, I was angry about circumstances that I hadn’t bothered to try and control.

Still, we want to teach our students that while we all feel anger, it’s how we channel those feelings that really matter.

Regularly, I didn’t have the proper procedures in place for turning in papers and thus created my own source of frustration. Sometimes I didn’t set the expectation for noise levels during a discussion, and the students got excited and shared too vociferously. More importantly, I didn’t think about all the good in the world Warren brought with his smile, his thoughtfulness, and his playful attitude. Or that many of Warren’s actions were a result of circumstances well beyond his own control, and that I could teach him how to do better. He was doing his best given his circumstances.

We all get angry. Jesus got angry because he was in human form—anger is a natural human emotion. Still, we want to teach our students that while we all feel anger, it’s how we channel those feelings that really matter.

Again, I think about Sr. Patrick Marie. When things didn’t go the way she hoped, she didn’t sit on the sidelines, fuming. She took an active role. She spoke out when it mattered, signed her name to petitions, put her passion behind causes, and worked every day to serve students. She did all of this in appropriate ways and in a manner that served as a great example for all of us. This is what we want from our teachers: to remember that they are always teaching.

When we’re angry as teachers we should try these three things:

  1. Pause, breathe, and reflect: Everyone gets angry, even those who you least expect, St. Katharine Drexel, Sr. Patrick Marie, Pope Francis, and every teacher I’ve ever known.

  2. Reflect and ask what it is that WE are doing that is making us angry?

  3. Reflect and ask how might we do things differently so that a new rule or procedure could prevent the unfolding of an emotional situation. How will we change if we find ourselves in a similar situation again?

As teachers it’s our job not just to model good content, but also good skills and behaviors that are content appropriate and life appropriate. Let’s model a time to reflect. Before anger enters, show students how to pause and reconsider, even if it’s for a few seconds. Reacting need not be our next step to anger. Reacting from a mindful standpoint with an educational goal makes us not more human, but more like the teacher we all strive to emulate.

About the Author

Brian Collier, Ph.D.

Brian Collier, Ph.D.

Brian S Collier is currently Director of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network (AICSN) and Faculty for the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to coming to work for ACE Collier was an Assistant Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. Collier's academic work focuses on Native Education, an interest that started when he was a teacher and dorm parent at St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Collier currently has a manuscript on Catholic Native education under review at the University of Nebraska Press. Collier has published on American Indian Running (including a piece about Steve Gachupin and Jemez Pueblo), Native people at Notre Dame, American history, and the Harlem Globetrotters. He is also a founding member and long-time former chair of the Committee on Teaching and Public Education for the Western History Association

Collier holds degrees from Loyola University Chicago (B.A. History with an emphasis in Women's studies, Philosophy, and Theology), Colorado State University (M.A. History with an emphasis in literature of the American West and Environmental History), and Arizona State University (Ph.D. with an emphasis in American Indian History, the American West, Gender History, and Education). Collier regularly teaches undergraduate courses on the History of Education in America, American Indian History, American Indian Education, and a new course entitled: God, Country, and Notre Dame - The Story of America told through one Catholic University. Collier teaches graduate courses with the Alliance for Catholic Education that include: Curriculum and Instruction, Active Teaching Methods, Assessment, Educational Psychology, and a History of Education course that is inclusive of race, class, and gender dynamics in schools.