There are no tigers in a blackboard jungle

Inadvertently, No Child Left Behind has resulted in teachers more stressed-out than ever. This is where practicing mindful awareness can make all the difference.

The classroom is a set-up for the stress response. I’m trying to get through this lesson so my kids will do well on the standardized tests and I’ll be able to keep my job. But my students aren’t paying attention and don’t care a hoot about this test.

After all, the results don’t affect them, only me. I feel a knot in my stomach, my legs feel restless and my heart pounds louder than usual. I notice that my eyes tend to dart around, looking for the most efficient way around whatever I have to do. The one thing that causes me the most trouble is my voice. It takes on an edge and I have the tendency to sound harsher than I’d like to.

This is the fight, flight, freeze (FFF) response starting to flood my body with neurotransmitters and hormones. It’s an adaptive function that has gotten the human animal where we are today, but it also can become maladaptive if there’s a mismatch between the situation and the response. The FFF response is designed to help us respond to actual physical danger such as a sabertoothed tiger—it’s not appropriate for a class of rowdy kids. However, among human beings, our minds get the best of us and we respond the same way when there’s emotional threat—a threat to our sense of self, a threat to our fixed sense of who we are and who we are supposed to be.

If I know the feelings that signal this response, I can stop for a moment, take a breath and calm down.  When the FFF is in high gear, the parts of my brain that allow me to keep an open mind, consider a myriad of options, and to inhibit my reactive tendencies can go off line. Another part of the brain, the limbic system, sometimes called the “reptilian” or primitive brain is in charge, because in the case of real physical danger, we don’t have time to consider options.

If we notice how we feel, pause, and take a breath, it gives us the time and ability to reappraise the situation. I can see my students in a different light and take their behavior less personally. They’re just kids, after all. It’s near the end of the school year, some of them are excited about the birthday party this afternoon. No wonder they don’t care about the test. If I respond from the FFF, I trigger the FFF in my students—which does nothing to help them get back on task. If, instead, I use my mindful awareness to calm myself and to focus my attention, I can access the creativity and motivation to work around the distractions and help my students stay on task.

To have the skill to notice the feelings associated with the FFF response takes practice. Practicing mindful awareness activities such as the body scan can help. By scanning the body and noticing tension or other sensations helps us learn to pay attention to the subtle cues our body can give us when the FFF is just starting. In this way, we can maintain a calm presence that can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically reacting.