Building Compassionate Classrooms
Guest Writer: Jennifer Yoo-Brannon
Writer and educator, Jennifer Yoo-Brannon, shares her thoughts around cultivating classrooms where there is space for the big emotions that inevitably arise during childhood and adolescence. She talks about bringing her experience as a parent into the classroom to help build empathy for her students and reframe her mindset when it comes to addressing emotional outbursts.
I am lying down, belly against the bright rainbow rug of my daughter’s room with my face turned toward the space under the bed.
“I don’t want to go to school!” she screams as she punctuates the word school with a kick in the direction of my face.
This is the 3rd day in a row I’m going to be late for work. In this moment, I have competing desires:
Desire A) Grab that child kicking and screaming, drag her outside and shove her into the carseat and take her to kindergarten (which she loves by the way).
Desire B) Crawl under the bed with her and just cry.
Here’s what I did:
I sat up, I took a couple of deep breaths, counting in my head to four as I inhaled and exhaled for another 4-count. While willing myself to calm down, I couldn’t help thinking of Juan in my 3rd period class.
The day before, I was so excited to see Juan focused and working hard to communicate his ideas to his classmates in the context of a vocabulary game. Then, when I announced that we would be transitioning to a reading activity, he roughly pushed himself away from his desk and said loudly “Why? That sh*t is boring!”
My right eyebrow shot up as I looked at him with my best, “What makes you think you can act this way?!”-look.
I try this look on my daughter too. It doesn’t work.
My daughter does have big feelings and they often explode out of her and I often feel helpless, not knowing what to do except keep her little hands and feet from hurting me or her little sister. Juan does not kick at me in class, but sometimes, I scream inside my head, “How is it that you got to be 15-years-old and this is how you deal with a minor disappointment? This is how you react when you don’t get your way?”
I do not say this aloud. I take a couple of deep breaths. I take my time. I want my students to see that I am taking these breaths. Juan averts his eyes, and sits back with arms crossed. Once I get the rest of the class going with the activity, I ask Juan to step outside to talk to me.
My mind returns to the present moment. After exhaling my 3rd deep breath, I stick my head under the bed to face my daughter. “Maggie, can you tell me what you feel when you think about going to school? Are you nervous about school? Are you angry that you can’t stay home to play?” She interrupts me to scream, “No! I’m lonely!”
I wasn’t expecting that.
“Can you tell me about that feeling? Why are you feeling lonely?” I say this as slowly and calmly as I can, knowing that the clock is ticking and maybe I’ll make it to work before the gate closes on the staff parking lot.
“Do you want to come out and sit with Umma (the Korean word for Mom) and tell me why you’re feeling lonely?”
She does. Slowly, she crawls out to sit in my lap and tells me that her new bestie in her kindergarten class has been absent lately and she feels lonely without her. At that moment, I am just proud that she could identify her feelings and articulate them to me.
Just outside of the classroom door, Juan continued to look away from me as I asked him about what happened. He mumbled, “Sorry, Miss” and tried to head back to his seat. I put myself in his way so he could not go back to his seat just yet.
“I appreciate you saying sorry. Do you want to tell me what you were feeling when you said that?”
He looked at me like I committed a foul on the soccer field. I’m not supposed to ask him about his feelings. I’m supposed to yell at him, send him to the counselor, or send him back to his seat to sit, disengaged, but quiet. Maybe, on another day, I would have done one of those things, but at that moment, I imagined a 5-year-old Juan under his bed, not wanting to go to school.
I want my daughter to develop in such a way that she doesn’t have these kinds of outbursts in class, but I also want to know that (let’s face it, when) she has these kinds of emotional outbursts, she has teachers who will help her manage her feelings with compassion. I want to know that she feels empowered to manage her feelings and find her calm.
This work takes time. It is not convenient. I was late to work, but I am so proud that she made it to school with a plan to talk to another kid she likes to play with. These skills of naming feelings, processing those big emotions, developing a proactive plan– they take time and we need to start early. By we, I mean parents and educators. These are social emotional skills that can be explicitly taught and developed from kindergarten to adulthood. This kind of learning never ends and this kind of learning happens best in communities of care.
Jennifer Yoo-Brannon is an instructional coach in El Monte, California with over 16 years of experience teaching high school and designing and facilitating professional learning. Jennifer is passionate about building collective teacher efficacy through deep reflection, meaningful professional development, and developing social emotional capacities in students and educators. She is a former Edsurge Voices of Change Writing Fellow and has written for Edsurge.com, Edweek, and The California Educator. Follow her @JYooBrannon.