One of my senior students waltzed in my door during my prep hour for a meeting that we had scheduled to work on some scholarship applications. “Hello, Ms. Cranky,” she said, smiling, and plunking her books down on a desk. “I hate it when you’re cranky. It makes me feel tense.”
Ah, yes. I deserved that. That particular day, I had been forced to regroup my morning senior class several times after they had erupted into various disruptions. The yelling across the room, petty remarks, and general sense of simply NOT PAYING ATTENTION had been building in a steady crescendo over the previous two weeks. Day after day, I became increasing irritated by their notorious line-walking, their immaturity, and their resistant attitudes. I began to get frustrated with myself. What was I doing wrong? The same class who was peacefully co-existing with me for weeks was suddenly reverting back to the way they had behaved the very first time I met them. Where did I fall off of the classroom management wagon? In an effort to reclaim my territory, I just started snapping at any student who put a toe out of line.
However, it didn’t seem to be doing much good. And now I was “Ms. Cranky” on top of it. To hear my student’s reaction caught me off guard. I mean, I knew that I was cranky. But I had no idea how evident it was, nor how much it was affecting the mood of one of my best students. That night, discouraged, I flopped in front of the TV to indulge in a guilty pleasure–The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel.
Now, if you are a dog lover, as I happen to be, The Dog Whisperer is one of the greatest shows ever. Cesar Millan, trainer and dog psychologist du jour, works with animals and owners to create behavior changes (both in the dog and the human) that correct damaging habits that range from aggression to barking to fear to anxiety. While Cesar’s touch seems to be magical, it really comes from a very small set of simple concepts. Number one is that the human must be a pack leader. And this leader must demonstrate calm, assertive energy at all times. If the pack leader becomes fearful, tense, or anxious, that behavior will trickle down to the other members of the pack, making them erratic. Or, worse, the dog may see weakness in the owner and try to take over as pack leader! That makes perfect sense, I thought to myself, I know that my emotions are definitely influenced by those around me.
DING. A lightbulb went on in my brain. Calm, assertive energy. Even animals recognize this as leadership, and people certainly look for it. I started to envision myself in front of my class, shoulderblades clenched, just waiting for what I believed to be an inevitable outburst. I was tense, on-edge, shaky. Definitely not very assertive, and surely not calm. Just as Cesar accuses dog owners of “creating” their companion’s bad behavior, I started to question whether I, too, was in part creating the bad behavior of the morning class. So a plan started forming in my mind. Ok, I told myself, Tomorrow, we will test out Cesar’s theory with people. Seems to work with dogs. Why not try it? With that in mind, I set out to purposely project an attitude of calm, yet assertive energy. If it was to work like it did on the show, my students would become calm when I was calm. (Of course, this seemed a little, well, crackpot. But what was there to lose? At least I wouldn’t be called “Ms. Cranky.”) I opened day one of C.A.E. with a deep, slow breath, a small smile, and the simple words, “Welcome back. I’m glad to see you guys. Let’s get started.”
Believe it or not, this simple, conscious change in my voice, body language, and attitude throughout the hour made a GIGANTIC difference. Seriously, it was a very visible change. I was blown away by how much more calm, pleasant, and open my students instantly became. It was kind of ridiculous how well it worked! It’s been about a week and we’re still going strong. I am now making a renewed effort to be more aware of what type of “energy” I am projecting when I teach. A very calm, happy person by nature, I am gifted with a natural talent for leading groups of people with a gentle authority. However, if I let negative emotions of anxiety, fear, or frustration to corrode that natural zen, I have nothing. I do love what I do, and I want my kids to see that. A person who loves her job is not on the verge of screaming or pulling her own hair. A person who loves her job is in control, with that small smile lurking on her face, saying, “Wait ’til you see what I’ve got for you today.”
Take it from me, and from Cesar. Half of being a leader is showing a calm, assertive energy at absolutely all times. It’s great psychological advice for puppies, for people, and likely many other species.