Building an Ethic of Caring in the Classroom: The Emotional Elevator

My Post (3)

Series: Part 1//Part 2//Part3

We all ride in the emotional elevator–sometimes daily, other times weekly, and there are a few of us who only tend ride it occasionally, sparingly.

The emotional elevator is a term used to talk about our thoughts’ journey back and forth between the lower (emotional pain and pleasure centers) and upper (cortex, rational thought) parts of our brain. Out of the FOG explains the term “riding the emotional elevator” well and gives some great examples if you want to know more about the concept.

Most of us spend the majority of our lives moving up the emotional elevator (i.e. higher order thinking, rational thought), but at times our elevator can plummet to a lower floor quickly, where we find ourselves reacting out what feels good in the moment, ignoring the long term consequences of an action. While for most adults this is more of an occasional occurrence (with exceptions of course), an adolescent’s emotional elevator is moving between floors regularly and often. Educators can play a unique role in their classrooms during what is truly a volitale for a student during their middle school and high school years.

But honestly, this post is not about students’ emotional elevator journies; it’s about teachers’.

In my last post in the series, I shared briefly my admission to not starting my career is the most caring or gracious teacher. I shared how mindful approaches to interactions with students and colleagues is a key strategy to that helped me overcome much of what I considered a character flaw in myself. Today’s post is to help teachers recognize when they or another colleague is taking the emotional elevator down so practicing mindfulness can be accomplished. It’s also for my teacher leaders and administrators as we seek to lead from the top floor of our emotional elevators.

Larry Senn is considered by some in the business world as a guru on the emotional elevator, which he refers to as the mood elevator. I have never read his book, so I cannot say with certainty it is worth your time or even clarify how well researched his information is (although, for what it is worth, he has been a featured writer for Harvard Business Review).  I bring up Senn because he corroborates what others have voiced about being mindful of our moods and emotions:

“Your thinking determines your moods, creates your own reality and drives your behaviors.” –Dr. Larry Senn

Hence, mindfulness is the key way to combat sliding down too many floors on the elevator. A teacher recognizing their thinking and state of mind is key to staying on the upper floors. A teacher can sink into negative thoughts for a plethora of reasons–a negative interaction with a colleague or administrator, student behavior, home life, unexpected stress, the list goes on. When noticed, a teacher has the agency to limit the effect those thoughts have on their teaching and interactions with others. When unchecked those thoughts lead to irritability, irrational impatience, and excessive judgement and a teacher’s behavior reflects these thoughts and current state of reality. I know. I have been there far too many times in my professional and personal life.

But we all have bad days, right? Right.

Still, the consequences for living in a state of negativity and rationalizing taking the emotional elevator down are the ripple effects it has on those we lead–student or fellow educator. Students feed off not only one another’s energy, but their teacher’s as well. A team of teachers can only be as effective and focused as each teacher stays at higher levels on their emotional elevators. The reality appears to be–based on a few studies produced from 2009 to last year–is production goes down when those leading or working with others stay in a state of a bad mood.  As teachers we cannot expect our students to perform nor effectively work with colleagues when we live in a state of negativity.

So what do we do? How do avoid taking the elevator down regularly or getting stuck on a lower floor? Here’s what I’ve done and have found others say:

  1. Stay Away from the Water Cooler–Where teachers gather for informal talk can be a field of landmines for teachers wishing to avoid negativity. Discussion with colleagues between classes and during breaks can positive and powerful if it’s solution-oriented and encouraging by nature. However, wherever a teacher sees negativity spread on campus, they should avoid it.
  2. Have a Positive Way to Distress–Whether it’s working out, meditating, praying, reading, writing, or building with Legos, having an outlet for stress and a way to point your thoughts in direction you feel you can control is a valuable practice for any human being let alone teacher. (This blog can be, at times, a life saver for me.)
  3. Check Your Shadow–Not your actual shadow, but the metaphorical one a teacher may cast when around others. How others in a teacher’s presence act, speak, and even stand or sit are valuable barometers to realize a teacher may be going down floors on their emotional elevator. When noticed, there is nothing wrong with stepping away from a room or excusing one’s self. We all have to regroup sometimes.
  4. Remember Your Why–This is all about gratitude. A habit to mindfully check for what you are grateful for and what drives you is a a powerful one for a teacher. Personally, I have a quiet time most mornings–a time to start the day with thoughts of gratitude and thankfulness. For other teachers this may be making a list and posting it on a mirror to see daily or even a practice of speaking gratitude aloud with a friend or even therapist (no shame in therapy folks!).

I will say the irony of writing this post is it reads like a self-help guide, which if you asked my wife, is something I tend to loathe. (See, there I go being negative!) But I’ll argue I’m not attempting to give any reader or teacher the keys to a kingdom or a tool to fix anyone. I just want students to have the best possible learning environment they can. They deserve it–they really, really do. If this post helps any teacher rethink their approach to caring in the classroom, then it was worth writing no matter the stereotypes it may convey.

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