Lisa Ziegler-Chamblee--Metzger Fellowship Essay

Choosing a New Response


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose

our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl


As the daughter of two mental health professionals, I thought I would be a social worker. I tend to analyze and over-identify and empathize. But since the emotional needs of my students have escalated in the past few years, I needed some new ways to teach and cope with the turmoil. Over one third of my caseload has had complex trauma (prolonged, severe childhood trauma) and for many others, their lives included less clinically diagnosable forms of pain: a parent in prison, parents struggling with addiction, a severely disabled sibling.

Stressed and unsure, I tried to integrate teaching and waitressing (my prior skill set). When things got difficult, I’d turn to food. “Pretzels?” I’d ask as I walked around with napkins and snack. For awhile I even offered drinks and a choice of snacks, but then I decided I was not really not running a snack bar.

So instead I returned to the social emotional skills. These are obvious trouble spots for students: getting along with teachers and peers, self-discipline and self-regulation. I let my students and events in the classroom determine my curriculum.

In the late fall, it started with his tossing a water bottle. First on the tables, then off the wall, on the windows, hitting Sarah. The other kids in the room were nervous and excited. After a warning, I gently told him to stop. Then, I tried using a time frame: “In 30 seconds, put the water bottle away.” Finally, I was more forceful: “I am going to take it from you” (but knowing I couldn’t). Meanwhile, Matt escalated quickly: singing, dancing, and hurling insults at students.  Some students laughed, others told him to quit. He called one boy ‘retarded.’ He told another she smelled like cigarettes (which was true). I couldn’t let this happen. I felt panicky. I had to protect these kids. I had already called the office – no response.  After a couple minutes, the guidance counselor came up. Matt would not stop. Then, the vice principal arrived. No more success. Three adults and five students in my tiny room. He refused to leave. I was terrified of where this could go: we had to leave. The classroom next door was empty. We filed in, leaving Matt behind.

In our next Learning Center class I was determined to find some positivity and make amends for Tuesday’s drama. Matt had already mumbled an apology to me, but I wanted the students to be involved. I handed out paper plates and covered the table with some blank strips of paper. Students decorated their plates with their names and then took turns gluing positive phrases onto one another’s plates. It was still just the fall, I thought, we could re-set.  Of course, Matt’s plate was filled with vague references to his antagonism, such as “you are funny,” “you are memorable,” and  “you are fearless.”

I chuckled inside, thinking he was in fact, fearless and memorable! But the next few weeks made me realize that using a few Responsive Classroom-inspired lessons would not be enough. He needed more, and so did I.

Matt’s meltdowns were a daily occurrence and it was taking a toll. Would today be an angry explosion? Tears of frustration? Would he bolt? 

The following week, Matt came into the Learning Center for a ‘break’ from his Social Studies class. He crawled under the counter and wrapped his arms around his legs. He was a tiny package of a boy under there looking like he was trying to become invisible.

At the time I had a class of two math students. I paused, walked over and whispered, “What do you need?” He shook his head. He buried his head in his knees and started to sob. I could see his body heaving up and down. I felt an urge to say something profound, something healing, or at least just sit with him. I told myself to move on to the students in front of me.

As I taught, I continued to feel my mind pull me back to him, a yearning to help him, comfort him. But I knew that what he needed most was a safe space.  When he was ready, he would accept help.

I realized most of my fears were in my mind: worrying about what brought him here, what he’d do next, how I could prevent it. I tried to breathe. I looked over. He was still just sitting under the counter. I suddenly felt a flood of compassion for this boy.

I let my body relax and I started to let go of being needed. He got up about five minutes later, didn’t say a word and walked back to his class.

In a later lesson, I again turned to the psychological realm. After having attended a Zones of Regulation conference, I had students categorize and color-code their emotions. While I knew I might be building some emotional awareness, somehow Matt identifying he was in the “red zone” didn’t seem enough. I had to start with myself.

I was anxious every day, pulled emotionally between triage and teaching. While I could plan lessons, I couldn’t execute them effectively. I couldn’t think clearly and I forgot ordinary information. My chest tightened just walking into the building. Driving home from school, I noticed my shoulders up so high I had to consciously relax them down.  Each night when I lay my head down, the pain in my jaw hit me … I had not been aware I had clenched my teeth so much.

I knew this feeling. I would freeze up for years when conflict arose. Matt’s emotional arc reminded me of my father’s. My father carried a lot of tension and would explode over little things – unpredictably. It always felt so personal because he and I were very close. Later, he would draw me to him and apologize, even cry sometimes. I felt responsible for his emotions.

It helped me to notice the parallels from my childhood. But this time, I knew it was not personal. It took Matt’s enormity of emotion for me to work myself out of the picture. Matt’s rage, sadness, and frustration was bigger than any one person and would not be “solved” by me. By realizing this wasn’t about me, paradoxically I was able to be more “there” for him. I had to reconcile my lack of control. It was clear I could not rescue this student. Coming to terms with this felt like a turning point.

I worked to consciously separate myself from my students’ flare-ups of emotion… almost as an onlooker. I could hear the yelling and pounding and sobs as noise instead of an assault. I felt steadier, and I could better attune with students.

But some days, I drove home feeling: I am Matt. A lot of the time I still want to be invisible. I want to escape under the counter too. I want to pound and stomp about the wrongs in education.

I am grateful to Matt - and to all of my students. They remind me of the frailty of the human condition. They push me to look more deeply into my unskillful reactions. For the past few years I have been practicing mindfulness (a kind-hearted, non-judgmental focus on the present moment). The trusting stance of mindfulness attracts me. The idea that we already have everything we need within us; the focus on knowing and accepting oneself. 

As the year advanced, I walked into school, more mindful of my own state. I still noticed the tightness in my chest, but I breathed to ease my mind. I relaxed my shoulders down mid-morning and unclenched my jaw over lunch. I felt more grounded in the face of commotion. With recognition of my own state, I felt an opening, a choice in how I reacted when Matt got upset. I was more relaxed and could find humor in the imperfect moments. 

In mindful-inspired lesson, I guided the class to develop an awareness of situational factors and self-talk. Students wrote positive, encouraging sayings to replace their negative thoughts. To my pleasant surprise, students were engaged. Suddenly, holding one of the slips of paper, Matt stood on his chair and shouted, “I am a F***ing diamond!”  The whole class started to laugh, myself included. I told Matt he was a diamond! He smiled. We put it on the “Positive Messages” board.