Picture the scene. It’s Monday afternoon, about 5.15 pm. I can hear the distant shrieks of my 8 year-old Young Learners about to enter the building. They know, because they have been told on MANY separate occasions, that there are lessons going on around them as they come in, so it’s definitely NOT OK to scream “I can smell your fart from here” (true story) as they charge up the stairs to the classroom. It’s now 5.17 pm. Those two minutes have felt like an eternity. You still have 53 minutes left until you can raggedly open the classroom door again and release your learners into the wild.
I don’t know about you, but I am seriously struggling with patience at the moment. Maybe it’s that time of the school year where things are starting to wind down, albeit very slowly, and the students are feeling it too. Everyone’s decided sub-consciously to take their foot off the gas a bit. And that’s fine, but when the scenario I’ve just outlined occurs twice a week, every week, and has done since September, and there are just some days where you don’t have the energy, well… it could go one of two ways. Option one, which in my honest opinion seems the easiest at the time, is to forget all your teacher training, lose the plot, shout, give more homework, ring the kids’ parents, and then feel rubbish about having done all of the above. In wasting your time and energy doing these things, not only do you feel that you’ve let down both yourself and your students, but you’ve also probably lost their respect. Option two is to breathe. It sounds simple. It sounds patronising. It sounds too good to be true. But bear with me…
Before I expand on the Monday afternoon scenario, I feel I have to give you some background info: I used to think that mindfulness, breathing, and anything under that umbrella was wishy washy and a bunch of buzzwords. Depending on how cynical I’m feeling on a given day, I might still think that. But actually this SAVED me a couple of weeks ago. I’d been having a rough time, as many of us have had during this seemingly unending pandemic, and I could just about muster the energy to give a class to C1 adults. C1 adults don’t need to be told not to shriek. C1 adults don’t need to be told to remove writing implements from their nostrils. The Young Learners who were farting their way up the stairs to me later that afternoon DO need reminding how to behave appropriately. And as any Young Learner teacher, parent, carer or mainstream educator will tell you, that can be pretty taxing. It takes a toll when you’ve been doing it consistently over an extended period of time.
Back to Monday afternoon. It’s 5.18 pm and my class has decided that one of the boy’s masks makes his entire face look like a bottom. How they reached that conclusion is beyond me. The boy in question thinks this is hilarious, and is now making fart noises (you’ll notice that this is a recurring theme) for effect. His classmates take this as an invitation to form an impromptu fart orchestra. By 5.20 pm, nobody’s books are open ready to check homework, no-one’s even taken their coat off and asked me to put it on the peg for them. In fact, the only indication that we are in a classroom setting is the physical setting. Without it, we could easily be in a playground. They are shouting, making fart noises, chastising each other for doing so, then doing it again themselves… and I feel totally powerless. I feel I’ve been defeated by a bunch of 9 year-olds. Time to snap out of this slump. 5.21 pm: I count down from 5 on my fingers, the signal my learners know will indicate that they need to be quiet by the time I close my fist. Thankfully, this works and there is silence.
What I did next, I’ll admit, was more for my benefit at the time than for my learners’. “We’re going to breathe. We can’t speak. We can’t make any noise. We need to close our eyes and breathe.” My learners look bewildered. I am a bit, too. But I’ve started, so I have to see it through now. “Why?”, asks Bottom-Face-Mask. I take a deep breath. “You’re being too loud,” I say, “And we can’t continue the class like this.” His face falls. I shrug, and repeat my instructions. I’m hit by a barrage of questions: how long do we have to be quiet for? Have we got a test? Are we checking homework? Why are you wearing jeans?
I count down on my fingers again. I put my finger on my lips and my learners do the same. I show them what I mean by “breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly, sit up straight and close your eyes”. We try it, and I take a peek to see if they’re really doing it. I can’t believe my eyes. They’re quiet. They’ve got their eyes closed. There’s some fidgeting, but it’s not distracting. They’re breathing in and out nice and slowly. They’re sitting up straight. How long can I keep this going for? I’ll tell you how long: 3 minutes. And it was awesome. When I told them to open their eyes, I asked them how they felt: calm and a bit sleepy were the most common answers. I told them that the calm they were feeling now needed to last for the whole lesson. It did. And it saved my sanity that day.
It’s now a part of the class routine: a one-minute “Breathe Break” at the start of each lesson. Does everybody like it? No. Is one Breathe Break always enough? No. There are days where they’re so hyped up on sugar from their after-school snacks that we need a Breathe Break every 10 minutes, so admittedly, it can eat into class time a bit. But to be honest, I don’t think it matters. What matters is that they make the effort to calm down. And that is worth way more than anything else I’ll have taught them.
Part of me felt a bit ashamed of needing Breathe Breaks. Surely that’s a sign that I’ve lost control, I told myself for about a week after my experiment. My mum, in all her supportive wisdom, convinced me otherwise: “You’re setting them up for life”. So maybe the school year will end and my students will still call their folder a carpet (carpeta is the Spanish word for folder, for any non-Spanish-speaking readers out there). But if they’ve learned that they can sit still for a minute, breathe properly and feel good about it afterwards, then I think I’ve done my job.