05 October 2023
Sylwia Międzybrodzka: There are very simple methods to stop school from being a place associated with stress
An interview with Sylwia Międzybrodzka, a school teacher, certified trainer, coach, mentor, and certified Positive Discipline educator.
Do you like this profession?
Yes. I consider it one of the most beautiful in the world, after all.
It is enough to visit any educational industry website to read about the problems of teachers and the problems of education. But I don’t want to focus on them. I prefer to highlight what is beautiful in this profession.
And what is beautiful?
I work with young people who will soon decide the future – not only their own but that of entire communities. By teaching them good patterns and values, I make a contribution to making the world change for the better. This is how I see the mission of a teacher and the beauty of this profession. It’s about a better future.
Is a better future even possible?
I believe it is. Besides, if we don’t believe in a better future, we won’t be able to create it. I’m a positivist, I’m involved in the Positive Discipline method – I use it in my pedagogical work, but I also provide training from it – and it points out the key role of values such as optimism, a sense of belonging, respect for others, and oneself. Positive Discipline gives us a total of 52 specific tools that are excellent for everyday school work. We introduce them primarily with the students in mind, but we teachers also become their beneficiaries.
In what way?
Let me give a particular example. One of these tools is a “notebook of class issues” (these can also be slips of paper placed on the board or put in a box). Students write in them their concerns, thoughts, and problems related to learning or functioning of the class community. This is usually a description of class conflicts, dilemmas, and problems. Unless these are issues that require urgent intervention – because, for example, the safety of one of the students is at risk – these write-ins await a class meeting (this is another tool of Positive Discipline: a meeting of students and teacher/educator that resembles a parenting hour). It’s very therapeutic for students: just describing the situation makes the tension go away. Besides, young people feel noticed, listened to, and taken seriously. As for the teachers – it releases at least part of the break for us. I have noticed this in my example. If a student comes up to me and starts talking about a situation, I say, “We need to lean on these at a class meeting in two or three days. Please write about it in the class issues notebook.” The student feels treated with respect and noticed, and I can use at least part of the break to have a drink or use the restroom – without remorse that I ignored someone.
And another example?
I also really like a tool we call “positive time-out.” We isolate a place in the classroom where each student can quietly take a deeper breath when emotions get too high. No one is bothering him there or judging him for being there. He can calm down. This builds acceptance that we have the right to feel differently. Children learn to notice, recognize, and name their own emotions and needs. Sometimes, we mature this skill throughout our adult lives, under different circumstances and with different difficulties – meanwhile, this should already be taught in school. Especially in today’s world, with the challenges that young people face and will continue to face, and with depression among children and adolescents has become such a common problem. To me, a “positive time-out” also helps to watch over the mental state of my students. If I see a person using a “positive time-out” for a few days, this is a signal to me that perhaps there is something troubling going on with that person, and I should react to it, possibly on a crisis intervention basis. Sometimes, the student will want to accept my help, sometimes not, but it is always worth sending a message: “I see you, I care about you, and I’m ready to help you if you feel ready.” This builds trust.
And trust seems to be in short supply at school.
For me, trust is the very foundation of education; there is no school without trust. There is no relationship in the classroom without a sense that we can trust each other. It puzzles me what you said. Why do you think so?
Because a hierarchical Prussian school is associated with authority, not trust.
Unfortunately, the school is still based on the Prussian system. But also in recent years, despite everything, there are more and more grassroots, innovative initiatives, so the teaching model is slowly being transformed. Of course, not all male and female teachers are equally involved. But I also think that in every school, there will be such teachers – or, more broadly, school employees – to whom every student can come and confide. I hope so. And these are my observations. The teacher is often the person who is the first to notice that something wrong is happening to a student. Or to whom the young person turns to talk about his problems. I once had a student who was bullied by his dad. His friend persuaded him to ask me for help. There was mediation, a court case, and various steps that eventually led to the improvement of this boy’s situation. He told me later: “If I hadn’t talked to you then, things would have turned out differently.” He was very grateful.
What is most important in this work?
To see in the other person – the human being.
Various methods and tools can help with this. I talked about Positive Discipline, but I also use tools from Nonviolent Agreement or neurodidactic methods.
At the English Teaching Market, where we met for the first time, you also led a workshop on stress among students and ways to help them.
Research confirms that stress can have such a paralyzing effect that students simply don’t absorb knowledge. Not to mention the impact of stress on mental and physical health. Meanwhile, students (and teachers, too) can use very simple methods – such as short breathing exercises or discreet self-massage – to quickly lower cortisol levels. Of course, when shown to teenagers, their faces express skepticism – well, at that age, it’s normal. On the other hand, if we share with them tricks for stress relief – like massaging themselves on the auricle, the butterfly touch, i.e., gently slapping themselves on the chest, and others – they benefit from them and are grateful for it.
Stress is a big problem among young people today?
And among adults, it isn’t? We live in a fast-changing world, which makes more and more demands on us, and we feel pressure, often unnecessarily. That’s why in my work, I use various tools from coaching, such as changing perspective. Let me give you an example: during a break, a student approached me, stressed and tense. She asked to talk to me, saying that “only I can help her.” It turned out she had failed her driving license exam, had a second date set, and was so nervous about it that she had gotten stomach problems. Viewed from the side, this may seem insignificant, ridiculous – but for this young person, in this particular situation, this is unimaginable stress that she can’t control. So, I asked her a simple question.
And if you don’t pass again – what’s the worst that could happen?
What was her answer?
She took a moment to think about it and said that, actually, no big deal would happen; she would just sign up for another date. And she thanked me, claiming I helped her a lot. And yet, it was a very short conversation and a very simple tool. But someone has to show these tools to young people. Someone has to be willing and able to help them. That someone should be a teacher.