Defeating Defensiveness: A Teacher’s Guide to Tearing Down Walls

You’ve got a phone call with an angry parent in two hours and already your mind is racing with reasonings and potential rebuttals, stress levels rising to the point you are rushing through your classes to get this over with. You’re dwelling on a recent observation that felt unfair, questioning the competency of the supervisor who reviewed you. You feel like you’re under a microscope in every aspect of your job and in spite of the fact you are good at what you do and love teaching, the tension you experience from being scrutinized and undervalued is impacting your health.

Every day we encounter multiple opportunities to become defensive, and our work life represents only a fraction of them. If we feel the need to protect ourselves at home or work, we are likely limiting the contact we make with others, either because our instinct or our reasoning tells us we are in need of protection. Educators in particular feel a greater need to protect themselves from angry parents, unsupportive administrators and blaming students, but what does this experience do to us?

Though we may not realize it, retreating into a defensive posture has some big downsides. It costs us. Our blood pressure rises, we don’t digest food as well, we jeopardize closeness with others and can even put out a vibe that turns off students and colleagues.

Much of the time, our instincts and reasoning prematurely insulate us from others, interfering with how we take in and share with others. In other words, what we say and what we hear becomes filtered, which can be quite limiting in an educational setting. Consider the Social Studies teachers won’t bring up politics in class, on guard for angry parent letters. Not only can this influence what we teach and how we teach, it can also set the example for students valuing safety over constructive risk taking.

We protect ourselves because we feel threatened. Sometimes the threat is real, sometimes it’s perceived, and sometimes it’s a perceived threat that becomes real due to the way we protect ourselves. But what about our filtration system protects us from harm that isn’t real? What about our method of protection actually helps or harms us?

Digging deeper, we protect ourselves because we sense or believe a need (safety, control, freedom, belonging, fun, intimacy etc.) is in jeopardy. Some needs are more sensitive than others based on early and recent life experiences. If we always felt controlled as a child, it’s more likely our radar will detect a threat to this need as an adult.

Whether it’s an actual threat, such as somebody demeaning us, or a perceived threat it makes a difference because we want to raise our awareness of when there is no actual harm intended. The more we can reduce over reaction to perceived threats, the more we can respond intentionally and constructively.

Be aware of the physical signs that your wall is about to be raised. The greater your awareness the more choice you have to be intentional over instinctual.

Understand the form that your defensiveness takes, such as becoming quiet, intellectual, blaming or other tactic intended to shield you. People will respond differently to your approach based on their own ‘stuff.’

Remember that others may not recognize your sensitivity in that moment because they are focused on their own needs, leading us to be less empathic and more guarded.

Anticipate how your protection may impact the other person and whether this dynamic will impede reconciliation. If you are quiet and pensive and they feel abandoned, the problem could get worse.
Breathe. Relax your muscles. Our bodies aren’t good at distinguish between different types of threats, so take some time to explore all the data.

Don’t assume that the other person means you harm, and don’t anticipate the worst- case scenario. Though you may not like how others are acting, they are trying to care for their own needs, too. Incentivize yourself to evolve into a more secure person but raising your tolerance for distress.

Following these guidelines can help you become more open to others, navigate conflicts more constructively, and learn more about yourself. Becoming less defensive (protective) is perhaps the single most important lesson for growing intimacy in our lives.

If you feel ambitious, see if you can identify one of the seven factors outlined above and decide which fits best for you. If you are feeling safe, see how this compares with how others see you. When you are ready, challenge yourself to experiment with implementing one of these ideas to see how it feels. Remember to measure success by your efforts, not just outcomes.

This article is written by Jared Scherz, Ph.D., M.Ed. and CEO, of TeacherCoach a professional and personal teacher health site.

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