Before I taught middle and high school science, I was an emergency medical technician (EMT) in a busy Emergency Department (ED) outside of Chicago. Over my decade-and-a-half career, I cared for thousands of people in medical and psychological crises. When I transitioned to the classroom, many of my skills transferred over. These are my top four takeaways from the ED that I use in my secondary science classroom.
The word “triage” sounds scary and stressful, but it is from a French word meaning “to sort” or “to separate out.”
In the ED, I had a list in my pocket of things to do to care for patients and provide supplies for the medical teams. I continually sorted and prioritized, so I met the most critical needs first. As a classroom teacher, I have a similar running list of things to do to meet the needs of the 29 students in front of me. Being able to multitask, prioritize, and sort through needs helps me “triage” my students and get them what they need, whether it’s a pencil, their Chromebook login, or a refresher on the difference between a prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell. And when I’m not in front of kids, I continue to triage tasks like sorting and uploading data in spreadsheets and responding to emails.
Telling someone to calm down will get a shoe thrown at your head.
People in crisis will never calm down on command. Their amygdala is running the brain show, and the only way to get that frontal lobe back in charge is to project calm control and stay steady. Responding to an escalated person—child, teen, adult—at their same emotional level ramps up the energy in the interaction and causes further escalation. Approaching an escalated person below their excitement level helps them settle to match your level. Making non-threatening eye contact, modulating voice tone, and listening to hear and not respond are the first steps to de-escalating an upset person. Most times, folx in crisis need to feel seen and heard.
Sit down next to someone to have an uncomfortable or heavy conversation.
A person lying in a hospital bed and wearing an awkward hospital gown already feels vulnerable. A student decades younger than you or a parent with negative school experiences may already feel intimidated. As the person with the power in the room, sit next to your patient, family member, or student. Physically get down to their level by sitting, modulating your voice, and making non-threatening eye contact if you have to have a serious conversation.
Hangry people often cannot cooperate.
In the ED, I learned that my patients in psychological crises were often less distressed after they had a sandwich and a chance to wash their hands or face. An upset family member was calmed by a warm cup of coffee, even if they just held it while they waited. Similarly, teachers know that Maslow comes before Bloom. A student who missed breakfast or lunch might have a hard time curbing challenging behaviors. A granola bar or banana can often help a student get ready to participate in learning. Even for myself as a teacher, ensuring I am eating a good breakfast or lunch and staying hydrated is how I can make sure I am ready to participate in learning too.
In the Emergency Department, prioritizing the greatest needs, modeling the calm needed to engage with people in crisis, and seeing and hearing the person behind the chaos helped me help patients and families. Applying these strategies in my classroom has maximized learning time and ensured all the humans in our room have a respectful and meaningful experience, myself included.