Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: March 2012


Who’s murdering learning in your school?tombstone image

Today I’d like to talk about murder.

Unfortunately, there are many murders I could talk about. The on
es in Afghanistan. The ones in Toulouse. The one in Sanford, Florida. But the murder I’m going to focus on here is the emotional and intellectual murder that can happen in any classroom. It’s the murder of what I call the “Third.”

Here’s an example of the “Third”: Teacher asks students what they know about Trayvon Martin’s death. Students throw out information, impressions, opinions. “It was a hate crime!” “There was nothing racist about it.” “I don’t get what the big deal is.” “I can’t believe something like this could happen.” “I thought racism was dead.” Teacher listens to each statement, discouraging baldly disparaging comments but allowing disagreement among the students. Teacher eventually creates two columns on the board: “It was racist” and “It was self-defense.” Teacher asks students to offer evidence to support either or both of these positions, challenging (but not requiring) those students who are most vehement on one side or the other to offer at least one thought in support of the opposite perspective. Teacher questions students’ evidence, alert to the students’ own conscious or unconscious biases, aware that airing inaccurate thoughts and discussing them respectfully, without debilitating shame, is prerequisite to changing them. Teacher brings discussion to a close with “Wow, what a lively discussion! I’ve really enjoyed trying to make sense of this disturbing event with all of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, too.”

Here’s how to murder the “Third”: Clamp down on discussion. Control what students get to say by dismissing comments that make you uncomfortable. Insist on one perspective or the other. Invite discussion but ridicule students who disagree with you. Discourage students from saying anything controversial. Move on to math when the discussion gets too heated.

So what’s the “Third”? To put it very simply, it’s the “third reality” that emerges when two (or more) people combine their thinking in a playful way that allows for creativity and discovery. It’s a reality, or a way of thinking, or a glimpse of the world that no one person possesses because it is dependent on both (or all) of them, on what they come up with together that neither (or none) could have come up with alone. The “Third” is present when a parent stops and listens to a child’s complaint then negotiates a resolution that works for himself and the child. It is present when management decides that its workers’ demands make a lot of sense and can be considered without threat – and when the workers recognize the legitimate concerns that constrain management. It is present when I stop blaming you and get honest about me. It is present in a good classroom discussion about a genuine question that not even the teacher knows the answer to.

And why is the “Third” important? Because the Third is where people get to stretch and grow, where they get to try themselves out, bump up against others, and experiment with alternatives. Another word for the Third is “potential space,” or the space in which potential can be played with. Even in this age of standardized tests, best practices, scripted curricula, and packaged knowledge, children (and teachers, for that matter) still need to grow up. They still need to become wiser, kinder, better regulated, more confident, more creative, more empathic. Where do they become all these things? In potential space. In the presence of the Third.

In short, the Third happens when people get to “show up” to each other trusting that their experience, their right to exist, will not be denied. This is easier said than done, of course. For a teacher, it requires courage, confidence in one’s own authority, and trust in one’s ability to “hold the line,” to contain one’s own emotions and thereby provide containment for others’. A sense of humor helps. The ability to detach and maintain calm perspective helps. As does, I think, a capacity for joy.

Unfortunately, it is much much easier to murder the Third than to foster it. All one needs is a wee bit of anxiety. Because it is anxiety – insecurity, uncertainty, fear – that makes it impossible to stand calmly and confidently in the presence of another. It is anxiety that makes us murder, whether our victim is a student’s opinion or another human being.









What is this all about?

TTE first blog image

Working through emotions makes teaching much more effective.

“Teaching through emotions” refers to two truths about teaching:

  • that teaching necessarily involves emotions, and my emotions are going to affect what I do and say and think in the classroom (and outside of it)


  • that effective teaching requires me to work through my emotions so I can engage in straightforward relationships that help students learn.

I won’t say much about the first truth, as I think it’s pretty self-evident to most teachers. Suffice it to say that when I yell at a student or dread going to class or want to write “What’s wrong with you?!!!” on a student paper, I’m “teaching through emotions.” My emotions are affecting what I do, say, and think as a teacher.

That is, I “teach through emotions” the way I see through a scrim or a veil or a filter or a lens.

The second truth means that, in order to sharpen what I can see through the scrim of my emotions, in order to straighten potentially crooked relationships, I have to work through my emotions. I have to acknowledge them, work to understand them, and make plans based on my understanding. In “teaching through emotions,” I actually use my emotions to make my teaching more attuned and effective.

This blog takes the first truth for granted. It also takes the second truth for granted, but I don’t assume all teachers know or understand the second truth. So I’m devoting my blog to illustrating and explicating and ruminating on the second truth, as I believe it is absolutely crucial to good teaching. And, as far as I can tell, it’s utterly neglected in the field of education today.

Here’s an emotion that some teachers feel but that most would like to deny: hatred. I remember, some months ago, reading about a teacher who posted on facebook her wish that one of her students would drown. Anybody remember that? I think it’s fair to say that this teacher probably “hated” that student. She made a terrible mistake in posting such a heinous thought online – in fact, in my opinion teachers should post NO personal thoughts about their students online – but her hatred for the student was not in and of itself a crime. The crime derived from the teacher’s failure to work through the hatred. Not working through the hatred allowed the feeling to fester and eventually to burst out in a totally horrifying post.

But doesn’t working through a feeling like hatred just make it worse? Isn’t it better just to pretend the feeling doesn’t exist?


Here’s the deal with emotions: they are extremely accurate data. (They can also be very distorting, the way a scrim can blur the view.) If handled properly, emotions can tell us a lot about what is happening in a relationship. More specifically, they can tell us what is happening inside us (that’s pretty obvious) and (this is less obvious) what may be happening inside someone else. Discerning this information and acting on what we learn can lead to a miraculous and instantaneous shift in the relationship. And, when a teacher hates a student, a shift in the relationship is, to put it mildly, extremely desirable.

What might a teacher discover if she were to work through her hatred of a particular student? It’s quite possible that the teacher would realize that she actually fears the student. She might discover that she sees in the student parts of herself that she despises and can’t abide in others. She might believe the student hates her. In this case, the best defense is a good offense. The hatred could mean many other things. What those things are would have to come out in the teacher’s honest exploration of what her hatred of this particular student meant to her.

That’s why I call it “working through.” There’s no formula. There’s no easy translation, like THIS EMOTION = THAT MEANING. The meanings that emotions carry are personal. They’re peculiar to each individual. Figuring out what the emotion means is essential if a teacher is going to be able to use the emotion to effect a shift in her relationship with the student.

So what if the teacher who wanted her student to drown had worked through her feeling of hatred? Of course, I can’t say what the hatred meant about that particular teacher’s relationship with that particular student. But I absolutely guarantee that the hatred meant something. And I guarantee that, if the teacher had been able to figure out what the hatred meant, at least three things would have happened:

1)   She would have felt relief from the hatred. It would have gone away or changed into another, more fundamental (and useful) feeling.

2)   She would have had a clearer view of what was going wrong in her relationship with the student.

3)   She could have come up with a plan of action – a way of treating her student, of relating to her – that would have shifted their relationship in a positive direction.

And here’s what would not have happened: She would never have made that facebook post.

Important fact: “Working through” is best done with someone else. It’s really difficult, if not impossible, to do this work alone. Why? Because all of us have blind spots, or things we simply cannot see about ourselves and the ways we behave in relationships. It’s complicated, but the bottom line is that what we can know is based on what we perceive, and what we perceive is inescapably influenced by what we feel. (This means that our cognitions are intimately entwined with our emotions – that thinking and feeling are flip sides of the same coin.) (This means, in turn, that teaching and learning, insofar as they are about cognitions, are also necessarily about emotions.)

Another way of putting this is that what we know is subjective and therefore limited and partial. Examining our experiences with the aid of someone else can help us flesh out those experiences and gain richer perspective on them.

So finding someone who can help us see what we cannot see, someone who can illuminate our blind spots for us, is crucial in doing emotion work, or “teaching through emotions.” I believe wholeheartedly that teachers need these types of people and this type of support. This is a third truth about teaching that this blog takes for granted: that teachers need places to go where they can be supported emotionally and where they can work through their emotions about teaching towards productive, even miraculous, ends. I’ll write more about this crucial truth in future posts.