Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: April 2012

The Not-Knowing Stance

owl imageI wrote recently about how painful it can be to admit that I don’t know. In spite of that, I highly recommend not knowing.

Here’s why, in a nutshell: because, first, it can give me valuable information about other people and, second, it can open up space in which accurate knowing can emerge.

I’m going to share an amazing secret about emotions that pschoanalysts have known for years: Emotions are contagious. People share them, implanting their own feelings in others, communicating with remarkable precision through actions that trigger in others the emotions they are feeling themselves.

My son taught me this lesson many years ago, when he was four years old.

I had been away for a few days, and he was angry at me for having left him. But he was four, so he was incapable of telling me in words. Instead, he told me through his actions: He dropped a paper towel on the floor and, when I asked him to pick it up, he refused. He hemmed, he hawed, he protested that he couldn’t. He stood right next to the paper towel and looked at it, but he didn’t stoop down to pick it up.

I became incredibly frustrated and angry. I yelled; I expressed my absolute disbelief that he would refuse to do something so simple; I banished him to his room for a time-out. I did not know why he was behaving this way, and my not-knowing was unbearable. So I treated him as if I did know why he was behaving this way: He was being bad and needed remediation. End of story.

Fortunately, I took advantage of my son’s time-out to give myself a chance to sit with my anger and confusion. By acknowledging these feelings and allowing the possibility that they were contagious — that is, that my son was feeling them also — I arrived at a working hypothesis for why he was behaving in such a pointedly frustrating way: He was making me feel and express his anger and confusion for him. Brilliantly. Knowing this allowed me to throw the paper towel away myself and spend some time with him, acknowledging the very valid reasons for his anger at me and confusion about my absences (He missed me! I had abandoned him! Was it his fault?) and assuring him that I loved him and would always come back.

What does this have to do with teaching? Insofar as not knowing can carry a lot of anxiety with it, a parent or teacher can naturally respond to not knowing by taking somewhat draconian control of it. Anxious teachers can turn not knowing into knowing that an offending student is just being bad and needs to be punished. Taking the not-knowing stance means stepping back from the urge to control or punish, paying close attention to one’s own disturbing feelings, and wondering if those feelings are contagious.

If the disturbing feelings might be contagious, then the teacher can wonder why the offending student might be having such negative emotions. Figuring out the possible sources of a student’s feelings of anger or anxiety or frustration or helplessness (and, clearly, there are many possible sources, both in school and out) can suggest ways to change things around so the student can relax and open up to academic learning. Not knowing, then, can be a very effective way to teach. But it’s not necessarily easy, as it depends on acknowledging and welcoming negative feelings that most of us would rather banish.

The not-knowing stance also depends on understanding that, when a teacher can say “I don’t know” confidently, she opens up space in which others can know. If, when I’m tempted to panic because I don’t know, I can quiet myself, ask relevant questions, and listen to the answers – that is, if I can take the not-knowing stance – I begin to learn. I learn about what others know, which can be quite a lot. I learn about how they know: how they pattern their understanding, what their assumptions are, what their blind spots are. When it seems helpful, I can contribute an interpretation or a way of organizing what I’ve heard, an image or metaphor that has occurred to me that might extend our thinking. Not knowing, in other words, dedicated not knowing, can open up space for play and creativity.

I highly recommend play and creativity, too.



I Don’t Know

Cartoon-Clipart-Free-23Is it OK for teachers to say, “I don’t know”?

Recently, I was talking with a teacher about a disturbing incident in her classroom. My role was to help her figure out what had happened so she could go back in there and avoid a repeat. She didn’t know what to do; she was feeling terrible; and my job was to help her.

And I didn’t know what to say.

I didn’t know!

I felt a twinge of panic. Here I was, someone who was ostensibly capable of “working through” teachers’ and students’ feelings and actions, and I did not know what to tell this teacher. I was a sham, a disappointment. The teacher would judge me. I would be laughed out of the school in derision. How could I ever hold my head up as a professional — or a person — again?

This was an extremely difficult moment for me. It was also quite familiar. I have felt it often as a therapist, and I have felt it often as a teacher and as a supervisor of teachers.

When I feel as though I don’t know (when I should) or I didn’t say the right thing or I said the totally wrong thing, I can feel intensely vulnerable. This feeling comes, in part, from life experiences that taught me it was not OK to be wrong. What I’ve learned to expect is that, if I make a mistake, I’ll be jumped on or ridiculed or put down.

I’ve also internalized a particular model of education, which claims that learning happens when a knower (the teacher) gives the not-knower (the student) necessary information. The teacher is supposed to know what to tell the student, and the student packs that knowledge away and becomes smarter. This is called the “conduit metaphor” or the “banking” approach to learning. It makes the teacher wholly responsible for filling the void called the student. And, as NCLB makes so ridiculously explicit, the stakes are high for the teacher (and school) who fails.

So part of my insecurity about not knowing comes from my life experiences. Part of it comes from cultural and political norms and expectations. Wherever it comes from, it is wholly unpleasant. And, like everybody who wants to avoid unpleasant feelings, realizing I don’t know can lead me to do unfortunate things:

I can put down a student, making him feel stupid instead of me. I can hold forth ad nauseum, trying to focus myself and my students on what I do know. I can become concerned with details or behaviors that are irrelevant. I can deny the importance of knowing what it is I don’t know, ignoring a question or minimizing it. I can try to control the people who I believe are causing my distress.

What I tend not to do is sink comfortably into the feeling of not knowing and just leave it be. After all, what is so bad about not knowing? What would it mean if a teacher admitted to her students, right out loud, “I don’t know”? Might anything good come of it? Students, by definition, are supposed to not know some important things. How do teachers expect students to be comfortable not knowing if those very same teachers aren’t comfortable saying, “I don’t know” themselves?