Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: February 2014

Prep Schools for Prison

prison-barsPerhaps a place to start in changing the pipeline-to-prison phenomenon is with teachers’ emotional responses to their students.

You know, Alfie Kohn has been talking about the dangers of punitive classroom management strategies for at least a couple of decades, but, alas, history does appear to perpetually repeat itself. I just read an article by a professor named Russ Skiba called “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Achieving a Balance in School Discipline” that pretty much says what Kohn said in books like Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline: getting tough on disruptive students does not solve the problem of disruptive students. In fact, “exclusionary discipline” tends to exacerbate the problem.

That is (the article states), schools that are most effective with their zero tolerance policies (meaning they often expel and suspend troublesome students) “have poorer ratings of school climate and school safety, higher rates of racial disparity in discipline, and lower scores on academic achievement tests.” The part about racial disparity is especially interesting and important. According to Skiba’s article, black students are particularly affected by “exclusionary discipline”: while black students were suspended twice as much as white students in the 1970s, black students are now suspended THREE AND A HALF TIMES as much as white students under zero tolerance rules.

(It appears that being African American in school cannot be tolerated.)

What really struck me as I was reading this article was that, after the first paragraph or so, I was reminded of an NPR story I caught on the radio on Monday about solitary confinement in prisons. Apparently, the head of a prison somewhere put himself into “the hole” to experience what so many prisoners experience. I don’t think he made it in solitary for 24 hours before deciding that he was going to change that policy in his prison. It’s simply inhumane.

So what I was thinking while reading Skiba’s article was “Hey! ‘Exclusionary discipline’ feels like another version of solitary confinement.” And, lo and behold, a few paragraphs down I read, “…being suspended or expelled significantly increases the risk of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. These risks, often termed the school-to-prison pipeline, are magnified for students of color.”

Right. Zero tolerance schools are like prep schools for prison.

(Click on that school-to-prison pipeline link. The statistics are OUTRAGEOUS.)

Because it exposed such noxious effects of punitive classroom management, especially for students of color, I really liked Skiba’s article. It ended with a list of nine things teachers can do to achieve balanced discipline and, while I can’t stand the implication in so many writings about education that teaching is simply a matter of following a list of procedural to-dos, his list isn’t bad.

Only, once again, the to-do list is focused on students. “Do this with or to your students.” “Teach your students to do this.” All well and good. Students do need to learn how to exercise self-restraint and take responsibility for their actions. These are appropriate and crucial objectives for any educational system.

But here’s a fact that really deserves to be examined: “Disruptive,” “troublesome,” and “problematic” are in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder of students is the teacher. Wouldn’t it make sense to talk to teachers about their perceptions of disruption? What one teacher can call “trouble” might look like “feistiness” or a “cry for help” to another. Might the first step in managing classrooms be teachers’ management of their own fear and anxiety when faced with students they deem “problematic”?

Might classroom management start with personal emotional management on the part of the teachers? What do you think?


group-hugOne assumption that is too often missing from educational policy and practice is that learning and growing depend on relationships with people.

I was just perusing the latest Chronicle of Higher Education, and my attention lighted on three different — but, it turns out, related — articles:

* one on high school AP courses vs. new college courses that are beginning to emphasize what AP courses do not, namely, cross-disciplinary thinking;

* one on dual-credit courses in which high school students tap in to college courses (usually by watching videos of professors teaching) and get credit in both institutions; and

* one on competence-based learning, where credit is given to life experience.

This brief journey got me thinking about the myriad (or perhaps much too convergent) set of assumptions that seem to underlie education these days. Some of these assumptions seem to be that

* successful learning can be replicated on a standardized test

* successful learning can be done via video

* successful learning is evidenced exclusively by behavioral outcomes

My purpose here is not to disagree with these assumptions. Rather, it is to remark on what is for me a distressing absence: the absence of any sense of learning as fundamentally relational.

Actually, the assumptions I’ve listed above are relational in that they imply that successful learning depends on forging some sort of relationship with content, either through focused practice in an AP course or exposure to lecturing professors or actual experience in the field. And I agree that learning pretty much by definition must include a relationship with content.

But I also think learning is more than just content- or cognition-based. I’ve come to think of learning as synonymous with development, with emotional and cognitive and social and identity development. And my understanding of these types of development points to the undeniable fact that they happen through human relationships.

For me, teachers are developmental partners to students. They play incredibly valuable and difficult roles in students’ lives — as ideals, as mentors, as mirrors, as opponents, as attachment figures, as test objects. Teachers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are structures within which students grow (or not) regardless of the subject matter. While few teachers consciously embrace these roles or know how to use them to their own and their students’ advantage, the roles, the relationships, are nonetheless at the heart of learning.

(Shameless Plug here: My book, The Feeling of Teaching, shows how teachers can use these roles and others to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.)

I just wonder what conversations about MOOCs or flipped classrooms or standardized testing or scripted curricula would sound like if this assumption — that learning means emotional and relational development — were included. After all, we don’t just want competent historians or architects or cabinet-makers or computer programmers to emerge from our schools. We want — at least, I want — mature, healthy, competent people to emerge.

What assumptions drive your teaching?


Pineapple-22What can classrooms and BDSM have in common? Safe words!

I was recently talking to some teachers and students about emotions in the classroom. The teachers and the students wanted to talk about ways to manage difficult conversations in class, particularly conversations that trigger or offend one or more participants. Examples came up: when a white person uses the “n-word”; when someone states a homophobic belief; when someone reveals hurtful cultural ignorance.

The beauty of having this conversation with teachers AND students was that we could hear from both sides. Some teachers expressed their intense discomfort at being squeezed between a feeling of offense — “I can’t believe you just said that!” — and a desire to protect the offender — “If I call you out, I’ll shame you — and I don’t want to do that.” Students shared their experience of feeling unsafe when teachers let these uncomfortable moments pass. When they feel unsafe, even for a moment, these students confirmed, their long-term response is to shut down, which makes learning very difficult and, of course, can reinforce all-too-familiar shame in them.

We talked about the importance of laying ground rules for all conversations at the beginning of the school year. We talked about the importance of maintaining a safe place for all students to express themselves, what I call “holding” or “containing,” and what I consider to be the teacher’s job. (It’s nice when the students in a class cooperate with keeping the classroom a safe place, but it’s when this cooperation breaks down that the intense discomfort floods in and teachers have to step up.) We talked about teachers as developmental partners and the good possibility that at least one student will “act out” in class, making it essential for the teacher to set a limit that the student might resist but that all students need. And we talked about “safe words.”

“Safe words,” I discovered, are words used in the BDSM world, in Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism enactments. While I don’t want to compare teaching with BDSM scenarios, I do want to share the value of using “safe words” in classroom conversations that could get scary for the participants.

One “safe word” that a teacher came up with was “pineapple” — a word that probably wouldn’t be used in class conversations so would stand out if anyone uttered it. The idea is that, if anyone in a class said “pineapple,” all conversation would stop and care would be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. This care could involve a few seconds of silence; it could involve a description, stripped of bias and judgment, of what just happened; it could involve psychoeducation about the possible effects of certain words or acts on others; it could require some disclosure from the teacher: “This just happened, and I’m not sure what to do about it”; it could involve individual writing: “Please write down words that describe how you’re feeling right now”; “Please write down what you would like to have happen right now.”

In short, “pineapple” would break the classroom frame. It would stop the regular performing that makes up a day in the life of a classroom and ask everyone to pay attention to each other and the impact, intentional or not, of their words and behaviors. “Pineapple” would invite the teacher and students to peer at the innards of their learning, which would give them a chance to adjust their process so the surface learning could continue.

A normal response at this point might be something like “Good LORD!!! Why would any teacher let discussions get to the point where a safe word would be necessary?!?”

One answer is that some teachers are comfortable with “disrupting” students’ safe, often unquestioned assumptions about the world. These teachers might argue that discomfort in the classroom is a useful sign that students are actually learning something, that they’re integrating new ideas and changing their world views, their thoughts, their behaviors.

Another answer is that teachers have no actual control over when or how a classroom environment might become unsafe for one or more students. The occurrence of bullying in schools and on-line between classmates testifies to this fact. A bedrock reality of classrooms is that relationships and emotions happen there, whether anyone likes it or not. Teachers who are unprepared for eruptions of emotion, whether in the guise of an offensive comment or in a student’s withdrawal from all class participation, handicap themselves. And they curtail their students’ education.

What role might a pineapple have to play in your classroom?