Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: April 2015

No-Man’s-Land

colored-pencils-656202_1280What are some drawbacks to the Success Academy’s definitions of success?

When it comes to articles about education, I usually know exactly where I stand: in the land of the progressives, where discovery, growth, care, and authenticity lie.

I recently had a reading experience, though, that threw me into no-man’s-land. I had to admit, after reading this NYT article by Kate Taylor, that I wasn’t sure where I stood in relation to its topic, which is a group of charter schools called Success Academy.

The reason I found myself in no-man’s-land was, basically, that the Success Academy schools appear to be working. I mean, here’s how other public school students in New York City did on their standardized tests last year: 29% of students passed reading and 35% passed math. In blazing contrast, 64% of Success school students passed reading and 94% passed math. That’s a dramatic difference.

How does Success Academy do it?

According to the article, the Success Academy approach to education is “driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.” In Success schools, rules rule. Student behavior is completely controlled, from how students sit — backs straight, feet on floor, hands folded on desks, and eyes glued to the teacher during lessons — to how they walk — silently, in lines, obeying teachers instantly.

The academic life at Success schools is demanding and highly structured. From what I can tell, the curriculum is almost exclusively focused on the subjects in which the students will be formally tested: English, math, and science. Thinking skills such as glossing every paragraph in a reading passage appear to be routinized. Students who do well are praised and rewarded with such gifts as Nerf guns and candy. Students who do not do well are sent to “effort academy,” where they re-do their work to get it right while their peers take fun breaks. Students are frequently suspended, and those who deviate too far from the norm — students for whom English is not the first language, for example, or who require special education services — are under-represented.

Students’ scores on class assignments are posted for all to see, so poor performance can become public humiliation. In fact, one Success school administrator exhorted teachers to make students who were not doing well to feel “misery.”

Did I mention that the vast majority of students who attend Success schools are African American and Hispanic?

With all due respect to no-man’s-land, I have some concerns.

First, I’m concerned about the focus on standardized test scores. This one’s pretty obvious. As a hot-blooded progressive, I have no use for standardized tests. Of course, I am all for students’ working hard and feeling proud of their accomplishments, and this is something Success Academy aims for. But there is actual evidence that the skills required for success on standardized tests do not translate into success in life as directly as was previously assumed and that they can even “create far-reaching damage” (that’s a quote from the second-to-last page of Henry Levin’s 2012 article “More Than Just Test Scores”). And there is no evidence that Success Academy students (who are all elementary-level) will apply to, get into, go to, and graduate from college, this last being an achievement that can translate into life success.

But that’s the obvious concern. Here’s perhaps a less obvious concern: the emphasis on, the requirement of, compliance in the Success Academy.

I don’t see forced compliance in classrooms as a good thing. While supportive structure — consistency, reasonable predictability, and routines — can really help students get down to work in school, tightly controlled environments of the type advocated in Success Academy are not hospitable to emotional or cognitive development.

Here’s why: Growth requires space. In psychodynamic terms, healthy development requires “potential space” (a term coined by my hero, D.W. Winnicott). It is in potential space that children/students/people-in-general play, which is to say they engage, experiment, create, make mistakes, and organize data about the world into meaningful understanding. I (and some others) like to call potential space “the Third” because potential space is a “third reality” that emerges from interactions between and among at least two other realities (two people’s realities, for example, or one person’s reality and a book’s reality, etc.).

Forced compliance is the enemy of potential space. As I like to characterize it, forced compliance crushes the Third; it stamps out creativity and meaning-making. It prohibits authentic relationships with people and ideas. And, while it might lead to high test scores, it robs students of their birthright, which is to grow up into people who are, at the very least, intellectually flexible; innovative and confident in their problem-solving capacities; and self-regulated, able to live in a healthy, balanced way.

But that’s not the worst of it.

My final concern is my biggest. It is related to the issue of compliance coupled with the fact that so many of the students who are being treated to the Success Academy approach are children of color. Is it a coincidence that the strict environment they’re learning in could be called “slavedriving”? Is it fair to characterize Success schools as browbeating children of color into conformity? Am I the only one who sees the behavior requirements, the public postings of scores, the punitiveness, the normalization of underlings’ misery, the complete centralization of power and approval that requires slavish adherence to rules as recapitulations of slave culture?

If there’s even the hint of a possibility that this is so, then that’s a serious drawback to the Success Academy.

I confess, I was proud of myself for being open-minded enough to stand in educational no-man’s-land for a while when it came to passing judgment on these charter schools. But here’s my own uncomfortable realization: Was I, a white middle class woman, in no-man’s-land because of my own unconscious racism and classism, which prevented me from immediately seeing the disturbing parallels between Success Academy norms and the controls and aims of slavery?

What do you think?

Open Letter to an Open Letter

blank_sticky_note_clip_art_12197Teacher burnout is way too understandable. Here’s a way to possibly avoid it.

I just read a very moving Open Letter written by a teacher, Chase Mielke, who is tired of feeling ineffective with his most difficult students. It is a good letter, a fervent reminder to himself that he must not give up. As a teacher, therapist, mother, and caring citizen of this country and this globe, I’m writing my own Open Letter back to him and to other teachers who are giving their all not to give up on their students.

Dear Chase Mielke and other great teachers,

First and foremost: You are right not to give up. Thank you for re-committing to this crazy job with these crazily troubled students.

Second, and very important: You are right to want to give up. There is just so much one person can do. And there are just so many years that caring, creative, energetic people can throw themselves at insoluble problems without cracking.

But there might be another way to think about your frustration and your commitment that could save you from exhaustion and burnout.

Here’s the way to burnout: Thinking that you as the teacher must try harder, must engage more energetically, must overcome your negative emotions and pump out hope, must put out 120% to make up for your students’ -20%. Noble as that commitment is, it is, frankly, unsustainable. If you are an awesome teacher (as you, Chase Mielke, appear to be), we are in danger of losing you if this is the approach you insist on taking.

Here’s another way: Slow down. Breathe. Notice your feelings: Frustration. Hopelessness. Fear. Anger. Incompetence.

Now think about your students. Might they be having these same feelings? If so, then breathe again and smile. Your students are communicating very effectively and even hopefully with you. Through their behaviors, they are teaching you how they feel every day in your classroom (and, probably, outside of your classroom). If you can notice these feelings and sit with them, then you are beginning to see your students very clearly. They are frustrated. They are hopeless. They are afraid and angry. They feel incompetent in school.

Next step: Why might your students be having these feelings?

I’m guessing you won’t have any trouble answering that question. I’m guessing your students have every reason to feel frustrated, hopeless, afraid, angry, and incompetent. I’m guessing their lives have taught them to feel this way.

Next step: Notice your desire to give up on these students. Wonder if that is precisely what your students expect of you. Is it possible that other adults in your students’ lives have given up on them? Or have never had any hope for them in the first place? Is it possible that your students are simply being realistic? Is it possible they are protecting themselves from the probability of intense disappointment and confusion when their efforts to succeed are met with indifference or ridicule or contempt or oblivion?

If you have gotten this far, you might feel as though you’re onto something. Why wouldn’t your students be acting out so egregiously? Why wouldn’t you, as a feeling, functioning human being, respond exactly as they are teaching you to respond? And, given this natural, logical psychodynamic fit, what should you as a teacher do?

My answer is to aim at the truth, which is that your students know they can’t trust you — that is, they do not know how to trust you. If they do not know how to trust adults in their lives; if they do not have the capacity to make use of your care; if they have no faith in their own ability to “recruit” (to use a term from another of my blog posts) consistent positive attention from their mentors, then they are not going to respond to any of your attempts to teach them content. Your job, as I see it, is to teach them how to trust you.

This won’t be easy, Chase Mielke. It takes honest reflecting back at your students, reflecting of the “good” and the “bad” with curiosity and care. It takes consistency. It takes ongoing emotion work on yourself so you can keep the students’ needs separate from your own and your own needs met so you can address the students’ as well as you can, within your totally acceptable limits. It takes detachment. It takes a commitment to not doing the students’ work for them but to narrating, wherever possible and without judgment, what the students’ actions (or inactions) might mean for them. It takes a commitment to being a developmental partner, not just a subject matter teacher, and it takes acceptance of the fact that emotional development — the growing of trust in oneself and others, the awareness of one’s strengths, repeated experiences of honest connection and care that start becoming a new normal — takes time.

This job of teaching students to trust you won’t be easy, but it won’t be impossible, either. If you continue to try to teach them as hard as you can, you’re just throwing yourself on the craggy rocks of their lives. That’s the path of impossibility, and it leads to burnout. If you focus on seeing your students accurately, on caring about them with detachment so they’re not oppressed by your expectations, on living within your own limits and consistently holding them to limits that make sense (something they might not have experienced in their own lives), then you might be able to get somewhere.

And you might not get anywhere. But at least you will still be there, in school, ready for students who can use you, patient with students who for very good reasons cannot use you — yet. Your hope is in your ability and willingness to show up and connect. And my hope is that you get the emotional support you need to keep at it without giving up and burning out. We need you too much, Chase Mielke.

I am sincerely yours.