Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: October 2015

Making the Flip 2

light-29858_1280This simple emotional move can also help teachers avoid taking their students personally.

Another friend was suffering.

This friend — let’s call him Jamal — had just finished teaching a class that had turned out to be a disaster. His students were working on a Constitution unit, one in which they were divided into teams and researching the various sides of controversial issues in preparation for a big debate. On this the third day of the students’ research time in the library, Jamal noticed that the class was unruly. Students were chatting and giggling over their computers or wandering aimlessly through the stacks. He caught some students whispering and scowling; they stopped as soon as he drew near. Other students seemed to look right through him as if he weren’t even there. Jamal was not a particularly paranoid guy, but he felt decidedly alienated and nervous by the end of class.

That’s when I ran into him.

I could tell Jamal was hurting by the lost look on his face. “What happened?” I asked.

“Ohhhhh,” Jamal moaned. “My students hate me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, they seem to really hate this debate unit. They weren’t working on it at all today; just about everybody was goofing off. Every student I looked at gave me either an irritated face or a poker face. I can tell they think this is a terrible unit, a really stupid idea. And I know they think I’m a terrible teacher!”

Does this sound familiar?

One of the most difficult parts of teaching, for me, is my inability to know what is going on inside my students’ heads. I am constantly gathering data about them — are they answering my questions? are they lively? what do their faces look like? Are they interested? bored? asleep? — and jumping to conclusions about what those data mean.

That’s what Jamal was doing, too.

His conclusions were that his debate unit was stupid and he was a terrible teacher. All this based on evidence of restlessness in his students and glimpses of their faces. Oh, and one more thing: projection. His conclusions depended on the automatic and powerful forces of perception and emotion, belief and expectation and, ultimately, interpretation, that o so commonly fill the gap between us and them, between what we do know and what we don’t know about other people.

His way of filling this gap between him and his students — projection — was causing Jamal a great deal of suffering.

So I asked Jamal to make the flip. I asked him to wonder if his emotions of alarm and fear of judgment might be shared by his students. It wasn’t hard for Jamal to imagine, as the day of the debate and the dreaded public speaking drew near, that his students were feeling more and more anxious and opposed to their task. It was possible, he conceded, that he was witnessing resistant behavior.

But Jamal went further. He wondered what his emotions meant about him. He wondered why he so quickly decided he knew what his students felt: that he and his ideas were bad. Why the immediate projection? Why, specifically, the assumption that any of these data had anything to do with him?

Here, Jamal made another flip. He didn’t just switch from worrying to wondering about his students. He switched from immersion in his troubling feelings to detachment from them so he could reflect on himself. From worry to wonder. Making the flip. Utilizing the cornucopia of emotional data from his classroom to make sense of his teaching and his students’ learning.

Flipping into Self-Reflection

So here’s what Jamal thought:


We’re separate people. I am not the students, and they are not me.

When we’re so invested in helping our students, in influencing and even controlling them, we can slip into merging with them. We can forget (because it can be so damned stressful!) that our students are “separate people” with their own motives, drives, strengths, weaknesses, and power, all qualities that we simply must deal with if we’re going to be in relationship with them. De-merging, as Jamal did with this thought, allows him to see himself and his students more clearly, which can lead to much more effective teaching interventions.


These students are not feeling about me the way I’m feeling about me.

Just as no teacher can see inside his students’ heads, students cannot see inside their teachers’ heads. Unless we act out on our students to induce in them our disowned feelings (and teachers can do that just as students do), we can expect that students (1) don’t know how we’re feeling and (2) don’t care. A safe assumption all teachers can make about their students, who are caught in the swirl of growth and development, is captured by the tired (but still relevant) cliché, “This is not about me.” No, it’s not. Guaranteed. It’s about them.


Students have a right to have or form their own relationships to ideas. The idea is not me; the assignment is not me; the curriculum is not me.

Again, beware of merging! Another way of putting this is that teachers can easily take their students’ responses in class personally. By viewing the content or the acts of teaching we choose as extensions of ourselves, we set ourselves and our students up. If students struggle with the content or resist it or appear to disapprove of it (all legitimate response to new ideas, especially if they’re difficult to assimilate for whatever number of reasons) and we take that struggle personally — as if it’s about us and not the students — we join the students in shutting down their learning. We crush the potential for them to form their own relationship with the content.

And, hear ye: Students’ learning — the relationships they form with the content we teach — is a process we teachers have no actual control over. We can only influence it. And if we take our students’ reactions to our work personally and begin teaching apologetically or half-heartedly or resentfully or defensively because of our fear or insecurity or merging, we weaken our influence.

All this thinking and introspection Jamal did? This was good work. Jamal made a good flip. A perfect 10.

Note that making this kind of flip, one that involves reflection on oneself, can work with floods of positive feelings as well as negative feelings. Any time a teacher’s irrational beliefs affect his experience of the classroom, whether the beliefs are negative and undermining or hyper-positive and inflating, he can afford to make the flip and wonder about himself.

The goal for the teacher is finding a balance in a realistic and relaxed  humility. This leaves plenty of room for students to be themselves, act out, struggle, create, and teach us what they need in order to develop. It leaves room for us to be curious and observant and steadfast in our confidence that our students will grow and that we can hold them while they do it.

How do you project your fears and insecurities onto your students? What happens when you do? What suffering results?

Making the Flip 1


This simple emotional move can transform terrible feelings into attuned, effective teaching.

A friend of mine was suffering.

She’s a teacher. And this year she has a student who bugs her. The student is “pushy, interrupts, does not listen, and acts self-absorbed.” My friend — let’s call her Helen — has been teaching this student — let’s call him Derek — for almost a month. On the morning of her suffering her buttons were so pushed that she was actually dreading going to work.

“I’ve got to calm down about this student,” Helen said out loud to herself as she drove her kids to school. “This is a lousy way to start the year. I can’t let Derek sabotage me and my class. But I can’t stop fretting over it! I simply cannot stand this kid!”

From the back seat, Helen’s daughter piped up. “Have you talked to Betsy?”

Seriously: I love this child. But now I love her even more.

Here’s what Helen wrote to me:

Brilliant!  Of course: channel Betsy.  My student and I are fitting in a way I have not fit with a student in many years.

What Helen means, of course, is that her student is somehow managing to push her buttons because of his own emotions and needs. The “fit” allows him to communicate with Helen directly but unconsciously. Her complaining in the car on the way to school was a discharge of her own feelings; when she “made the flip” thanks to her daughter and began wondering what Derek might be feeling, she made some good guesses and, importantly, began feeling compassion instead of aversion.

He likely is not pushy, but nervous, and he likely interrupts because he is scared and vulnerable.

It is difficult to feel angry at someone you see as nervous, scared, and vulnerable. It is easy (or easier) to understand the dynamic between yourself and another person when you separate their experience from your experience and honor both.

Once I started thinking about this in terms of why we were fitting so well, then it was very easy to come up with theories about what was likely going on with him, and also why I was responding in the way I was.  I was interpreting his anxiety as criticism of my teaching. The fact that he was contacting all kinds of OTHER people about his sense of things (other teachers, my department chair) and not me, his instructor, only made it worse.

A “pushy” student who goes over his teacher’s head to get what he wants — thereby making his own teacher feel exposed, criticized, and unsafe — is offering up a lot of valuable information about himself. Helen guessed he was feeling nervous, scared, and vulnerable; is it possible that, when Derek feels this way, he goes on the attack and blames others before they can blame him? Would that account for the surprisingly strong feelings of dread, defensiveness, and uncertainty in Helen? Is he inducing these feelings in her as a means of disowning them himself and (unconsciously) letting her know how terrible he is feeling?

By the way, this trick of implanting in other people one’s own emotions is called projection. It is an amazingly common phenomenon in classrooms. Students do it (as Derek seems to have). And teachers do it (just wait until my next post!).

What’s certain is that Derek succeeded in drawing Helen’s attention to himself and prompted her, through her own intense discomfort, to make some guesses about what he was feeling and why. Once she had made those guesses, she met with Derek to have a little talk.

Here’s more or less what Helen said to Derek:

Obviously, this is not your first history class. And you are a very good student. But I’m not teaching this class in the way you’re used to. Right? I’m bringing in all this weird theory and original documents you’ve never heard of! I bet you’re feeling a little thrown off by this unfamiliar approach.

Derek’s response? “Yes!! Yes yes yes!!!”

The rest of the meeting, and a few more since then, was devoted to brainstorming about what Derek can do to adjust to and succeed in Helen’s difficult and stimulating course. Helen reports just two weeks after her revelation in the car that her attitude towards Derek and his class has completely reversed. She’s having a great time.

The key to Helen’s work with Derek was this: she made the flip. She toggled from discharging her own feelings to wondering about her student’s. Flipping from discharging to wondering is perhaps the single most important emotional move a teacher can make with a difficult student. It certainly made a world of difference for Helen — and for Derek.

How can you make the flip? What phrase or question can remind you to switch between your perspective and your student’s? Write it down. Keep it in a drawer or purse or pants pocket. Pull it out when you’re having terrible feelings. Make the flip.

And let me know how it works!

New Year’s Resolution

happy new yearIt’s a new (academic) year. Time for a resolution!

I know. New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time. Who keeps them? They serve only to assuage guilt and fool us into thinking we’ll actually change.

But change is a worthy goal, especially if it’s change that will reduce suffering, our own and others’. And my work is dedicated to reducing suffering, first in teachers and then (when teachers feel better) in students.

So here’s my New (Academic) Year’s Resolution: to post teacher stories on this very blog that illustrate how teachers can reduce their own (and, by extension, their students’) suffering.

This resolution is very important to me. In an age of increasing awareness of racism, mental illness, poverty, and other ills that severely handicap learners coupled with bizarrely irrelevant pressures on teachers to raise test scores, suffering in schools abounds. I know not everyone is hurting all the time; I know many people don’t feel their suffering or see suffering in others; I know the words “suffering” and “school” don’t seem to go together. But suffering is happening nonetheless.

It’s happening in schools where dark-skinned children are separated from white-skinned children and forced to learn with much less. It’s happening in schools where children sit in class while their stomachs rumble or their teeth ache. It happens inside the heads of children whose parents fought violently last night or were too busy or preoccupied or self-absorbed to see anyone clearly, least of all themselves and certainly not their growing children. It happens inside teachers when they feel they haven’t reached a student or that they have messed up with a student or that they are fed up and have nothing left to give a student. It happens in a most unbearable way as a teacher approaches burnout.

I want teachers’ suffering to be addressed and palliated. Most importantly, I want teachers to learn how to utilize their emotions to figure out what is going on relationally with their students (and others) so as to re-align with them. I want schools to be places of healing, where relationships between teachers and students and among students form the proper bedrock for growth and development.

I want teachers to have the support they need to be healthy developmental partners for their students. I want it because that’s what education is: development. And if our students’ development is hampered by suffering, by senseless, needless, preventable suffering, they will grow to be contorted, and their skills and talents will lie hidden or will be channeled into self- and other-destructive acts.

This outcome is, to me, morally reprehensible. It is utterly unacceptable.

And so I resolve to do what I can here on this blog and in my face-to-face interactions with teachers to help them reduce their suffering by facing it and learning from it and then passing on their compassion and understanding to their students, thereby reducing their students’ suffering. It is, I believe, the most important work I can do.*

What is your New (Academic) Year’s Resolution? What do you think of mine?

*That and being a good-enough mother.