Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: March 2016

By Degrees


“You can learn to live with anything [no matter how horrible it is] when it happens by degrees.”

Thank you, Mark Erelli, for allowing me to post your moving letter that, for me, captures the heart and soul of educating: supporting and celebrating students who care, take risks, make mistakes, show courage, and come out stronger. And thank you for your moving song, “By Degrees.”


Last night [3/16/16], students at the Burr & Burton school in Manchester VT performed a 90 minute-long medley of highlighting musical works of social change. I am deeply honored that my song “By Degrees” was featured alongside works by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many other influential artists and composers. I can’t imagine how hard the student orchestra and singers rehearsed for the performance, which was an intricate feat of endurance. It was streamed live, but I was on the road and missed the show (you can see my song here at 01:21:00: http://livestream.com/burrburton/events/4977399)  After the fact, I learned that the student who sang my song had made a few mistakes during his performance, and was working through some tough emotions about his performance. I don’t know the student’s name, but I wanted to reach out to him with this open letter:

Dear G______,

I want you to know that I saw a recording of the show and that as a writer there is no higher compliment than having others give voice to your songs. It doesn’t matter who sings it, it could be an artist of some renown in a big hall or a weekend warrior belting it for disinterested patrons at a barroom open mic. It’s an act of tribute for which I am grateful.

I heard through the grapevine that you might be working through some tough emotions in the wake of your performance. I know—some verses of the song were repeated, others not sung at all—but I want you to know that none of that really matters. I’ve done this professionally for 17 years and I still forget words to my own songs. I make mistakes. All. The. Time. Mistakes are funny: they emphasize what we all have in common, embodying all that makes us human, but they also have a strange way of emphasizing what makes us unique. Music biographies are littered with stories of musicians’ limitations that evolved into their personal style, oft-copied by future generations. This won’t be the last mistake you make—and not your biggest by a long-shot—but I hope you can learn to embrace the fact that such things are a normal part of how we grow, what makes us “us,” and most importantly, what makes you “you.”

It takes an incredible amount of courage to perform, particularly at this point in your life. When you step onstage, you ostensibly hope to blow the audience away with your brilliance and charisma. What you are actually doing is making a public declaration that you care about something, something you love so much that you are compelled to share it with others. As a younger person, and sometimes even as adult, it’s often not cool to care, to love so publicly. A performer’s vulnerability often makes others uncomfortable. I hope your friends and colleagues applaud your efforts, but if anyone ever gives you grief about your mistakes, it’s only because your bravery reminds them of what they might not be courageous enough to do.

You stood up there, surrounded by so many other talented peers, in front of an audience of friends, relatives and witnesses, and for 90 minutes you showed them you cared—about art, social change and so much more.  That kind of courage is just one of the many ways you may someday change the world. I’m not talking of some widespread revolution. Maybe you only change the heart of a few people who witness your art, but never underestimate the power of that. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not ashamed to admit that your performance brought me to tears, and I can’t thank you enough for caring.

With respect,
Mark Erelli

The Middle Class


When teachers and the middle class are squeezed dry, systems become unhealthy.

I don’t know how many times I have talked to teachers about how squeezed they can feel between management and students.  Squeezes like being required to use a grade-recording computer system that does not work consistently. Or trying to hold a student accountable only to be overridden by the principal. Or draining themselves dry with care for their students without any effective mentoring for themselves. At these times the image that comes to mind for me is that of the middle class, the meat between the bread slices that gives the sandwich its flavor, the layer of working people that enriches the upper layer through its labor and supports the lower layer through taxes.

I am no economist, so the metaphor pretty much ends there. What I am is an educator and a psychotherapist who is deeply concerned about the toll that teaching can take on teachers. From my perspective, it is a teacher’s job to be available to students for the students’ use as they develop and grow and struggle and resist. This is the job of the developmental partner, the person who holds students through risk, who offers corrective action without retaliating, who reflects back to students accurately, who is present and optimistic, empathic and wise, even when a student cannot be.

It is no coincidence that this is the role most commonly held by women, mothers, nannies, and other feminized professionals like teachers.

Because this job of being a developmental partner is so hard AND SO CRUCIAL, I firmly believe that teachers need support and care as they work through their students’ wily — and totally normal — attempts to avoid the risks of growing and learning. Developmental partners need care and support so they can continue to do their absolutely crucial jobs and avoid burnout. The problem is that this work tends to be utterly invisible, not just to students (who really do not need to know how hard their teachers work) but to management, who generally know how hard their teachers work but who do not necessarily provide structures that ameliorate teachers’ suffering.

And teachers suffer. Not all the time, of course, but often. They doubt themselves; they feel frustrated and powerless; they live in the gap between all the goodness they see for their students and the students’ own lack of confidence and even self-destructiveness. They respond to mandates from way above even when those mandates make no sense in the actual classroom. They strive for approval and feel disappointed and exploited. They hurl themselves into their work with relentless energy and blame themselves when they crash.

Living like this is untenable. It is unsustainable. It leads to burnout, of course. And it is avoidable. At least, I believe it is. The simple solution is to care for teachers. The complex version of this simple solution is to create an environment that expects teachers to develop, grow, and learn in the company of developmental partners of their own. That is, teachers need developmental partners, too: people who hold teachers through risk, who offer corrective action without retaliating, who reflect back to teachers accurately, who are present and optimistic, empathic and wise, even when a teacher cannot be.

As I understand it — and, again, I’m no economist — the middle class symbolizes a healthy economy. When the middle class is squeezed dry, things get unhealthy. Why wouldn’t we care with the utmost attention for the people upon whom our children’s health and well-being depend?