Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: September 2016

When You Disagree

donald-trumpDuring this insane Presidential race, how do you hold back when you disagree violently with others’ opinions?

‘Tis the season to disagree. It is, after all, election season.

And what an election season! What a mosh pit of disagreement! (I will say no more other than to direct you to an example.) What an opportunity to learn more about your students and their parents than you could ever want to know!

Let’s say you’re a teacher who supports Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Let’s say one of your students supports Donald Trump. Let’s say your student expresses his support in this way: “Trump will make America great again.” Let’s say you’ve been waiting for a chance to crush any Trump supporter you can get your hands on. Let’s say steam starts coming out of your ears and your bile begins to rise.

What do you do to avoid turning your classroom into a mosh pit?

Suggestion: Separate the student’s beliefs from his person and treat his beliefs as text. Use that text to create a Teaching Moment.

You: Really? Donald Trump will make America great again? Now there’s a good argumentative claim. Can you support it?

Student: What?

You: How will Donald Trump make America great again?

Student: I don’t know.

You: Wait a minute. In this classroom, you can’t make a claim without knowing something about it. If you don’t know, you probably shouldn’t make the claim. Or you should do some research.

Student: I don’t need to do any research. He’s just better than Hillary Clinton.

You: OK. Another claim! How is he better than Hillary Clinton?

Student: I don’t know. He’s stronger.

You: OK. Supporting an opinion with an opinion. Not a good start, but we can work with it. Especially if you can define “stronger” and come up with some good facts to show that Trump is “stronger” (as you define it) than Clinton.

And so forth. The point is that students’ (or, more likely, their parents’) opinions can be fodder for teaching. By being taken seriously, students can experience the essential discipline of thinking in order to support their opinions. The key to supporting this type of learning experience — and to avoiding the mosh pit — is to do aikido with the student, or work with him rather than against him. He is, after all, entitled to his opinions.

And isn’t it great that he has an opinion at all?

It can be so hard to pull back from the cliff of self-righteousness! especially when our students make no attempt to do it themselves! But teachers, as the adults in the room, as the developmental partners to students who are growing intellectually and emotionally, must resist the urge to crush opinions they hate. Rather, they must help students develop those opinions responsibly and logically.

It is possible that fundamentally insupportable opinions will dissolve under the hard light of reason. It is also possible that teacher and students will learn things they hadn’t thought of before. Neither of these scenarios has a chance of happening if teachers disagree so vehemently that they crush the Third.

Reading Minds


What the heck is going on in our students’ heads?

One of the greatest sources of stress for teachers, I have found, is students’ faces. Poker faces, bored faces, closed eyes, sidelong glances, frowns, wrinkled brows, sardonic smiles — these facial expressions are all grist for the teacher’s anxiety mill. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just read students’ minds? So we could know what the heck was going on in their heads and on their faces? I know: that’s impossible.

Except that teachers do it all the time.

At least, that’s what Abigail did. (Remember Abigail? That awesome teacher who figured out a great reason why her students didn’t do what she had asked them to do?) She saw her students’s faces — their dropped eyes, their frowns and yawns — and their bodies — slumped, with jiggling legs — and heard their silence and knew exactly what was going on inside their heads:

They hated her. They wanted to thwart her. They were leaving her dangling, exercising their power over her by being lazy and refusing to cooperate with her. They were disrespecting and embarrassing her.

As she put it, “I know they know it, so I embarrass them when they don’t give me the energy.” That is, she gets sarcastic and treats her students with the same disdain her mind-reading abilities suggest they feel for her.

But what if she was wrong?

Psycho Filters (Qu’est-ce que c’est?)

Time out for a psychodynamic moment: Abigail’s mind-reading, which happened so automatically she had no conscious awareness of it, was normal and common. She did what all human beings do: She read the students’ faces and experienced their silence and drew logical conclusions.

Oh. Did I say “logical”? What I should have said was “psycho.”

And what I mean by “psycho” is that our conclusions are colored by our psychic structures, the ways we have constructed ourselves over our lifetimes to manage stress and relationships and to perceive and interpret the world.

The students’ silence stressed Abigail out. The deep chasm that opened up between her and her students, the probability that her lesson plan was foundering, and the emotions — her own and her students’ — that flooded her kicked Abigail into reactive mode.

Did I say “reactive mode”? What I should have said was “psycho mode.” By “psycho mode” I mean the state where our psychic structures take over and determine our thoughts and actions based on expectations about the world that are old but are activated by our current circumstances. We can’t help it: We see things, they activate us, we believe we know what they mean because our feelings and beliefs and thoughts are all telling us we do. And we act on these “logical” conclusions.

Normal. Common. And, if we don’t carefully examine our conclusions, often wrong.

Back to Reading Minds

Another term for “psycho mode” is “reading minds.” And, as I said above, teachers (and other people) do it all the time. The news flash is that, while we are often wrong about other people in psycho mode, we are also often right.

How can we tell the difference? The answer depends on when you want to know. If you want to know at the end of the day whether or not your mind-reading was accurate, you can do emotion work. If you want to know right there in the middle of class, in the heat of the moment, you can ask.

Otherwise known as a “reality check,” asking people (such as students) what their faces or silence or reactions or statements mean is a great way to collect data about the students’ reality. Accurate knowledge of students’ reality grounds us when we’re in psycho mode. Grounding ourselves in actual knowledge of what’s going on in our students’ heads means

  • we suffer less (because we don’t torture ourselves with terrible beliefs that just aren’t true)
  • we can more easily adjust to our students’ needs (because they’ve told us what they are) and
  • we can more readily anticipate and avoid future problems (because we know our students better)

Abigail demonstrated this flip from psycho mode to grounding in her story. When she fell silent and did some emotion work, she “figured something out.” She guessed that her students were resistant to her teaching because they were insulted by it. And, once she tried looking at it from their point of view, she couldn’t blame them.

Abigail’s revised conclusion? As I wrote in that other post, “She strongly felt that, had she described the silence to the students and asked them what it meant, the class would have turned out totally differently.”

Brava, Abigail.


shhh-carouselWhy is silence in the classroom so terrifying?

I just want to muse for a moment on the issue of silence in the classroom.

I’m reminded of a professor from my grad school years, Mary Budd Rowe, who had done research on what she called “wait time.” She discovered that teachers barely waited one second after asking students a question and after hearing a student’s response before beginning to talk again. She recommended, based on her research, that teachers wait for 3 (or more) seconds — 1. 2. 3. — before starting to talk. Teachers who did that, she found, ended up doing much less talking because their students did much more.

This discovery always fascinated me. And it’s relevant to Abigail’s story, which I’m still mining, because it makes me wonder: What’s so scary about silence?

Ask and ye shall receive. I actually posed this question to the teachers in Abigail’s Teacher Support Group o so long ago.

Here are their answers. What they’re afraid of when silence falls in class is, they said,

  • “that we’ll stare back and forth and nothing will get done.”
  • “that the students are judging me and deciding I’m not being responsible.”
  • “the pressure of having all eyes on you.”

These are pretty dire predictions. Imagine: Silence falls. The teacher stares at the students. The students stare back. The teacher continues to stare, as do the students. The clock ticks and time passes. The bell rings and the students exit the room. Nothing has gotten done.

Or this: Silence falls. The teacher stares at the students. They stare back, thinking, “I can’t wait to get out of here to report how irresponsible this teacher is being for not filling every waking moment with her own voice.”

Or this: Silence falls. The teacher becomes intensely self-conscious, wondering if his fly is down but not daring to check.

I share these scenarios to point out how ludicrous our fears can be if we follow them down. And I do recommend this approach to irrational fear (as opposed to rational fear, which is an appropriate response to real danger): follow it down to its logical conclusion to see how unlikely that conclusion is. It’s like an exposure therapy thought experiment that can make us laugh at our scary fantasies.

But, ludicrous or not, the fact remains: silence can be irrationally terrifying.


I wonder: Is it because silence invites us to get real, to get back into our own bodies, to feel things, to make contact, to actually notice what is going on around us and respond in the moment? spontaneously?

Is there something dangerous about spontaneity? or being in our bodies? or feeling? or making real contact with people or with our thoughts or with other people’s thoughts? Is there something dangerous about just dwelling in the moment? in public?

I don’t know. These are genuine questions. If you have any answers to the mystery of why silence in the classroom is so terrifying, I’d love to hear them.

But one thing Abigail’s story demonstrates: silence can be very productive. Because, even as her colleagues were making helpful suggestions as to what Abigail could do with her resistant students, she remained silent. And evidently what her silence signified was this: She was thinking.

That’s what Mary Budd Rowe presumed students would be doing in the 3 seconds of silence their teachers should allow after questions and answers. It’s undoubtedly what teachers want their students to be doing as often as possible. And surely teachers deserve a few seconds — even more! — to ponder and process and organize their own thoughts as they guide their students through the exciting and unpredictable morass of learning.

Yet another reason why I love this story: Abigail chose silence. She turned inward and thought about her students‘ silence. And she had an epiphany that, I daresay, could alter her teaching forever. Not a bad moment’s work.

Avoiding the Work

Danger_Enter_At_Your_Own_RiskTeachers can avoid their work just as masterfully as students can.

One of the remarkable benefits of Teacher Support Groups is their power to reveal classroom dynamics through the teachers’ own actions in the group. This power is called “parallel process,” or the existence in one setting of the very same processes or dynamics that exist in another setting.

This story is a perfect example.

To recap: Long ago and far away, in a Teacher Support Group, Abigail revealed something “dark” about herself. She confessed she can get sarcastic with students when she’s frustrated. This move — the move from generous teaching to frustration to sarcasm in the classroom — is a fascinating one. And Abigail is not the only teacher who makes it. Right? Not every teacher gets sarcastic when she’s frustrated with a student, but plenty do.

In a Teacher Support Group, this is a move I want to look into. I want to try to figure out what the move from generosity to frustration to sarcasm means about the teacher, her students, and the relationships governing this moment in the life of the classroom. I know from experience that looking into such “darkness” inevitably rewards us with insights that can change a teacher’s (and hence a student’s) life.

But this support group did not want to look into Abigail’s darkness. They didn’t wonder about Abigail’s emotions. They didn’t ask about the relationship between frustration and sarcasm. They didn’t share similar experiences. What they did was offer advice. They told Abigail what she could do to force the students to talk. They focused on the desired pragmatic outcome — student compliance — and avoided the data within Abigail’s darkness.

Interestingly, they did everything they could to fill Abigail’s silence with ideas about how she could prevent her students‘ silence.

Intellectualization, a High-Level Defense

I completely understand this phenomenon. Who wants to voluntarily enter into a person’s darkness? The teachers were being helpful, generous, and caring toward Abigail, whom they respect and admire. But this urge to talk about teaching rather than dwell in the actual experience of teaching can be a form of avoidance. I would even go so far as to say it can be a high-level defense against anxiety: intellectualization, where words and ideas distance us from unsettling emotions and feelings.

Don’t get me wrong: There are many benefits to talking about teaching. Talking about teaching can give us a feeling of control where we actually have none, where emotions arise and drive behaviors we can’t help and often don’t like. It allows us to flirt with ideals and speculate about what could be, to generate new ideas and get excited about them. These are all good things. I actually love talking about teaching.

But, in a Teacher Support Group, the experience of teaching — the emotions, the feelings — is the base metal that group process transforms into gold. And, while most of the group members in this story were most comfortable simply hammering at the metal lump, Abigail went for the gold. “I think I figured something out,” she said.

How She Figured It Out

We already know what Abigail figured out — that the students were probably disgusted by being asked to demonstrate they knew what their teacher already knew they knew — but I want to take a moment to lay out how Abigail figured it out:

  • She considered her own “dark” emotions
  • She allowed as how her students might have had the same emotions
  • She wondered why her students might have had those emotions
  • She made a good guess that resonated with her

She turned her darkness — her sarcasm, her frustration, her contempt for (and fear of?) her students’ silence — into insight: the very good possibility that her students were telling her through their inaction that they themselves were frustrated and contemptuous of her “ridiculous, time-wasting” assignment. That they expected more of her. That they respected themselves and their time.

Wow. Who knew darkness could carry such useful information?

I didn’t mention this parallel process to the teachers in the support group at the time (it can be quite difficult to discern these processes in the moment), but it is one of the reasons I love this story. Teachers can avoid hard work just as their students do. Who can blame them? But noticing one’s very human tendency to avoid what is difficult gives teachers first-hand perspective on their own students’ resistance. It can help teachers make sense of their students’ actions; it can dissolve frustration and sarcasm; it can activate empathy and understanding; and it can lead to the kind of relational alignment that makes teaching and learning most fruitful.

Pure gold.

It’s Your Fault

irritation_b_14-5-11In which the author engages in psychodynamic interpretation of a pithy teaching moment

I can’t resist doing a little psychodynamic interpretation here of one teacher’s impatient moment. (The moment is when the teacher has given instructions 17 times already and one student asks for the 18th. The teacher ignores him, and he gets mad at her.)

Consider the child who errs.

First of all, there will be a very good reason for the error, which is, in this case, not hearing the teacher’s instructions. Here are some possibilities:

  • The child is daydreaming and doesn’t hear his teacher.
  • The child is attending to something in the classroom other than his teacher.
  • The child is anxious and preoccupied, turned inward and deaf to what is going on around him.
  • The child is resistant.
    • The child feels stupid.
    • The child believes there’s no way he’ll understand the instructions.
    • The child is anxious and turned outward — that is, looking for a fight he can start via passive aggression.
    • The child is angry at the teacher — and looking for a fight he can start via passive aggression.
    • The child expects irritation from adults in his life and is a master at fulfilling his own prophesy.

And on and on. This is an important law that teachers can use every second of every day: There is always a good reason for students’ behavior. (And by “good” I don’t mean “praiseworthy”; I mean “logical” according to the student’s psychic structure.) A super-valuable corollary is that there is always a good reason for teachers’ behavior, too.

Making a guess as to the good reason behind a student’s irritating behavior is a very good first move for a teacher to make. The teacher who gave this quick example, however, didn’t have the awareness or time in class to make such a guess. That’s very normal and common. But not having made a good guess that could have stopped the student’s maladaptive behavior (of not paying attention) opened the teacher up for even more trouble. When the student finally snapped to and asked the teacher to repeat the instructions, she “ignored” him. And he got mad at her!

What is THAT about?!?

First possibility: entitlement. If a child is accustomed to parents or a teacher who accommodates to him, he might develop an expectation of getting his way. He has learned that, without any effort on his part, his needs get met when he needs them to get met. When this norm is disrupted — as when a parent or teacher ignores him — he gets mad and blames the teacher for not doing her job, which is to allow him not to do his.

Teacher’s possible response to entitlement: Consider how you are reinforcing the student’s entitled expectations and do whatever it takes to stop enabling his passivity. (This might be very difficult to do, especially if the student pushes back vehemently.) In addition, do what the teacher in this story did: set limits for the student and allow for natural consequences. “I’m sorry,” you might say (rather than just ignoring him). “The maximum number of times I’m going to give instructions is 17. After that, you’re on  your own.”

Another possibility: shame. If a student’s response to being caught doing something wrong is to believe there is something wrong with him, he will be flooded with terrible feelings. The most natural thing in the world to do with terrible feelings is to avoid them. How to avoid them? Here’s a good way: project those feelings onto someone else and go on the attack. “It’s YOUR fault! (not mine)” is an excellent decoy that works best — as decoys do — when the teacher engages.

Teacher’s possible response to shame: First and foremost, don’t follow the decoy. Don’t engage. Be very clear about what is your responsibility and what is not. (It is a student’s responsibility to listen. It is your responsibility to give good instructions and address students’ confusions.) (It is not your responsibility to take on the student’s emotions.) Communicate your clarity simply and as neutrally as possible (so as not to deepen the shame). If you can, use humor. What might you say? See above.

Second, make a plan to address the student’s error in a way that reduces shame. Talk to him after class or invite him to lunch in your room so you can describe to him what you saw him do and why you responded by ignoring him. Ask him what it was like to be him at that moment. Wonder how the two of you can work together to help him execute his classroom responsibilities. Do this without anger or recrimination. (NOTE: Feel your anger, absolutely. Just don’t talk to him about a plan while you’re angry, as that will deepen his shame and defensiveness and you’ll get nowhere.)

One more possibility: fear. If a student fears attack for having done something wrong, he can “turn the passive into the active” and attack first. In other words, “the best defense is a good offense.” In still other words, the student could be “identifying with the aggressor.” His act of blaming you speaks volumes, namely, “I will not be the victim. You will be.”

Teacher’s response to fear: See above, replacing the word “shame” with the word “fear.” Ultimately, whatever feeling the student has matters less than the fact that he is desperately defending against that feeling by making you, not him, the bad guy. Hold firm. You are not the bad guy. You are a reasonable human being who can see through the student’s shenanigans and address him, when appropriate, in a way that will convey to him that

  • you see him accurately
  • you expect him to take responsibility for himself
  • you are able to take responsibility for yourself (and to model it in your relationship with him)
  • you are open, curious, caring, connected, and flexible

There are other possible guesses this teacher could have made about her irritating student. She would be the best person to make the guess, as she was there. In fact, the best place to start when you’re making guesses about a student or an incident in the classroom is with your own feelings. Since emotions are contagious, the chance that your student feels the same way you do is quite high. When you start with your feelings, you get to wonder, “Why might my student be feeling this way?” And you’re off and running!