Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: September 2017

Only Connect

“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

This is a quote from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, a wonderful novel written in 1908 that is perhaps best known by its movie version, which is also wonderful. The quote is relevant to a hypothesis I’m working on, which is that we are living in a society in which technological innovation quietly encourages us to distance ourselves — to chronicle life — rather then to engage with each other — to practice life.

This hypothesis is important to me because my work, emotion work, requires willingness to engage with life. Yet I suspect that the momentum in the field of education, despite the increasing respect for “soft skills” and Social-Emotional Learning, continues to drive us towards the abstract, the disconnected: towards data, trends, scores, scripts, policy, programs, rules, legalese. Towards a chronicle, a narrative, about education that is quite distant from the lived reality.

Towards the thought, for example, that the quality of a teacher education program can be determined by the standardized test scores of the students their graduates teach.

Let’s step this one back: A group of students do not do well on a standardized test. Consider the many reasons why this might happen. (Hint: anxiety, inability to manage the test format well, cultural disadvantage, resistance to learning, fatigue, stress, lack of commitment, poor teaching)

If the reason or reasons for the students’ poor performance is any of the first seven, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the students’ anxiety and stress, their relationship (yes, that’s the word I would use) to the type of test and to the stakes it represents, their resistance and level of commitment to school or to their teacher? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

If the reason for the test scores is poor teaching, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the teacher’s experience of teaching: their fears, self-doubts, insecurities; their flashpoints and pet peeves; their negative self-beliefs; their relationships (again, that word) with the content they teach, the students they teach, and their colleagues? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

And the same goes for teacher education programs. It’s gotta be difficult to assess the quality of a program in any case, but how do you capture a program’s success in changing people? (especially when the expectation of most prospective teachers is that they will spend less rather than more time earning their credential. There is no teacher education program in the history of the world that ever demanded as much training for teachers as the most basic medical school program does. Why is that?)

How do you change people? Through a policy? A punishment? A ruling?

No. Emphatically no. People change through engagement. Not from policies or punishments or rulings. Not from forced conformity to an idealized, distanced narrative.

Here’s another E.M. Forster quote, this one from Howard’s End:

Only connect!….Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

Meaning, to me: Connect the abstract and the particular, the policies and the people, the chronicle and the practice. Bring the levels of experience together, let them inform each other, through connection. Just connect! Just engage! And we will all be exalted.

Unfortunately, in a world where desired “connection” is now overwhelmingly electronic, it is becoming much less likely that we will actually engage with each other as people. Instead, it seems we are free to objectify people, demonize people, anonymously act out on people, and legislate at all levels in ways that serve the legislators rather than those in need. Even in those moments when we do engage with people, it seems we are less and less willing to be honest in that engagement for fear of hurting and, importantly, being hurt back.

I am going to make a plug for engagement, for looking into people’s eyes, for reading data with our hearts, for surviving our hurt, for helping people change — whether to improve their teaching or simply to learn something new — by being in healthy relationship with them, by connecting viscerally, not electronically, with them. And I am going to shamelessly plug the value of emotion work in this fundamentally, inescapably human enterprise.

Only connect.

Bryan Stevenson

How teachers can change the world.

I had the good fortune to hear Bryan Stevenson speak last night. He is a lawyer who fights for the rights of death row inmates and is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

I enjoyed the talk. Mr. Stevenson is a riveting orator and masterful storyteller. His message was direct and fervent and inspiring. We must “change the world,” he said, by

  • being proximate: getting close to people in need.
  • changing the narrative: paying attention to the unconscious, unchallenged stories we tell about ourselves and others that we unthinkingly enact to everyone’s detriment.
  • having hope: because despair will get us precisely nowhere.
  • being willing to be uncomfortable: to do what is right, to buck the narrative, often means to find oneself alone or uncertain or in pain. BUT to stay comfortable is to promote what is unjust.

He had another message, one that haunts me this morning and got me out of bed way too early:

We are all broken.

This man, who tries to question a 10-year-old who has been in jail for three days after having accidentally killed his mother’s alcoholic and chronically, violently abusive boyfriend and discovers that the boy has been repeatedly raped in jail; this man, who is black, who has to put up with a sadistic prison guard who purposely points out that the truck he drives is plastered with Confederate flags and the bumper sticker “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have picked my own cotton”; this man, who deals every day with human cruelty, both in society at large and specifically in our appalling criminal justice system: This man says that what keeps him going is the realization that “I am broken too.”

As we all are. Some of us have basic psychic fractures from our upbringings; some of us are scarred by trauma; some of us simply read the news every day and feel our hearts break anew. I couldn’t sleep this morning for thinking about all the broken people in the world.

But quickly! Back to Mr. Stevenson’s message! And let us turn our thoughts, inevitably, to teachers.

Just like Mr. Stevenson, teachers are in a position to change the world. They are proximate to people in need, to students who are broken. They are caught in a nest of narratives, from the one that insists learning can be standardized and tested to the one that puts students in desks in rows in classes that meet for 44 minutes each day to the one that justifies disproportionately punishing students who have dark skin to the one that constantly questions teachers’ professionalism and personal instincts about what their students need and favors control over trust. Changing any of those narratives (and others) would offer teachers the opportunity to become uncomfortable. And, if they’re lucky, teachers have hope.

But teachers are broken too. And broken people, especially broken people in positions of relative power, can be cruel, or thoughtless, or self-protective, or unconscious in their clinging to comfort. How  how HOW can teachers be empowered and supported in transcending their own brokenness — their own psychic fractures, their own experiences of trauma, their own overwhelmedness and hopelessness and frustration and burnout — so they can help every broken student grow, develop — and heal?

The answer, for me, is that teachers need caring support. They need official acknowledgment that their jobs as developmental partners to broken people are extremely difficult, both deeply rewarding and grindingly wearing. They need to see how their own brokenness fits with and, at times, reinforces that of their students. They need help healing themselves so they can teach others.

In the field of education, changing the world these days is more than just doing a bang-up job of teaching content or delivering SEL curriculum to students. Changing the world must begin with the self, must begin with each of us committing to the ongoing task of healing our own brokenness and then committing to being the very best person we can possibly be — devoted to truth-telling, to disrupting oppressive narratives, to welcoming discomfort in the service of accurate seeing and faithful connection — in relationships with others. This work is indeed uncomfortable, and it is absolutely essential. As Mr. Stevenson would say, it is “brave brave BRAVE.”

 

 

Tend to the Tender

“If you want a child to be functioning well, tend to the person who’s tending the child.”

I recently read this quote by Suniya Luthar, PhD, in the September 2017 issue of Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association. I think it’s a great quote to start off the academic year with.

I have written about this before. But it bears repeating: Caring for people is exhausting, demanding work. It requires a whole list of skills.

  • self-control
  • empathy
  • patience
  • selflessness
  • presence
  • awareness
  • intelligence
  • discipline
  • understanding
  • curiosity
  • grit

Utilizing these “soft skills” day after day can take a hard toll on caregivers. Because “soft skills” tend to be taken for granted, especially in caregivers, especially in female caregivers, there often is very little recognition of this hard toll. But it’s there, and neglect of it can easily lead to burnout.

Teachers are caregivers. They are tenders (and many of them are also tender). They are crucial developmental partners to precious growing human beings. Their job as developmental partner demands the above soft skills (and more), and the above soft skills demand support. I wish all of you teachers reading this the wherewithal to get that support for yourself. Get tended to!

If you need ideas about how, look here.