Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Author: Betsy (page 2 of 6)

Enabling Trumps

Woman taking selfie while boyfriend is kissing her

It takes a village to curb narcissism.

We have learned way more in this election season about the man Donald Trump than most of us probably wanted to know. We have also learned about important qualities of Trump supporters that suggest we might be witnessing the first death throes of white male supremacy.

The latter phenomenon is excruciatingly important. And I believe social forces at work in our country are driving us – despite the real dangers – towards a more equitable reality. This is my hope.

My concern here is Donald Trump. Not the people he represents; not the inevitable social evolution he and his followers hope to stem. My concern is the man and the boy he once was, the student whom teachers and schools were charged to educate.

My deep concern is that they – we – failed.

I actually can’t tell if Trump is intelligent. If there’s such a thing as “TV Intelligence” or “Social Media Intelligence” or just “Media Intelligence,” he ranks in the top 1%. And he might be very smart about other things, too. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say we failed him.

What I’m talking about could be called, in a sweetly sanitized kind of way, social-emotional learning (SEL). I call it basic human development: psychological, intellectual, social, emotional development. And, while SEL has become the latest curricular add-on in schools, human development in all its dimensions should be the bottom-line goal of all schooling.

If that is so, and I believe it is, we failed with Donald Trump. Worse, we enabled Trump the boy to become Trump the man in all his abhorrence.

Strong words, I know. But consider this formulation: The man who is a flaming narcissist, even a grossly wealthy flaming narcissist, grew up in conditions of severe lack. Flaming narcissists – let’s call such men “Trumps” – were boys (or girls) whose legitimate developmental needs were not met. What are some of those developmental needs?

  • limits – not getting his way all the time
  • boundaries – learning where he (his body, his rights, his needs) ends and others (their bodies, their rights, their needs) begin
  • accurate mirroring – seeing himself through others’ compassionate but honest eyes
  • accurate self-representation — getting explicit glimpses into how the people he interacts with see the world and think so he can begin to “mentalize,” or imagine effectively, how other people and the world work
  • struggle – encountering difficulties (such as limits or boundaries or accurate mirroring or self-representation) and working through internal and external consequences of those difficulties
  • reliable developmental partners – receiving consistent support from adults who will neither cave to nor retaliate against the demands and behaviors of children who (naturally) do not want to struggle

Counterintuitive as it may seem, children who grow up under these conditions tend to develop the skills of flexibility and empathy as well as a healthy relationship with reality. Providing these conditions for one’s children is difficult work, but the outcomes are supremely beneficial to all. Not providing these conditions means enabling the bizarre contortions that can eventually emerge as full-blown, flaming narcissism.

Enter the Trumps. Enter them into classrooms. They’ve been enabled at home to be entitled brats (just a guess) and they behave in class as though their teachers will continue the trend. Teachers who do continue the trend – by inflating grades, lowering standards, downplaying transgressions, euphemizing, washing their hands, accepting abuse, avoiding confrontation – are also enablers. Administrators who do not support their teachers in being the reliable developmental partners that all students need – especially those who don’t have such partners at home – are also enablers.

And the terrible, awful truth is that enablers helped to shape the man Donald Trump. And there are, I’m guessing, many more Trumps out there.

I know: It is difficult not to be an enabler, not to take the easy way out, when students can be so obnoxious and their parents can be so demanding and litigious! I mean, really: Teachers have to be developmental partners to students whose parents aren’t doing their job?

You tell me. Enjoy Election Day.





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!

Mining Emotions

Underground-Mining-SafetyTeachers benefit from examining stories of silence, sarcasm, and resistance — their students’ and their own.

It’s story time.

I’ve chosen this story because it is, to me, amazing. And it illustrates a whole bunch of ideas that can help teachers make sense of the emotional and relational data their classrooms are brimful of. I’m going to mine this story for the next couple of weeks because hey! it’s a great way to start the school year.

Here’s the story:

Once, many years ago, I was facilitating a particular Teacher Support Group. All six of the teachers in the group had checked in with stories from their classrooms that involved, in one way or another, the feeling of impatience. So we decided to talk about that feeling.

I asked for specific examples of times when the teachers felt impatient.

“When I give students instructions for the 17th time and a student asks me to repeat them yet again and then gets offended when I ignore him!” said one teacher.

“When I’ve planned something poorly and students point that out in one way or another,” said another teacher– let’s call her Abigail. At those times, Abigail said, “I can feel sarcasm coming on, and that’s dark.”

Abigail gave an example: On a recent day, after having combed through a passage from a Shakespeare play and defined all the vocabulary and phrases, she asked the class as a group to translate the passage line by line into modern-day speech. She gave them the first line and asked, “OK. How do we want to translate this?”


“Hello?” she prompted.


Cue impatience. Cue sarcasm.

“I know they know it,” Abigail told us in the TSG, “so I embarrass them when they don’t give me the energy.” She told us how, in a sing-song voice, she stepped the students through the passage word-for-word, cold-calling and saying condescendingly, “See? That’s not so hard.”

Making a Guess

The other teachers in the TSG totally sympathized with Abigail. One by one, they offered her advice — “tools for her toolbox” — to help her get the students to do what she wanted them to do.

“Have them write the translation down first and then cold-call them.”

“Have them work with a partner translating one line per pair then have them write their translations on the board in order.”

As the group facilitator, I was less interested in the toolbox than I was in the emotion work (more on that in another post). “What,” I asked Abigail, “are the students resisting in your story? What was the sarcasm about? Why did you go there?”

Abigail fell silent, as her students had done in her class. I had no idea what her silence meant, and her colleagues continued to offer pragmatic advice. After a few minutes, Abigail said, “I think I figured something out.”

What she figured out was this: Her students’ silence when she asked them to do something she-knew-they-already-knew might have been resistance to a “ridiculous, time-wasting” request. “Why should we do what you already know we can do?” the students might have been saying. 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.

At this point, another teacher shared a different but similar story: In a recent class, this teacher (let’s call him Ravi) was “helping” a student by giving specific instructions on how to do a project. “I wanted to save the student the trouble of making mistakes that I knew how to avoid,” Ravi told us. So he went into detail about things the student should do and, lo and behold, when he returned to check on the student’s progress, she had done everything Ravi had told her not to do. Ravi, in a flash of brilliance, asked her why. “Because we’re kids,” the student said. “We’re supposed to do it wrong!”

Two stories about student resistance. Two different teachers. All wrapped up in a group dynamic that says a lot about teachers’ own resistance. A blogging motherlode! Please stay tuned for the gems that can be extracted!

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Nadine Burke HarrisAdverse Childhood Experiences are the number one public health crisis in our country today — and teachers are on the front lines.

I just watched a super-important TED talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on the effects of childhood trauma — or Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs — on physical and mental health. I am moved to write about this TED talk because ACEs are affecting classrooms every day, all the time. And I believe teachers need help dealing with them.

Dr. Harris characterizes ACEs (pronounced like the playing card as in “aces high”) as involving

  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • physical or emotional neglect
  • parental mental illness, substance dependence, or incarceration
  • parental separation or divorce
  • domestic violence

She alludes to a study that was begun in the mid-nineties by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that looked at the long-term effects of ACEs on physical and mental health. First of all, the researchers found that, among the study’s subjects (who were, by the way, 70% Caucasian and 70% college-educated), 67% had at least one ACE. And 1 in 8 of the subjects had at least four ACEs. The results showed that the higher a person’s ACE score was, the higher the likelihood of negative health outcomes.

What can we expect from people with high ACE scores? In addition to devastating medical problems (COPD, lung cancer, heart disease), people with four or more ACEs are 4.5 times more likely to experience depression in their lives and twelve times more likely to attempt suicide.

As Dr. Harris points out, a natural response to these data would be “Well, yeah. You’re traumatized as a kid so you engage in more risky behaviors — like drinking, smoking, doing drugs — that screw up your health in the long run.” But that is not what the study found.

The study found that trauma affects our brains. Adverse Childhood Experiences, Dr. Harris tells us, affects

  • the pleasure-reward center of the brain, which, Dr. Harris says, is “implicated in substance dependence”
  • the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control and executive function, “a critical area for learning”
  • the amygdala, or the “fear-response center”
  • the stress-response system, or “fight-or-flight”

Dr. Harris went into detail about this last system. As she put it, the fight-or-flight response is ideally suited to occasional dire life-or-death moments we might encounter (and probably won’t), such as coming face-to-face with a bear in the woods. At these moments, our bodies are appropriately flooded with hormones and other substances that help us deal with the emergency.

But, she asks, “what happens when the bear comes home every night?”

Here’s what happens: Our fight-or-flight system “goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function. They affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Did you hear that? Dr. Harris said, “…even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.” Does this mean that the effects of trauma — whether the trauma is related to domestic abuse, the Holocaust, or slavery — can be passed down from generation to generation through our genes? I certainly believe trauma-related behaviors can be passed down, but even our genes are affected?

Holy sh*t.

As a result of her concerns and discoveries, Dr. Harris started the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. Here, clinicians engage in what Dr. Harris calls “best practices” for treatment, approaches that “reduce the dose of adversity,” that “prevent, screen, and heal the impacts of ACEs and toxic stress”: home visits, coordination of care, mental health care, nutrition, holistic interventions, medication when necessary, and, importantly, parent education, since parents need to know about the dangers of ACEs “the same way [they need to know about] covering electrical outlets or lead poisoning.”

I think teachers need to know about the dangers of ACEs, too.

Why? Because teachers are faced every day with children who have suffered — or, importantly, ARE CURRENTLY SUFFERING — from ACEs. These students’ behaviors absolutely affect their ability to learn as well as the quality of the relationships they have with their teachers, who are actually in a position to help “reduce the dose of adversity” these students have been exposed to.

But here’s the thing: Many teachers have themselves suffered from ACEs. As Dr. Harris says in her TED talk, ACEs do not strike just “those kids in those neighborhoods.” They happen to people across the board. As she puts it, “The single most important thing that we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, ‘This is real, and this is all of us.’”

Another way of putting it, as did Dr. Robert Block, a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, whom Dr. Harris quotes, is “Adverse Childhood Experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”

Holy sh*t squared.

I go into detail about this amazing TED talk and the ACEs study because, whether we like it or not, ACEs do have consequences for teachers, classrooms, and schools. And, it appears, the sluggish response in the medical field to the facts about ACEs is mirrored in the field of education.

Dr. Harris describes how perplexed she was when pediatricians around the world did not pick up on the approach taken by the Center for Youth Wellness. “Why haven’t we taken this more seriously?” she asks in her TED talk. Surely, it’s not because ACEs don’t apply to “us,” for research shows that a huge number of “us” have been exposed to ACEs.

No, says Dr. Harris. “I’m beginning to believe that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. Maybe it’s easier to see in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick.”

Holy sh*t cubed.

And so, says Dr. Harris, “what I had thought of as simply best clinical practice I now understand to be a movement.” Her leadership is based on her certainty that “this is treatable. This is beatable.”

Dr. Harris has started the movement in the medical field. Let’s also work on it within the field of education. Let’s not “rather be sick.” Let’s foster healthy development for everyone inside school walls by supporting teachers in their own healing and by helping them respond healthily to children whose maddening behaviors might indicate they are caught in the “public health crisis” of toxic stress.

This really is a life-or-death issue.


labelsI say: Down with labels!

Last summer or maybe the summer before, I read the first half of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I really liked the first half, as I recall, because I had so many gratifying moments that sounded like this: “Oooh! Oooh! That’s me!” Which is a little weird, because I don’t consider myself introverted. I’m fairly outgoing.

I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t stand the second half of the book. So I stopped reading and gave the book away in disgust. I don’t remember exactly what turned me off, but, looking back at the Table of Contents (online), I’m willing to bet it was this: the rush to reify — to make real, to etch in stone — the category of “introvert” (and, by comparison, “extrovert”) as something fixed in the brain or in our genes or in our personalities.

This need to build walls around an identity makes me very uncomfortable. One reason, of course, is that it invites people to oversimplify themselves. It can be so relieving to find a label that seems to capture and explain one’s experience! I have found that a mental health diagnosis can have this effect on clients. I myself hope and pray every time I take my son to the doctor that he has strep throat because that label means easy treatment. Labels, in their limited ways, can be quite helpful.

But, once we get our hands on labels, we can turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. A student with a learning disability can quickly learn to avoid certain problems because he comes to believe (and, sadly, so do others) that he is too dumb or limited or incapable to do them. A child who decides he hates sports (because his father loves them) deprives himself of a certain brand of pleasure for the rest of his life. (Here’s that story — it’s a good one.) A teacher who refuses to delegate responsibility loads herself down with her own competence and implicitly labels others as “less competent” or, worse, “incompetent.”

Which leads me to another reason why labels and walled-in identities make me uncomfortable: Labels are way too easily ranked. It’s almost a human reflex: Let’s take two opposite labels like “introvert” and “extrovert” and compare them! And let’s make the one I identify with the better one! Oooh! Oooh!

I think the author of Quiet wanted to normalize introversion, to make introverts feel better about the label. That’s fine — except when people start ranking. Once I’ve decided I possess a certain quality, especially when I think that quality makes me look good, it’s way too likely that I will avoid self-reflection and just lay claim to the identity, no more questions asked. Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset, has discovered this in teachers, much to her dismay. A colleague of hers calls it “false growth mindset”: when teachers who routinely display “fixed” mindset characteristics put themselves in the “growth” mindset category. A kind of ironically “fixed” way of seeing oneself.

My biggest complaint about labels is this: they allow us to overlook the adaptations that underlie the labels. Even if we consider a label we’ve adopted — like “introvert” or “growth mindset” or “grit” — to be good, the underlying adaptations may not be.

Here’s an example: I recently ran a Teacher Support Group where I stepped out of my standard facilitator role. Rather than act in a restrained fashion that emphasized observation, reflection, and brief and efficient bouts of psychoeducation, I became impassioned. I began to “exhort.” I went into full-fledged pep talk mode. In short, I let ‘er rip.

My behavior felt relevant and justified at the time. (After all, I am outgoing.) But no sooner had I left the meeting than I began feeling something terrible: shame. I worried that I had surprised or insulted or bored the teachers. I worried that my self-image did not match their image of me and that my confidence was completely unwarranted. They knew the truth about me and I couldn’t even see it! I felt vulnerable and exposed. As I wrote in my TSG journal immediately afterwards, “I felt I took up too much space.”

Let’s pause for a second. These uncomfortable responses I had to “taking up space” were raw data about myself. They pointed to beliefs that I have created about myself over time. They are bedrock and, therefore, extremely useful.

Now let’s let the tape roll again. If I were someone who wanted to escape these uncomfortable responses and ignore my bedrock beliefs (true or not), I had two very good options. One would have been to beat  the shame down by saying to myself, “Hey! No problem. I’m an extrovert. It’s just how I am. The teachers can take it. They have no choice: It is what it is.”

The other option would have been to say, “This is what I get when I push out of my comfort zone. What I should have done and need to do in the future is act more like an introvert. I should not have taken up space, presumed that I knew something important, imposed myself on other people. I should have stopped talking and, instead, sat in supportive silence. I should have been Quiet.”

These two adaptations make good use of labels. The first adaptation banishes negative feelings by justifying problematic or risky behavior; the second prevents negative feelings by avoiding problematic or risky behavior. The first is not particularly fair to the teachers; the second is not fair to myself. Both adaptations, both uses of different labels, accomplish the same thing: stagnation. Status quo. Zero growth.

There’s a third way, a middle way, a way that transcends personality type or mindset or grit. It’s the way I call “emotion work.” It’s what I do to turn negative feelings into understanding that empowers me to grow.

When I do emotion work, I look for the “good” reasons for my emotions. In the case of my TSG, my shame arose from a number of bedrock beliefs that I have: As a therapist and group facilitator, I’m supposed to make space for others. As a teacher, I value supporting others in coming to their own conclusions, not in agreeing with (or caving to) mine. As a child, I learned to yield intellectually to others — or else. As a woman, I have been trained to protect others from my power.

These beliefs, even the self-undermining ones, can all come in handy under certain circumstances. It’s essential that I make space for my therapy clients and my students so I can listen and learn and so they can come to their own conclusions. As an adult child, I can develop strategies for avoiding intellectual bullies. As a woman, I can tone down the powerful personality in high-stakes situations —  such as when I’m negotiating a salary and want to avoid activating my employer’s gender bias.

But these beliefs are maladaptive in other situations. Sometimes my clients and students need to know what I’m thinking. As an adult, I can choose not to be a fearful child. My power as a woman is a force for incredible good in the world. Paying attention to my raw data makes me resilient and invites me to be deliberate and strategic. It also makes me more centered and connected.

Blanketing all these contradictory and complex beliefs under a label robs me of crucial raw data about myself. I mean, come on: “Grit” in one situation is just plain stubbornness in another. Sidestepping the raw data can make me feel better about myself; it can certainly protect me from emotional pain (it sucks to feel shame). But it also prevents me from growing, from taking risks and discovering my own nuances that encourage me to — dare I say it? — take up my space with confidence, compassion, flexibility, and wisdom.

Popular enthusiasm about labels worries me because it’s just a whole lot easier to take on a label than it is to do emotion work.  Blanketing nuance, overlooking the bedrock truth, enacting a distracting adaptation doesn’t really help anybody. It just perpetuates stagnation, status quo, and zero growth. I, for one, find these outcomes unacceptable — especially in schools.



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

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