Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Acting Out (page 1 of 2)

These posts tell stories of when people in the classroom — teachers and students — act out in disruptive or disturbing ways and suggests what teachers can do when acting out happens.

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!

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!

True Story

IMG_2116A teacher reflects on a student’s bad behavior and successfully defuses himself and the student.

Yes, it’s a true story, but I’ve changed it a bit to protect the innocent. Which isn’t all that big a deal because the teacher in this story did a really good job of using his Reflective Function. (If you don’t know what RF is, click here.) And it’s a story that will sound familiar to many, many teachers.

So here it is:

Mr. Krieger redesigned his 11th grade English class to incorporate technology more effectively. He was a little nervous when he made his first homework assignment using an online bulletin board, as he wasn’t sure how it would work for him or for his students. But he was downright shocked when one of his students emailed him at 11 p.m. with the following message:

“I don’t get this, it’s stupid and I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it.”

Aside from the flagrant comma splices, Mr. Krieger was incensed by the student’s arrogant, presumptuous tone. How dare she tell Mr. Krieger what she would and would not do? How dare she call Mr. Krieger “stupid”?!? And at 11 o’clock at night!!

Mr. Krieger hit “Reply” with shaking fingers. He would tell his student what for! He would put a stop to this outrageous behavior! His student wouldn’t know what hit her!

Then Mr. Krieger paused. He sat back in his chair and wondered. Why would a student write something so clearly insubordinate? Why would this particular student, who was a nice kid and a hard worker, write something so thoughtless and damaging?

As Mr. Krieger reported it to me, it was at this moment that he heard a voice calling out to him, a voice that floated to him from weeks of work in a Teacher Support Group:

“Where’s the anxiety, Mr. Krieger? Where’s the anxiety?”

“Oh,” Mr. Krieger said to himself. “The anxiety is in the student.”

Where might the anxiety be coming from? he wondered. It wasn’t hard to make some good guesses.

“I bet the student, like me, is unfamiliar with the technology and isn’t sure how to use it properly. Because she is a good student, someone who likes to do things right, AND because it’s late at night and she’s tired and frustrated, she’s gone a little out of her mind. This email seems to be more about expressing frustration than criticizing me. (And, now that I read the email more carefully and calmly, she called the assignment stupid, not me.) In fact, she’s done a super job of implanting her feelings in me. Very efficient, considering she only used 17 words to do it. Now THAT’S good writing!”

Just between you and me: This is Mr. Krieger mentalizing, or utilizing his Reflective Function. He’s imagining what’s going on emotionally inside his student and connecting his student’s state of mind with her behavior. Mr. Krieger is also noticing his own emotions and how intimately they are related to his student’s. As an added bonus, Mr. Krieger is able to step away, to detach, and commend his student on a job well done. This last move is very healing, as it allows Mr. Krieger to chuckle, which releases his rage and activates his fondness for this suffering, anxious student.

Having used RF, Mr. Krieger responded to his student. He made a conscious choice to avoid the content of the message — he did not combat the student’s assessment of “stupid,” for example; he did not deride the student for making an inappropriate unilateral decision or for being so inconsiderate as to email her teacher close to midnight — and directly addressed the anxiety. Here’s what he wrote:

“Not to worry. The technology is new to all of us. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Thanks for trying so hard! And get some sleep!”

Note that Mr. Krieger did not model mentalizing for his student by talking out loud in front of her. He simply did the work (what I call “emotion work”) on his own. Doing emotion work led to a sense of understanding and some good guesses which led to an email that conveyed compassion, reassurance, and a plan of action. This behind-the-scenes modeling of Reflective Function took very little time and effort. And it worked.

Immediately, Mr. Krieger received this note from his student:

“Phew! Thanks, Mr. K. I was about to throw my computer out the window. See you tomorrow.”

A job well done, indeed. True story.

Do you have stories about your teaching? Stories that show you using your Reflective Function well? Stories that continue to mystify you, that you’d like to figure out but don’t know how? I would love to hear them. And I’d love to post them. Leave a comment with your story in it and be sure to tell me if I may post the story (or not) and if you would like a private reply from me that might nudge you along in your RFing. Confidentiality guaranteed!

Psychological Maltreatment

smiley-822365_1280Many students suffer from Psychological Maltreatment, and teachers risk reinforcing it if they don’t know the antidote.

I am such a weenie.

When I read about children who have suffered emotional abuse and/or neglect, even if I read about them in an academic article with a lot of tables and p values, I want to weep. I cannot stand the thought that people who are so dependent on adults for their well-being can be so totally betrayed by their caregivers. It just makes me hurt.

And it doesn’t end with the children. The very caregivers who are unable to contain their emotions, who cannot hold their children safely, are also terribly hurt. Chances are super-good that those parents were abused themselves and are passing the treatment on, generation after generation.

The article I just read, called “Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes,” is full of tables and p values. But it makes a very clear claim that teachers need to hear: Psychological Maltreatment (PM), or emotional abuse and neglect, is basically more highly correlated to emotional and behavioral problems than other forms of maltreatment (physical abuse and sexual abuse).

Specifically, children and adolescents who experience PM are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc., and to engage in substance abuse than are children and adolescents who have been physically and/or sexually abused. Those who have suffered PM are as likely as children and adolescents who have been physically abused (and more likely than kids who have suffered sexual abuse) to act out in ways that harm themselves and others.

Why should teachers know about this? Because these children and adolescents, of course, are in our classrooms. It would be nice (I guess) if children who are hurting would keep their hurt at home. But very often they can’t. They bring their hurt to school.

And, in their eyes, we are potential caregivers. We are people who might be able to provide what they don’t get at home: Accurate seeing. Containment. Holding. Connection. Hope. Ironically, though, their behavior invites us to reinforce their expectations of ongoing Psychological Maltreatment. They resist, offend, disrupt, disrespect. We attack, banish, ridicule, give up. In the case of students who have internalized their pain, avoiding contact with adults (who have proven themselves to be utterly unreliable) and making themselves extremely difficult to detect, we completely overlook (read: ignore and neglect) them.

In other words, whether we like it or not, teachers are implicated in Psychological Maltreatment even if we don’t have a mean or neglectful bone in our bodies. We risk exhausting ourselves either battling and perpetuating students’ negative behaviors or tolerating them with compassion. And, given that most teachers are not parents to their students, this is INCREDIBLY hard work.

But figuring out how to read students’ suffering is essential. No child deserves to hurt that badly. If they are to develop cognitively, they also have to develop and thrive emotionally. If parents can’t provide a healthy environment, teachers must. And teachers, of course, need strong support in providing such an environment.

This is the way I manage my horror and sadness at the thought of Psychological Maltreatment: I put my hope in teachers and my energy into emotional support of teachers. Our students are future parents; any positive, healthy relationships they can have with reliable attachment figures like teachers could change the future of generations of parents and children.

I have to say it: This outcome is way more important to me than any test score could ever be.


rock imageExpectations can compel us to look for and find evidence of our own worst beliefs about ourselves and our students.

‘Tis the season of expectations! When school begins, anticipation abounds. Will I be able to find my classrooms? Will I like my students/teacher(s)? Will I be able to handle the workload? Right about now, when most everyone has started classes, expectations are beginning to settle into reality, for better or for worse. Yes, I can find my classrooms. Yes, I more or less like my students/teacher(s). No, I can’t handle the workload. Experience has set our anticipation, our expectations, right.

But there is a type of expectation, a swath of expectation, that can be impervious to experience; in fact, it can feed on our experience and actually tweak our sense of reality. This swath of expectation is called “transference” in psychoanalytic parlance. I call it psychic structure. (I also call it “Chicken from Hell” in my blog post from March 20, 2014.)

The idea behind psychic structure is that we’ve all constructed ourselves in response to our earliest environments to expect certain things from the world. Some of us expect to have to go it alone and hence are terrible at asking for help. Some of us expect rejection when we dare to take up our proper space. Some of us expect to be used or demeaned. Some of us, especially if we are “different” from or threatening to the norm around us, expect to be defined by others’ fear and ignorance, their bigotry. At best, we are all quite flexible and can adjust to changing, unpredictable circumstances appropriately and productively. At worst, as when we’re especially stressed out, we start expecting really negative treatments and attitudes.

Nay, we actually look for them. Here’s an example: I’m in front of a class talking about what makes a good claim in an argumentative paper. (Wait — don’t change the channel! Argumentative claims are really awesome!) I love talking about this stuff; I’m feeling full and authoritative and maybe even a little self-important because I know what I’m talking about and I really want my students to get it. I scan the class, making eye contact, trying to pull the students in.

And my gaze falls on Jimmy’s face. He is frowning and, just as I look at him, he rolls his eyes, leans back in his chair, and says something under his breath to his neighbor while he stretches languidly. He and his neighbor chuckle, and my skin catches on fire.

In this split second, my joyous self-confidence has become fear and self-doubt which just as quickly has morphed into anger and a NEED to squash Jimmy and his neighbor flat. “Jimmy,” I say venomously. “How about you give us a good argumentative claim right here and now?” And, without giving him a chance to respond, “No? No? Hmm. Perhaps you can’t because you’d rather snark than listen.” I smile nastily as some students in the class snicker. Jimmy pulls his hood over his head and slumps in his chair.

OK, so where’s the expectation? It seems pretty obvious that I expected Jimmy to be snarky in his comment to his neighbor. I expected him to disrespect me. I might believe these expectations to be justified based on previous experiences with Jimmy in which he avoided work, spoke in mumbles to me but in hilarious whispers to his friends, and lazed around in class looking everywhere but at me or the board. These expectations were all about Jimmy, all about who he was and how he needed to be corrected and improved.

But there’s another level of expectation going on here that is much more fundamental. It is the expectations I have about myself in the world.

It is no coincidence in this story that Jimmy’s face activated me when I was soaring as a teacher, when I was feeling full of myself and happy and confident. Because of how I am structured, these moments of self-confidence are actually my most vulnerable moments. How can that be?

If I grew up in a family where I was squashed (similarly to how I squashed Jimmy) every time I took up space or expressed an opinion or an enthusiasm, then I learned at least a couple of things: (1) don’t take up space! and (2) if you do, expect to be taken down, to be disrespected and reviled. Even if I grow up to be a functioning, confident adult, I continue to be most vulnerable in these moments of unprotected joy, excitement, and competence.

In other words, because of how I am structured, because of the relational lessons I learned while growing up (and, of course, because of hard wiring), I will always be inclined to reach for any evidence I can find that my expectations of the world are accurate — even when those expectations are self-undermining and unfair to others.

Here it is again: We are all inclined to seek out evidence from the world around us — from others’ behaviors and attitudes, their faces and body language — that confirms our expectations about how we get to exist in the world. No matter how senseless or unwarranted those expectations might seem when held up to the cold light of rationality, they nonetheless rule us emotionally. Our skin catches on fire, alarms go off in our heads, and our emotions topple like dominos into automatic behaviors that are, more often than not, defensive and punitive.

And when teachers get defensive and punitive, it is bad news for students.

I like the image of teachers’ reaching out and grabbing evidence from the world that reinforces their deepest expectations about themselves. I like it because it emphasizes how internal and sealed off this psychic process is. In these moments of transference, the complexity of the surrounding reality matters not. What matters is the teacher’s expectations and, importantly, her inability to see the world any differently at that moment. She is, after all, constructed to see the world through these lenses of expectation; her expectations, like astigmatism, determine how and what she sees.

What all this means, to me, is that teachers deserve to notice their difficult emotional reactions and examine them. What are we expecting? What evidence are we unthinkingly grabbing onto? How else might that evidence be interpreted? Can the astigmatism be corrected, even for just a moment, so that we can see ourselves and our students more clearly and accurately?

Just in case you’re constructed to seek out evidence that you are somehow terribly deficient or under par and hence should be feeling bad about yourself right now for falling prey to your inaccurate expectations, please note: Everyone, every human being on this planet, experiences transference. Every single one of us has constructed expectations and unthinkingly finds support for them every moment of every day. (This is called “perception.”) The trick is not to somehow transcend this normal psychic process. The trick is to use it so as to spare yourself unnecessary suffering and to turn a more discerning eye on your students, who are actually telling you about themselves, not you, and who need you to know them.

And, hey: Welcome back to school!


POW-WeddingsTeachers can help students move from hurtful action-talk to helpful actual talk.

I just read an article that (1) made me smile because of its simplicity and compassion and (2) blew my mind a little because it worked.

The article is titled “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But What About Words?” It’s by a guy named William Sharp and is published in a journal that probably isn’t on every teacher’s nightstand: The International Journal of Group Psychotherapy (volume 64, number 3, July 2014, pp. 281-296).

Here’s what William Sharp wrote about: He ran a group for inner city third graders who had “behavioral issues” in the classroom. They routinely yelled, threw things, got antsy, interrupted, fought with other students, etc. In their weekly meetings (of 42 minutes each), the 8 boys who signed up spent the first few months playing and resisting opportunities to talk. Importantly, Sharp made time for talk, and he was very explicit about how much time and when “talk time” began (using a timer).

The goal of the group was to help the boys start talking rather than acting out, but Sharp noticed something important: For these active boys, “words held no real meaning” (p. 285). Rather, actions carried meaning. For example, as Sharp describes, one boy often asked to go to the bathroom. Sharp noticed that this boy “asked” to use the restroom when it came time for him to listen to someone else in the group. Sharp hypothesized that this boy felt extremely uncomfortable waiting on other people and wanted to escape as soon as he began feeling this way. Hence, the action. The question itself held no meaning, as the boy didn’t really have to go to the bathroom; what he needed was to flee.

Sharp shared his guess with the boys and asked this particular boy if he could try to wait for a few minutes every meeting. The boy agreed and was able to increase his wait time every week. “As a testimony to the power of the group,” Sharp writes, “by spring, no one in the group needed to take a bathroom break during group time” (p. 285).

This is where I began to smile out of sheer joy at this man’s brilliance, compassion, and clear seeing.

Sharp noted that the boys needed to pass through an intermediate phase before becoming comfortable with direct talking. That stage Sharp calls “action-talk.” He defines action-talk this way: “Instead of with fists, a child can punch with insults and slanders. There is no symbolization with words, however, just discharge” (p. 286). In this intermediate stage, rather than act out with their bodies, the boys acted out with their words, hurting others and relieving themselves.

Sharp’s automatic response to this aggressive talk was to want to SHUT IT DOWN. The anxious feelings that come through in action-talk can be highly contagious, and any self-respecting adult naturally wants to alleviate her own anxiety by squelching the source. But Sharp gave the boys room to express themselves AND to experience the aftermaths with each other and with their self-aware and patient group leader. Over time, the boys had to learn that words actually WOULDN’T hurt them, something they were supposed to believe but clearly didn’t. They had to learn how to turn action-talk to (just) talk — and to trust that talk would work.

Smiles. Smiles, smiles, smiles. This work was transformative for those deserving boys, and reading about it made me happy.

It also made me a better parent. Instantaneously. Here’s a true story that happened the night I read this article. The characters in this story Shall Remain Unnamed In Order to Protect the Innocent.

Once upon a time, a pre-teenage boy was going to bed after a long, deadly hot day at soccer camp. He was lying on his bed; his mother was encouraging him to brush his teeth; and his father was downstairs, calling up to his son.

Dad: Son, there are some smelly soccer socks on the floor here in the living room. Please come get them.

Son: Shut up, you jerk!

Mom (wanting to smack this obnoxious child but thinking “action-talk to talk, action-talk to talk”): Whoa! Son, why don’t you try using some different words here?

Son: No! Stop being a jerk.

Mom (gritting her teeth): Son, the words you’re using are only hurting. Try using different ones that will explain what’s going on with you.

Son: I’m-really-tired-and-don’t-want-to-do-anything-right-now-because-I’m-really-tired!!!

Dad: That’s close enough.

The next morning, the mother and father noticed that the soccer socks had disappeared from the living room floor.

From action-talk to talk. From fear of being coerced and misunderstood to honest self-expression, self-care, and, eventually, right action. All because hurtful action-talk was neither shut down nor punished, but acknowledged and diverted. (Fortunately, the son in this story had ready access to words thanks to years and years and years of being encouraged to use them.)

Why should teachers care about this article? Because most teachers have boys in their classrooms, and many of those boys will prefer action and action-talk to actual talk. Because those teachers will find themselves wanting to shut those boys down before giving them a chance to say what they need to say — and practice at using words is essential to developing the emotional literacy all boys (and girls) need to function healthily throughout their lives. Because developing emotional literacy is just as important as developing any other kind of literacy.

And because teachers need the kind of hope and compassion that William Sharp demonstrates for his trouble-making boys, hope and compassion that can blossom into a broad and joyous smile — something else all teachers need.


clothesline2Teachers who are too big for their britches can handicap their students.

There’s probably no good way to introduce the actual topic of this blog post without causing anxiety. So, in preparation, I’m going to ask you to empty your mind of preconceptions and judgment and fill it with curiosity and kindness.

Ohm. Ready?

The topic of this post is grandiosity, or being “too big for your britches.”

The reason I think this topic is anxiety-producing is that, well, there’s nothing really good about grandiosity. If you’re grandiose, you’re inflated and out-of-touch. If you’re too big for your britches, you’re arrogant, conceited, narcissistic, and insufferable. So why in the world would anyone want to think about grandiosity?

The reason I believe people, especially teachers, should think about grandiosity is that there’s a more humane (and relevant) definition: feeling more powerful and influential than you actually are. And, given that we’re heading towards the end of the school year, when teachers might be tempted to either take more credit than they deserve (“She couldn’t have done it without me”) or, far more likely, blame themselves disproportionately (“I have failed him!”), getting a handle on grandiosity can be helpful.

The truth is that grandiosity is a totally adaptive quality if you’re someone who takes care of other people. If you didn’t believe you could have a far-reaching positive influence on others, why would you enter any caretaking profession? Being too big for your britches becomes a problem when it destabilizes you: when you become filled with anxiety about staying on top (keeping those compliments coming, keeping your students’ or administrators’ or peers’ or school parents’ approval, etc.) or when you tear yourself down for the poor performance of people under your care.

The key to thinking about grandiosity is, first, to notice it and refrain from judging yourself. Are you feeling resentful that others aren’t working as hard as you are? Are you feeling somehow superior to others? Are you feeling hyper-responsible and lonely? Are you worried that you’re actually a phony and at risk of being discovered? Are you working overtime to win and keep others’ approval?

On the flip side, are you feeling terrible about yourself for not having gone the extra 100th mile, for not having seen signs ahead of time, for not having rescued someone from a fate worse than death, for having done your best and discovered your best isn’t good enough? Are you blaming yourself for other people’s setbacks or failures?


Another key to thinking about grandiosity is to meditate on this fact: You can control no one but yourself.

If this is hard for you, meditate on it some more.

Yet another key is to meditate on this fact: Wherever you go, the best you can do is to bring yourself along. (Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it in his 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.) If you are someone who has an internal center (rather than an external one, lodged in other people’s opinions) and a willingness to stop, listen, think, and feel, you will be able to respond to other people adequately. You might not be able to fix them or solve their problems, but you will be able to offer them two crucial things: empathy and boundaries.

And, of all people, teachers need to understand unequivocally the value of these two responses. Empathy means “I see you and hear you and support you in your learning.” Boundaries mean “But it is your learning, your struggle, not mine. By trying to save you from it, I am robbing you of your birthright to grow and develop into a secure, healthy person.” Teachers help in this developmental process, but they cannot do it for their students.

Grandiose teachers try.

What’s great about noticing grandiosity and meditating on who you are and what is yours — that is, meditating on the boundaries that both separate you from others and connect you healthily to them — is that you can cultivate yourself. You can wonder about your need for approval or success or influence or power or appreciation or love. Understanding your needs and getting them met by appropriate sources (hint: not your students) can strengthen you as a teacher and allow you to offer your students scaffolding they can actually use to learn and grow.

And trimming yourself down to fit comfortably in your britches can be a relief. It can feel great. A big reason, I think, is that fighting reality — trying to be more powerful and influential than you really are — is exhausting and, ultimately, futile. Attuning with reality, on the other hand, is calming and liberating.

But note: Being just right for your britches does not mean giving up on caring for others, on teaching and helping your students to grow. It just means accepting your own limits and valuing your ability to be authentically and simply present to yourself and others. Such a sense of realistic balance is inexpressibly precious.


Chicken from Hell


Our expectations about how the world will respond to us are often limiting and self-fulfilling — and can feel like being gripped by a Chicken from Hell.

So there’s a new dinosaur in town, Anzu wyliei, the Chicken from Hell. Eleven feet long, weighing 500 pounds, “a really absurd, stretched-out chicken” (as one scientist described it). “Nightmarish” says the Daily Beast. “[A] cross between a velociraptor and an ostrich.”

And a great blog post title.

But it’s related to what I want to talk about today. Really. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon psychotherapists and -analysts call “transference,” the capacity we all have to project a hologram from the past onto people in our present and to interact with the hologram as if it were real. We generally engage in transference in times of stress, when we’re taking risks or feeling insecure or unsafe. The hologram represents what we expect to happen, how we expect to be treated or viewed. And the ways we behave when we’re engaging in transference usually, ironically, guarantee that our expectations will be fulfilled.

Here’s an example: It’s Parent-Teacher night. Ms. Z is a little nervous about meeting her students’ parents. But she’s ready with folders of student work and lists of scores that bolster her evaluation of each student’s performance so far.

Ms. Z was doing just fine until Skippy’s parents showed up. When she described her curriculum, Skippy’s dad made a sour face. When she indicated that Skippy’s writing was a little undisciplined, both parents looked at her in surprise. “But he loves to write!” they exclaimed. Ms. Z suddenly felt extremely defensive. “Well, he might love to write at home,” she said. “But he doesn’t love to write in school. And that’s got to change!” Ms. Z’s comments carried an accusatory tone for the remainder of the conference; Skippy’s parents sat stony-faced to the end and didn’t thank Ms. Z when they left.

This is a story of transference. It’s an interesting example, because it shows how little someone has to do to activate anxiety in someone else. In this example, it was the sour face and the surprised comment about Skippy’s writing that set off the psychic alarm inside Ms. Z. She had grown up with faces like that and negative judgments about her abilities. Though she tried to fight off these contemptuous messages when she was little, she nonetheless successfully internalized them in such beliefs as “I’m not smart” and “I don’t really know what I’m doing” and “One of these days someone is going to call me out as a phony.”

Often these beliefs were silent or at least quiet inside Ms. Z. But this parent-teacher conference released them as a howl. Without even thinking, Ms. Z blocked the parents’ imagined contempt by expressing it about them. “I’m not the incompetent one,” she seems to be saying. “You are.”

Where’s the hologram? Ms. Z projected an image from her past onto Skippy’s parents that embodied her expectations of how they felt about her (based on how others from her past had apparently felt about her): that she was stupid, incompetent, and self-deceiving; that she was contemptible. Because this hologram was so convincing to Ms. Z, she (1) couldn’t see Skippy’s parents or discern their actual thoughts and feelings about Ms. Z’s class and (2) responded to a reality that she had in effect created. Her response, which she had perfected as a child, was to deflect others’ contempt and judgment by going on the offensive and accusing them instead. And lo and behold! By doing this she ensured that Skippy’s parents left feeling the contempt and judgment for her that she most feared.

What does any of this have to do with the Chicken from Hell? The way I see it, the anxiety that fuels transference, that powers up the hologram, is a Chicken from Hell. The expectations of blame, judgment, censure, inadequacy, etc., that we have constructed through our lives can be as “nightmarish” as an 11-foot, 500-pound velociraptor ostrich. These terrible feelings can come out of nowhere; they can come with incredible speed; they can appear sometimes as a stretched-out chicken, sometimes as a velociraptor, sometimes as an ostrich; they are always totally convincing and they grip us in their claws without mercy.

And they can really screw up our relationships.

Just as the discovery of Anzu wyliei is exciting, so is uncovering your own Chicken from Hell. For, if you can see that thing coming, you can protect yourself. You can prepare for it, think differently about it, notice your instincts and wonder about them, try entirely new behaviors and see what happens. You can say,

“Here comes my Chicken from Hell, Anzu wyliei, my nightmarish, absurd dinosaur. There was a time when this creature was a genuine threat, when I was afraid for my safety or my integrity or my right to exist, when I feared I’d be abandoned or destroyed, when I thought I’d lost the love or protection or admiration I desperately needed.

“But that dinosaur is dead. It’s a pile o’ bones somewhere in North or South Dakota. The thought of it still terrifies and controls me, but if I can remind myself that it is a memory, an expectation, that it is not necessarily real right now, then maybe I can try something new.”

What might you try?

You could try peeking out from behind the hologram projector to see what the person you’re interacting with is actually doing. Maybe they won’t live up to your expectations; maybe they’ll treat you differently from what you anticipate. You could try protecting yourself from situations you know will activate your anxiety either by avoiding them entirely or arming yourself with tactics you know you will use to maintain your balance and sense of agency.

You could try unearthing the beliefs about yourself the Chicken from Hell represents. You could generate new, more accurate beliefs and say them to yourself and post them all over your apartment and carry them with you on index cards so you can refer to them whenever you need to. You can label feelings and think about their significance to you, what they mean, when you’ve felt them before, where they came from.

You could try getting curious about what your feelings might be telling you about other people, how they might be feeling right now. You could wonder why you’re so quick to assume you know what’s going on inside someone else. You could ask a clarifying question or two. You could practice affirming what is true and good about yourself and commit to taking care of yourself when you’re in emotional trouble.

And, when you’re feeling especially strong, you could try looking at that absurd chicken and laughing. Or hell with it: you could take out an imaginary shotgun and blow the damned thing away. Your Chicken from Hell deserves to be extinct.

Prep Schools for Prison

prison-barsPerhaps a place to start in changing the pipeline-to-prison phenomenon is with teachers’ emotional responses to their students.

You know, Alfie Kohn has been talking about the dangers of punitive classroom management strategies for at least a couple of decades, but, alas, history does appear to perpetually repeat itself. I just read an article by a professor named Russ Skiba called “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Achieving a Balance in School Discipline” that pretty much says what Kohn said in books like Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline: getting tough on disruptive students does not solve the problem of disruptive students. In fact, “exclusionary discipline” tends to exacerbate the problem.

That is (the article states), schools that are most effective with their zero tolerance policies (meaning they often expel and suspend troublesome students) “have poorer ratings of school climate and school safety, higher rates of racial disparity in discipline, and lower scores on academic achievement tests.” The part about racial disparity is especially interesting and important. According to Skiba’s article, black students are particularly affected by “exclusionary discipline”: while black students were suspended twice as much as white students in the 1970s, black students are now suspended THREE AND A HALF TIMES as much as white students under zero tolerance rules.

(It appears that being African American in school cannot be tolerated.)

What really struck me as I was reading this article was that, after the first paragraph or so, I was reminded of an NPR story I caught on the radio on Monday about solitary confinement in prisons. Apparently, the head of a prison somewhere put himself into “the hole” to experience what so many prisoners experience. I don’t think he made it in solitary for 24 hours before deciding that he was going to change that policy in his prison. It’s simply inhumane.

So what I was thinking while reading Skiba’s article was “Hey! ‘Exclusionary discipline’ feels like another version of solitary confinement.” And, lo and behold, a few paragraphs down I read, “…being suspended or expelled significantly increases the risk of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. These risks, often termed the school-to-prison pipeline, are magnified for students of color.”

Right. Zero tolerance schools are like prep schools for prison.

(Click on that school-to-prison pipeline link. The statistics are OUTRAGEOUS.)

Because it exposed such noxious effects of punitive classroom management, especially for students of color, I really liked Skiba’s article. It ended with a list of nine things teachers can do to achieve balanced discipline and, while I can’t stand the implication in so many writings about education that teaching is simply a matter of following a list of procedural to-dos, his list isn’t bad.

Only, once again, the to-do list is focused on students. “Do this with or to your students.” “Teach your students to do this.” All well and good. Students do need to learn how to exercise self-restraint and take responsibility for their actions. These are appropriate and crucial objectives for any educational system.

But here’s a fact that really deserves to be examined: “Disruptive,” “troublesome,” and “problematic” are in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder of students is the teacher. Wouldn’t it make sense to talk to teachers about their perceptions of disruption? What one teacher can call “trouble” might look like “feistiness” or a “cry for help” to another. Might the first step in managing classrooms be teachers’ management of their own fear and anxiety when faced with students they deem “problematic”?

Might classroom management start with personal emotional management on the part of the teachers? What do you think?


Pineapple-22What can classrooms and BDSM have in common? Safe words!

I was recently talking to some teachers and students about emotions in the classroom. The teachers and the students wanted to talk about ways to manage difficult conversations in class, particularly conversations that trigger or offend one or more participants. Examples came up: when a white person uses the “n-word”; when someone states a homophobic belief; when someone reveals hurtful cultural ignorance.

The beauty of having this conversation with teachers AND students was that we could hear from both sides. Some teachers expressed their intense discomfort at being squeezed between a feeling of offense — “I can’t believe you just said that!” — and a desire to protect the offender — “If I call you out, I’ll shame you — and I don’t want to do that.” Students shared their experience of feeling unsafe when teachers let these uncomfortable moments pass. When they feel unsafe, even for a moment, these students confirmed, their long-term response is to shut down, which makes learning very difficult and, of course, can reinforce all-too-familiar shame in them.

We talked about the importance of laying ground rules for all conversations at the beginning of the school year. We talked about the importance of maintaining a safe place for all students to express themselves, what I call “holding” or “containing,” and what I consider to be the teacher’s job. (It’s nice when the students in a class cooperate with keeping the classroom a safe place, but it’s when this cooperation breaks down that the intense discomfort floods in and teachers have to step up.) We talked about teachers as developmental partners and the good possibility that at least one student will “act out” in class, making it essential for the teacher to set a limit that the student might resist but that all students need. And we talked about “safe words.”

“Safe words,” I discovered, are words used in the BDSM world, in Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism enactments. While I don’t want to compare teaching with BDSM scenarios, I do want to share the value of using “safe words” in classroom conversations that could get scary for the participants.

One “safe word” that a teacher came up with was “pineapple” — a word that probably wouldn’t be used in class conversations so would stand out if anyone uttered it. The idea is that, if anyone in a class said “pineapple,” all conversation would stop and care would be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. This care could involve a few seconds of silence; it could involve a description, stripped of bias and judgment, of what just happened; it could involve psychoeducation about the possible effects of certain words or acts on others; it could require some disclosure from the teacher: “This just happened, and I’m not sure what to do about it”; it could involve individual writing: “Please write down words that describe how you’re feeling right now”; “Please write down what you would like to have happen right now.”

In short, “pineapple” would break the classroom frame. It would stop the regular performing that makes up a day in the life of a classroom and ask everyone to pay attention to each other and the impact, intentional or not, of their words and behaviors. “Pineapple” would invite the teacher and students to peer at the innards of their learning, which would give them a chance to adjust their process so the surface learning could continue.

A normal response at this point might be something like “Good LORD!!! Why would any teacher let discussions get to the point where a safe word would be necessary?!?”

One answer is that some teachers are comfortable with “disrupting” students’ safe, often unquestioned assumptions about the world. These teachers might argue that discomfort in the classroom is a useful sign that students are actually learning something, that they’re integrating new ideas and changing their world views, their thoughts, their behaviors.

Another answer is that teachers have no actual control over when or how a classroom environment might become unsafe for one or more students. The occurrence of bullying in schools and on-line between classmates testifies to this fact. A bedrock reality of classrooms is that relationships and emotions happen there, whether anyone likes it or not. Teachers who are unprepared for eruptions of emotion, whether in the guise of an offensive comment or in a student’s withdrawal from all class participation, handicap themselves. And they curtail their students’ education.

What role might a pineapple have to play in your classroom?

Older posts