Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Care

Bryan Stevenson

How teachers can change the world.

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

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

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

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

We are all broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tend to the Tender

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you need ideas about how, look here.




The Middle Class


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Open Letter to an Open Letter

blank_sticky_note_clip_art_12197Teacher burnout is way too understandable. Here’s a way to possibly avoid it.

I just read a very moving Open Letter written by a teacher, Chase Mielke, who is tired of feeling ineffective with his most difficult students. It is a good letter, a fervent reminder to himself that he must not give up. As a teacher, therapist, mother, and caring citizen of this country and this globe, I’m writing my own Open Letter back to him and to other teachers who are giving their all not to give up on their students.

Dear Chase Mielke and other great teachers,

First and foremost: You are right not to give up. Thank you for re-committing to this crazy job with these crazily troubled students.

Second, and very important: You are right to want to give up. There is just so much one person can do. And there are just so many years that caring, creative, energetic people can throw themselves at insoluble problems without cracking.

But there might be another way to think about your frustration and your commitment that could save you from exhaustion and burnout.

Here’s the way to burnout: Thinking that you as the teacher must try harder, must engage more energetically, must overcome your negative emotions and pump out hope, must put out 120% to make up for your students’ -20%. Noble as that commitment is, it is, frankly, unsustainable. If you are an awesome teacher (as you, Chase Mielke, appear to be), we are in danger of losing you if this is the approach you insist on taking.

Here’s another way: Slow down. Breathe. Notice your feelings: Frustration. Hopelessness. Fear. Anger. Incompetence.

Now think about your students. Might they be having these same feelings? If so, then breathe again and smile. Your students are communicating very effectively and even hopefully with you. Through their behaviors, they are teaching you how they feel every day in your classroom (and, probably, outside of your classroom). If you can notice these feelings and sit with them, then you are beginning to see your students very clearly. They are frustrated. They are hopeless. They are afraid and angry. They feel incompetent in school.

Next step: Why might your students be having these feelings?

I’m guessing you won’t have any trouble answering that question. I’m guessing your students have every reason to feel frustrated, hopeless, afraid, angry, and incompetent. I’m guessing their lives have taught them to feel this way.

Next step: Notice your desire to give up on these students. Wonder if that is precisely what your students expect of you. Is it possible that other adults in your students’ lives have given up on them? Or have never had any hope for them in the first place? Is it possible that your students are simply being realistic? Is it possible they are protecting themselves from the probability of intense disappointment and confusion when their efforts to succeed are met with indifference or ridicule or contempt or oblivion?

If you have gotten this far, you might feel as though you’re onto something. Why wouldn’t your students be acting out so egregiously? Why wouldn’t you, as a feeling, functioning human being, respond exactly as they are teaching you to respond? And, given this natural, logical psychodynamic fit, what should you as a teacher do?

My answer is to aim at the truth, which is that your students know they can’t trust you — that is, they do not know how to trust you. If they do not know how to trust adults in their lives; if they do not have the capacity to make use of your care; if they have no faith in their own ability to “recruit” (to use a term from another of my blog posts) consistent positive attention from their mentors, then they are not going to respond to any of your attempts to teach them content. Your job, as I see it, is to teach them how to trust you.

This won’t be easy, Chase Mielke. It takes honest reflecting back at your students, reflecting of the “good” and the “bad” with curiosity and care. It takes consistency. It takes ongoing emotion work on yourself so you can keep the students’ needs separate from your own and your own needs met so you can address the students’ as well as you can, within your totally acceptable limits. It takes detachment. It takes a commitment to not doing the students’ work for them but to narrating, wherever possible and without judgment, what the students’ actions (or inactions) might mean for them. It takes a commitment to being a developmental partner, not just a subject matter teacher, and it takes acceptance of the fact that emotional development — the growing of trust in oneself and others, the awareness of one’s strengths, repeated experiences of honest connection and care that start becoming a new normal — takes time.

This job of teaching students to trust you won’t be easy, but it won’t be impossible, either. If you continue to try to teach them as hard as you can, you’re just throwing yourself on the craggy rocks of their lives. That’s the path of impossibility, and it leads to burnout. If you focus on seeing your students accurately, on caring about them with detachment so they’re not oppressed by your expectations, on living within your own limits and consistently holding them to limits that make sense (something they might not have experienced in their own lives), then you might be able to get somewhere.

And you might not get anywhere. But at least you will still be there, in school, ready for students who can use you, patient with students who for very good reasons cannot use you — yet. Your hope is in your ability and willingness to show up and connect. And my hope is that you get the emotional support you need to keep at it without giving up and burning out. We need you too much, Chase Mielke.

I am sincerely yours.

Hold ‘Em!

hands-918774_1280In an age when teachers are discouraged from touching anybody, I want to exhort teachers to hold their students.

I don’t mean physical holding. I mean emotional holding. Teachers need to figuratively wrap their arms around their students, to create and protect the space around them, so their students can be safe to learn and grow. This kind of holding is actually essential for healthy emotional (and therefore cognitive) development.

My favorite psychoanalyst, Donald W. Winnicott, calls the space parents provide for their children’s growth the “holding environment” or the “facilitative environment.” Healthy holding environments “facilitate” growth and development. They are spaces in which children get to play and experiment safely; in which they get to “be alone in the presence of another”; in which they get to touch base with a trustworthy caretaker when things get rough; in which disruptive impingements are managed effectively; in which limits are established and maintained and “ruthless” tests of those limits are survived; in which reality is represented fairly and calmly and consistently. Healthy holding environments are good places.

In my view, classrooms need to be healthy holding environments. And teachers need to be healthy (in Winnicott’s words, “good enough”; in my words, “great enough”) holders. Not only must teachers provide an environment in which students can experience both structure and creativity, but teachers must be prepared to manage the testing and oppositional behaviors their students will inevitably enact as they come to grips with limits, reality, responsibility, and the existence and rights of others.

But classrooms should not be the only holding environments. In my view, the entire school should be a healthy holding environment. Just as children can play their parents off one another, they can play their teachers and administrators off one another. Teachers (and, whenever possible, parents) need to work together to hold students in ways that facilitate their growth.

That’s kind of obvious, I think. What’s not so obvious is the toll such holding can take on teachers. For holding can be INCREDIBLY HARD WORK. It’s exhausting and maddening to be resisted; it’s exhausting and maddening to be disobeyed; it’s exhausting and maddening to be interrupted, questioned, sassed, hated, and manipulated while all the time maintaining high academic standards and experiencing the relentless pressure to produce acceptable scores on mandated exams.

On top of all that, it can be shocking and traumatizing to encounter students whose psychic contortions have already begun: who have been abused, have witnessed abuse, are engaged in self-destructive or other-harming behaviors, are retreating from adults even as they desperately need caring containment from them. Increasingly, it seems, students come to school having seen and experienced situations that are unfathomable. If teachers and schools do not hold these students effectively, who will?

All this to say: It can be exhausting and maddening and shocking and traumatizing to be constantly adjusting and learning, seeing and feeling, growing and developing.

That’s true for students (which is why teachers need to be great-enough holders). And it’s true for teachers (which is why teachers need to be held, too).

What, then, would a school that is a true holding environment for teachers look like: What do teachers need to feel seen, supported, contained, safe, empowered? How can the development of students and teachers and administrators be facilitated simultaneously in schools? How can each of these constituencies be held caringly as they struggle to grow and learn? Where would parents fit in?

As I continue to grow and learn and take risks as a parent, teacher, therapist, and entrepreneur, I have become convinced that everyone needs to be held by someone at least some of the time. This is no weakness. It is a developmental necessity.

Back to School


Attachment is crucial to healthy relationships at home and in school.

I’m a little late in posting this recommendation, but the story is still well worth hearing: Check out This American Life’s podcast “Back to School” (#474), which was aired on 9/14/12.

The story looks at the “non-cognitive elements” of success in school and discovers attachment theory, which is an important way of thinking about the ways people (students, children, parents, etc.) relate to each other and to ideas. The narrator, Ira Glass, considers the help young mothers can get in learning how to attach to their children and shares research that shows how important relationships, both at home and in school, are to long-term academic and personal success.

The story acknowledges the importance of caring, educative support for young mothers, their children, and at-risk teenagers. What it does not mention is the importance of caring, educative support for the teachers to whom students need to be able to attach. If it can be difficult for some parents to attach to their own children, how much more difficult can it be for teachers? So, for those of you who listen to this podcast, I leave you with the question:

What about the teachers?



Care for the Caregivers

fire hydrantTeachers take care of their students; who is taking care of the teachers?

A definitive professional and parental moment happened for me when I was in social work school and saw one of the more disturbing videos of my life.

The video was a snippet from a research project conducted by some therapists on what they called a “failure to thrive” baby, or a baby who was not growing and developing as he should have been. The baby was basically starving, and no one could figure out why.

The video of a therapy session with the baby, his young mother, and a therapist suggested a possible reason. In order to eat, the five-month-old baby had to drag himself across the floor to a bottle of formula that his mother had placed several feet away. As the hungry baby struggled on the floor, the mother sat in a chair looking at her therapist.

Watching a tiny five-month-old crawl (which five-month-old babies don’t do) was agonizing. If I had been the therapist, my irrepressible instinct would have been to jump up, grab the bottle and the baby, and feed that child. My second instinct would have been to yell at the mother and make her feed the baby.

But that’s not what the therapist did.

What the therapist did was focus on the mother. She left that little baby to his own devices and focused on the mother. She asked questions not about the baby, not about childcare, but about the mother. What was her life like? What was her childhood like? What was going on with her?

The therapist realized that judging the mother for her shocking treatment of her baby was irrelevant. The truth about this mother was that, because of her own experiences and emotional limitations, caring for her baby was, at that moment, personally impossible. And, rather than make her client change to appease her own intense discomfort with what she was witnessing, the therapist sat with her horror and worked on understanding and accepting this young woman.

The therapist looked at and listened to her client. She acknowledged the mother’s feelings and emphasized how legitimate they were. She leaned in to that young woman – whom I was actively hating! – and showed her how much she cared.

And I’ll be damned. It wasn’t long before the mother reached down to her baby, picked him up, and fed him as she cradled him in her arms.

The moral of the video is this: caregivers need care. If we neglect the caregivers, they will neglect their children. Or they will burn themselves out in their efforts to do the personally impossible, which is to feed others when they themselves are depleted and undernourished.

In my view, teachers are caregivers. They are professional caregivers, people whose job it is to enable our children’s healthy cognitive and emotional development. Their care helps to determine our children’s character and capacities for life.

But who is truly capable of taking care of 20 youngsters or 120 teenagers a day? What superhero can see, hear, and understand so many students, some of whom are “failing to thrive,” all of whom are naturally acting out their own limitations in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times? What teacher does not reach and pass over the boundary of what is personally impossible at least once in a school year? How many teachers cross this boundary every day?

And if teachers are expected to do the personally impossible, why wouldn’t they expect, even press, their students to? (Note: It is neither effective nor healthy to attempt to do what is impossible.)

Who is taking care of the teachers?