Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Development (page 1 of 2)

Filling the Void

The key is to scaffold struggle, not to fill the void.

“Filling the void” is a term I use a lot with teachers. Filling the void is what we do when we perceive that something that needs to be done – often by somebody else – is not being done. We sense the void, and we feel anxious. So we jump right in and kill two birds with one stone: We do the job (thus demonstrating our competence) and we tamp down our anxiety.

And make way for resentment. But I’m sprinting way ahead.

Here’s how filling the void might sound:

Student: I don’t know how to do this.

Teacher: Sure you do! We just went over it.

Student: But I don’t get it. I do this…and then…this?

Teacher: I’ll show you.

Where is the void? (Actually, I perceive two possible voids here.)

Void #1: The student doesn’t know something.

Void #2: The student can’t do something.

These are very common voids, of course. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of them on the face of it. In fact, one might consider not knowing something and not being able to do something as valid steps along the path to mastery.

How does this teacher fill the voids?

Tactic #1: Deny the void’s existence

The teacher fills the void by insisting it’s not there. “No, you don’t not know. You do know.” This is not a great tactic because it totally overrides the student’s own reality. And students really need to have their own realities validated.

Tactic #2: Do it yourself

Showing students how to do things is a perfectly legitimate way to teach. Watch out, though: If you’re doing something to fill a void, you may be helping yourself more than the student.

The reason I say this is that, if voids make you anxious – because somewhere way back in your history you learned that competence is better than incompetence or merging is better than separation or (perhaps more recently) your student’s performance is a marker of your own value — then filling the void might be a knee-jerk reaction to your anxiety.

It may be that what your student needs more than anything is to feel that void himself. Feeling the void, especially with a teacher who is comfortable with void-induced anxiety, might spur your student to actually start struggling.

Which is what students need to become comfortable with. Struggling. While being “held” (more about this another time) by a curious and confident teacher.

In short, when students don’t know something or can’t do something, they might be exactly where they need to be: poised on the edge of struggle. Allowing students to struggle their way from not-knowing to knowing, from incompetence to competence, is not only ultimately gratifying (for student and teacher) but is, in fact, an acceptable definition of teaching-and-learning.

What voids do you fill?

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.





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.

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?


New Year’s Resolution

happy new yearIt’s a new (academic) year. Time for a resolution!

I know. New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time. Who keeps them? They serve only to assuage guilt and fool us into thinking we’ll actually change.

But change is a worthy goal, especially if it’s change that will reduce suffering, our own and others’. And my work is dedicated to reducing suffering, first in teachers and then (when teachers feel better) in students.

So here’s my New (Academic) Year’s Resolution: to post teacher stories on this very blog that illustrate how teachers can reduce their own (and, by extension, their students’) suffering.

This resolution is very important to me. In an age of increasing awareness of racism, mental illness, poverty, and other ills that severely handicap learners coupled with bizarrely irrelevant pressures on teachers to raise test scores, suffering in schools abounds. I know not everyone is hurting all the time; I know many people don’t feel their suffering or see suffering in others; I know the words “suffering” and “school” don’t seem to go together. But suffering is happening nonetheless.

It’s happening in schools where dark-skinned children are separated from white-skinned children and forced to learn with much less. It’s happening in schools where children sit in class while their stomachs rumble or their teeth ache. It happens inside the heads of children whose parents fought violently last night or were too busy or preoccupied or self-absorbed to see anyone clearly, least of all themselves and certainly not their growing children. It happens inside teachers when they feel they haven’t reached a student or that they have messed up with a student or that they are fed up and have nothing left to give a student. It happens in a most unbearable way as a teacher approaches burnout.

I want teachers’ suffering to be addressed and palliated. Most importantly, I want teachers to learn how to utilize their emotions to figure out what is going on relationally with their students (and others) so as to re-align with them. I want schools to be places of healing, where relationships between teachers and students and among students form the proper bedrock for growth and development.

I want teachers to have the support they need to be healthy developmental partners for their students. I want it because that’s what education is: development. And if our students’ development is hampered by suffering, by senseless, needless, preventable suffering, they will grow to be contorted, and their skills and talents will lie hidden or will be channeled into self- and other-destructive acts.

This outcome is, to me, morally reprehensible. It is utterly unacceptable.

And so I resolve to do what I can here on this blog and in my face-to-face interactions with teachers to help them reduce their suffering by facing it and learning from it and then passing on their compassion and understanding to their students, thereby reducing their students’ suffering. It is, I believe, the most important work I can do.*

What is your New (Academic) Year’s Resolution? What do you think of mine?

*That and being a good-enough mother.


colored-pencils-656202_1280What are some drawbacks to the Success Academy’s definitions of success?

When it comes to articles about education, I usually know exactly where I stand: in the land of the progressives, where discovery, growth, care, and authenticity lie.

I recently had a reading experience, though, that threw me into no-man’s-land. I had to admit, after reading this NYT article by Kate Taylor, that I wasn’t sure where I stood in relation to its topic, which is a group of charter schools called Success Academy.

The reason I found myself in no-man’s-land was, basically, that the Success Academy schools appear to be working. I mean, here’s how other public school students in New York City did on their standardized tests last year: 29% of students passed reading and 35% passed math. In blazing contrast, 64% of Success school students passed reading and 94% passed math. That’s a dramatic difference.

How does Success Academy do it?

According to the article, the Success Academy approach to education is “driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.” In Success schools, rules rule. Student behavior is completely controlled, from how students sit — backs straight, feet on floor, hands folded on desks, and eyes glued to the teacher during lessons — to how they walk — silently, in lines, obeying teachers instantly.

The academic life at Success schools is demanding and highly structured. From what I can tell, the curriculum is almost exclusively focused on the subjects in which the students will be formally tested: English, math, and science. Thinking skills such as glossing every paragraph in a reading passage appear to be routinized. Students who do well are praised and rewarded with such gifts as Nerf guns and candy. Students who do not do well are sent to “effort academy,” where they re-do their work to get it right while their peers take fun breaks. Students are frequently suspended, and those who deviate too far from the norm — students for whom English is not the first language, for example, or who require special education services — are under-represented.

Students’ scores on class assignments are posted for all to see, so poor performance can become public humiliation. In fact, one Success school administrator exhorted teachers to make students who were not doing well to feel “misery.”

Did I mention that the vast majority of students who attend Success schools are African American and Hispanic?

With all due respect to no-man’s-land, I have some concerns.

First, I’m concerned about the focus on standardized test scores. This one’s pretty obvious. As a hot-blooded progressive, I have no use for standardized tests. Of course, I am all for students’ working hard and feeling proud of their accomplishments, and this is something Success Academy aims for. But there is actual evidence that the skills required for success on standardized tests do not translate into success in life as directly as was previously assumed and that they can even “create far-reaching damage” (that’s a quote from the second-to-last page of Henry Levin’s 2012 article “More Than Just Test Scores”). And there is no evidence that Success Academy students (who are all elementary-level) will apply to, get into, go to, and graduate from college, this last being an achievement that can translate into life success.

But that’s the obvious concern. Here’s perhaps a less obvious concern: the emphasis on, the requirement of, compliance in the Success Academy.

I don’t see forced compliance in classrooms as a good thing. While supportive structure — consistency, reasonable predictability, and routines — can really help students get down to work in school, tightly controlled environments of the type advocated in Success Academy are not hospitable to emotional or cognitive development.

Here’s why: Growth requires space. In psychodynamic terms, healthy development requires “potential space” (a term coined by my hero, D.W. Winnicott). It is in potential space that children/students/people-in-general play, which is to say they engage, experiment, create, make mistakes, and organize data about the world into meaningful understanding. I (and some others) like to call potential space “the Third” because potential space is a “third reality” that emerges from interactions between and among at least two other realities (two people’s realities, for example, or one person’s reality and a book’s reality, etc.).

Forced compliance is the enemy of potential space. As I like to characterize it, forced compliance crushes the Third; it stamps out creativity and meaning-making. It prohibits authentic relationships with people and ideas. And, while it might lead to high test scores, it robs students of their birthright, which is to grow up into people who are, at the very least, intellectually flexible; innovative and confident in their problem-solving capacities; and self-regulated, able to live in a healthy, balanced way.

But that’s not the worst of it.

My final concern is my biggest. It is related to the issue of compliance coupled with the fact that so many of the students who are being treated to the Success Academy approach are children of color. Is it a coincidence that the strict environment they’re learning in could be called “slavedriving”? Is it fair to characterize Success schools as browbeating children of color into conformity? Am I the only one who sees the behavior requirements, the public postings of scores, the punitiveness, the normalization of underlings’ misery, the complete centralization of power and approval that requires slavish adherence to rules as recapitulations of slave culture?

If there’s even the hint of a possibility that this is so, then that’s a serious drawback to the Success Academy.

I confess, I was proud of myself for being open-minded enough to stand in educational no-man’s-land for a while when it came to passing judgment on these charter schools. But here’s my own uncomfortable realization: Was I, a white middle class woman, in no-man’s-land because of my own unconscious racism and classism, which prevented me from immediately seeing the disturbing parallels between Success Academy norms and the controls and aims of slavery?

What do you think?

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.

Invisible Work

man-person-cute-youngEmotional and cognitive development do not happen naturally; they happen as a result of hard work by caregivers, work that is, unfortunately, invisible to most.

I just finished a book that questions the traditional approach to developmental psychology. It critiques Piaget, for example, and Vygotsky, two popular theorists in the field of education. It goes into detail about Marx and Lacan and Althusser and Foucault.


I read it because I think and write about human development, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And I’m glad I finished the book, because it wasn’t until the second-to-last page that I understood why the author was so enthusiastic about “the anti-developmental project.” In a nutshell, it appears to be this:

“Babies are hard work,” the author (John R. Morss) writes on p. 157. “That work may or may not be ‘rewarding’ or rewarded, and if unrewarded may well be invisible. One consequence of that work is what we call development.”

Stay with me (and John Morss): He’s saying that, however we may feel about the work of raising or teaching children — of being what I call their “developmental partners” — that work is always in danger of going unnoticed, especially by people in power. He continues,

“If the work is done by someone other than oneself, it may appear that the results of [the] work are natural changes — the sort of natural changes we call development. A father might perhaps underestimate the work of a mother in this way. In the context of the school-aged child, both parents and teachers might ‘forget’ each others’ work in a similar manner. Developmental explanation facilitates this forgetting; it explains away.”

So a mother who has borne her son’s 45-minute-long tantrum, who has survived his emotional and physical attacks and has seen him through to a calming that allowed them to talk out what he was feeling, what he needed, and how he might go about getting his needs met differently — that mother’s exhausting work is nothing while her son’s tantrums are age-appropriate and bound to stop once he’s outgrown them?

And the teacher who overcomes fear of a particularly powerful and resistant student in her classroom by attending his sporting events, inviting him to eat lunch with her in her classroom, asking him about his interests and ambitions is extraneous, really, just a prop along the student’s natural developmental trajectory?

No, says Morss. The work that is done by caring adults counts. It is required. That is because human development is necessarily socially embedded. As my favorite psychoanalytic theorist, D.W. Winnicott, puts it, “‘There is no such thing as a baby’ — meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.” (This quote is from a book by Winnicott called The Child, the Family, and the Outside World, published in 1964). That is, development is “work” that is accomplished by at least two people: a baby and his mother/caregiver, a student and her teacher. It is not biologically programmed and is utterly dependent on collaboration with other human beings.

Of course, according to Morss, often the other human beings are women.  And, “in a bizarre, alienating twist [the caretaking woman] may come to perceive even the results of her own work as merely natural” (p. 157). Here, then, is one of the purposes of the “anti-developmental project”: for developmental partners, men and women, to recognize the absolutely essential work they do to enact and foster development in themselves and others. Their work is not “merely natural.” Without hard-working parents and teachers, babies and students simply would not grow.

Sorry for the academic lead-in to this idea, but I was pretty excited to find something useful in Morss’s book (which, by the way, is titled Growing Critical: Alternatives to Developmental Psychology and was published in 1996). My excitement isn’t about my eligibility to now be “anti-developmental” but, rather, to discover yet another expression of the belief that drives me in my work:

Being a developmental partner is hard work. This work, which is, at bottom, emotional and relational, must be seen. Teachers (and parents, and other caregivers) deserve support in doing this hard work. To deny this foundation and this necessity is to continue to fail the teachers whose job it is to help all their students, especially the most difficult ones, pursue their potential, grow and change, develop. Development is not “merely natural” but rests on the strong shoulders of people who think, feel, suffer, and care.

This difficult work must not be invisible.



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.

Raising Students

school-clipartAre you teaching students or children — or both?

You know how you went into teaching because you love kids, you love your subject matter, and you love the idea of forging in your students the same passion and excitement for literature and math and science and politics that you feel?

And you know how there’s always one kid (or, alas, a large group of kids) who pops your bubble on a regular basis by saying, “I don’t know” or “That’s too complicated for me” or simply falls silent and stubbornly, unfathomably, waits you out? And you find yourself acting more like a parent than a teacher, doling out consequences and checking your anger and feeling yourself rushing way too rapidly towards burnout?

Why didn’t anyone tell you this was how it was going to be?

One possible answer is that people tend to think that teachers are going to be working with students: kids who know the difference between school and home, between gaming consoles and desks, between hanging out and learning.

That is, most teachers’ dream is to work with people who have committed to adopting the roles and responsibilities the student identity requires. Roles and responsibilities like listening in class; doing homework; respecting the difference between activities you do with your buddies and activities you do in a school; thinking; practicing respect; letting yourself get excited about ideas; delaying gratification; following instructions; etc.

But the truth is that many teachers are not necessarily working with students, or people who understand and embrace these roles and responsibilities. When that’s not the case — when teachers are not working with students — they are working with a different animal all together. They’re working with children.

Students, I propose, engage in learning and growing intellectually. They’re gathering information, making sense of it, organizing it, embellishing it, making connections, being creative, trying new things, learning from mistakes. They’re forging increasingly mature (one hopes) relationships with content and with the roles of learner, thinker, and knower, an endeavor that requires certain (usually supremely enjoyable) acts and responses from their teachers.

Children, in contrast, are still working on human relationships. They’re developing as people, not as intellectuals, and as such require sometimes unexpected and often highly resented acts and responses from their teachers. Where students might need limits to be erased so they can explore new territory, children generally need very firm limits to be set and reinforced. Where students raise their hands with the answer to every question, children need to be mirrored, to see accurate reflections of themselves, both of what they’re capable of and what they’re not making any effort to do. Where students might question a grade because they’re not sure how to make it better, children question the teacher’s integrity, brilliantly exemplifying the child’s dependence on an authority figure as an external model that can eventually be internalized.

The bad news is that many teachers, it turns out, hate teaching children! And who can blame them? After all, shouldn’t parents be raising children so teachers can raise students????

The good news is that, while the demands of teaching students might differ markedly from the demands of teaching children, it’s all teaching. Learning is development. Period. It’s just a question of what type of development a kid is ready for (and, of course, kids can zigzag between developmental needs dizzyingly, even shifting from being a student to being a child with no warning). Allowing oneself to say, “Ah! Here is a student today” or “OK, today I’m working with a child who is teaching me about her needs” might help teachers accept the inevitable: that the kids in their classes are trying to develop, and they need teachers’ help if that development is to proceed healthily and productively.


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