Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Emotions (page 1 of 2)

These posts discuss emotions in teaching and learning and what to do with them.

Teacher-bots

“It doesn’t serve anybody to pretend that we’re teacher-bots with no emotions, which I think sometimes teachers feel like they have to be.”

So says Alex Shevrin, a teacher and community facilitator for Edutopia who used to work at a therapeutic high school.

Here’s something else Alex Shevrin said: “If I had one wish for every school in the country, it would be that they made time for teachers to really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work.”

Why? Why should teachers sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work?

Oh, baby! Let me count the reasons:

  1. Shevrin’s quotes appear in an Edutopia article about vicarious traumatization, or secondary traumatization, or compassion fatigue, or “the cost of caring.” The point of the article is that teachers who encounter traumatized students (and statistics cited in the article suggest that the chances of such an encounter are quite high, as “more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma”) are in danger of experiencing trauma themselves. What is a tried and true way to avoid secondary traumatization? “Talking it out” (as the article suggests). Talking to a peer, a therapist, a spouse, a peer group. So one reason educators should sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work is to prevent their own traumatization.
  2. Talking out feelings helps metabolize them. Not talking out feelings helps compound them. It’s better to digest feelings (and figuratively poop them out) than it is to allow them to build up into a thick constipated knot that erupts when you least expect it. And I think we’ve had enough of that useful metaphor.
  3. Just talking out feelings can be helpful. But talking about feelings in a particular way can be miraculous. That is, when teachers view their emotions as data, not just as inconvenient obstacles, they can learn a WHOLE HELLUVA LOT about their students and their classroom. They can learn
    1. how they themselves are contributing to bad behavior
    2. how their students might actually be feeling and why
    3. what kind of treatment their students expect from adults and others
    4. what they can do to correct misbehavior and attune classroom relationships
  4. Talking about feelings with a small group of peers (such as a Teacher Support Group) not only helps metabolize emotions and foster miraculous behavioral changes in the classroom but forges strong, reliable bonds among colleagues. As Micere Keels, an expert who is quoted in the Edutopia article on vicarious traumatization puts it, “Reducing professional isolation is critical. It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.” It also fosters deep connections that teachers can draw on whenever they need them — and most teachers need them.
  5. Talking about feelings makes people feel better. Plain and simple. Overcoming our fear of emotions and just letting them live is a very good way to let them go.

I share Alex Shevrin’s wish. I really really wish teachers would “really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work.” I wish it because it would make teachers feel better; it would help them stay in the field; it would help them feel safe and healthy; and it would help their students learn.

Down with teacher-bots.

 

 

 

When You Disagree

donald-trumpDuring this insane Presidential race, how do you hold back when you disagree violently with others’ opinions?

‘Tis the season to disagree. It is, after all, election season.

And what an election season! What a mosh pit of disagreement! (I will say no more other than to direct you to an example.) What an opportunity to learn more about your students and their parents than you could ever want to know!

Let’s say you’re a teacher who supports Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Let’s say one of your students supports Donald Trump. Let’s say your student expresses his support in this way: “Trump will make America great again.” Let’s say you’ve been waiting for a chance to crush any Trump supporter you can get your hands on. Let’s say steam starts coming out of your ears and your bile begins to rise.

What do you do to avoid turning your classroom into a mosh pit?

Suggestion: Separate the student’s beliefs from his person and treat his beliefs as text. Use that text to create a Teaching Moment.

You: Really? Donald Trump will make America great again? Now there’s a good argumentative claim. Can you support it?

Student: What?

You: How will Donald Trump make America great again?

Student: I don’t know.

You: Wait a minute. In this classroom, you can’t make a claim without knowing something about it. If you don’t know, you probably shouldn’t make the claim. Or you should do some research.

Student: I don’t need to do any research. He’s just better than Hillary Clinton.

You: OK. Another claim! How is he better than Hillary Clinton?

Student: I don’t know. He’s stronger.

You: OK. Supporting an opinion with an opinion. Not a good start, but we can work with it. Especially if you can define “stronger” and come up with some good facts to show that Trump is “stronger” (as you define it) than Clinton.

And so forth. The point is that students’ (or, more likely, their parents’) opinions can be fodder for teaching. By being taken seriously, students can experience the essential discipline of thinking in order to support their opinions. The key to supporting this type of learning experience — and to avoiding the mosh pit — is to do aikido with the student, or work with him rather than against him. He is, after all, entitled to his opinions.

And isn’t it great that he has an opinion at all?

It can be so hard to pull back from the cliff of self-righteousness! especially when our students make no attempt to do it themselves! But teachers, as the adults in the room, as the developmental partners to students who are growing intellectually and emotionally, must resist the urge to crush opinions they hate. Rather, they must help students develop those opinions responsibly and logically.

It is possible that fundamentally insupportable opinions will dissolve under the hard light of reason. It is also possible that teacher and students will learn things they hadn’t thought of before. Neither of these scenarios has a chance of happening if teachers disagree so vehemently that they crush the Third.

Labels

labelsI say: Down with labels!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Making the Flip 2

light-29858_1280This simple emotional move can also help teachers avoid taking their students personally.

Another friend was suffering.

This friend — let’s call him Jamal — had just finished teaching a class that had turned out to be a disaster. His students were working on a Constitution unit, one in which they were divided into teams and researching the various sides of controversial issues in preparation for a big debate. On this the third day of the students’ research time in the library, Jamal noticed that the class was unruly. Students were chatting and giggling over their computers or wandering aimlessly through the stacks. He caught some students whispering and scowling; they stopped as soon as he drew near. Other students seemed to look right through him as if he weren’t even there. Jamal was not a particularly paranoid guy, but he felt decidedly alienated and nervous by the end of class.

That’s when I ran into him.

I could tell Jamal was hurting by the lost look on his face. “What happened?” I asked.

“Ohhhhh,” Jamal moaned. “My students hate me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, they seem to really hate this debate unit. They weren’t working on it at all today; just about everybody was goofing off. Every student I looked at gave me either an irritated face or a poker face. I can tell they think this is a terrible unit, a really stupid idea. And I know they think I’m a terrible teacher!”

Does this sound familiar?

One of the most difficult parts of teaching, for me, is my inability to know what is going on inside my students’ heads. I am constantly gathering data about them — are they answering my questions? are they lively? what do their faces look like? Are they interested? bored? asleep? — and jumping to conclusions about what those data mean.

That’s what Jamal was doing, too.

His conclusions were that his debate unit was stupid and he was a terrible teacher. All this based on evidence of restlessness in his students and glimpses of their faces. Oh, and one more thing: projection. His conclusions depended on the automatic and powerful forces of perception and emotion, belief and expectation and, ultimately, interpretation, that o so commonly fill the gap between us and them, between what we do know and what we don’t know about other people.

His way of filling this gap between him and his students — projection — was causing Jamal a great deal of suffering.

So I asked Jamal to make the flip. I asked him to wonder if his emotions of alarm and fear of judgment might be shared by his students. It wasn’t hard for Jamal to imagine, as the day of the debate and the dreaded public speaking drew near, that his students were feeling more and more anxious and opposed to their task. It was possible, he conceded, that he was witnessing resistant behavior.

But Jamal went further. He wondered what his emotions meant about him. He wondered why he so quickly decided he knew what his students felt: that he and his ideas were bad. Why the immediate projection? Why, specifically, the assumption that any of these data had anything to do with him?

Here, Jamal made another flip. He didn’t just switch from worrying to wondering about his students. He switched from immersion in his troubling feelings to detachment from them so he could reflect on himself. From worry to wonder. Making the flip. Utilizing the cornucopia of emotional data from his classroom to make sense of his teaching and his students’ learning.

Flipping into Self-Reflection

So here’s what Jamal thought:

First,

We’re separate people. I am not the students, and they are not me.

When we’re so invested in helping our students, in influencing and even controlling them, we can slip into merging with them. We can forget (because it can be so damned stressful!) that our students are “separate people” with their own motives, drives, strengths, weaknesses, and power, all qualities that we simply must deal with if we’re going to be in relationship with them. De-merging, as Jamal did with this thought, allows him to see himself and his students more clearly, which can lead to much more effective teaching interventions.

Second,

These students are not feeling about me the way I’m feeling about me.

Just as no teacher can see inside his students’ heads, students cannot see inside their teachers’ heads. Unless we act out on our students to induce in them our disowned feelings (and teachers can do that just as students do), we can expect that students (1) don’t know how we’re feeling and (2) don’t care. A safe assumption all teachers can make about their students, who are caught in the swirl of growth and development, is captured by the tired (but still relevant) cliché, “This is not about me.” No, it’s not. Guaranteed. It’s about them.

Third,

Students have a right to have or form their own relationships to ideas. The idea is not me; the assignment is not me; the curriculum is not me.

Again, beware of merging! Another way of putting this is that teachers can easily take their students’ responses in class personally. By viewing the content or the acts of teaching we choose as extensions of ourselves, we set ourselves and our students up. If students struggle with the content or resist it or appear to disapprove of it (all legitimate response to new ideas, especially if they’re difficult to assimilate for whatever number of reasons) and we take that struggle personally — as if it’s about us and not the students — we join the students in shutting down their learning. We crush the potential for them to form their own relationship with the content.

And, hear ye: Students’ learning — the relationships they form with the content we teach — is a process we teachers have no actual control over. We can only influence it. And if we take our students’ reactions to our work personally and begin teaching apologetically or half-heartedly or resentfully or defensively because of our fear or insecurity or merging, we weaken our influence.

All this thinking and introspection Jamal did? This was good work. Jamal made a good flip. A perfect 10.

Note that making this kind of flip, one that involves reflection on oneself, can work with floods of positive feelings as well as negative feelings. Any time a teacher’s irrational beliefs affect his experience of the classroom, whether the beliefs are negative and undermining or hyper-positive and inflating, he can afford to make the flip and wonder about himself.

The goal for the teacher is finding a balance in a realistic and relaxed  humility. This leaves plenty of room for students to be themselves, act out, struggle, create, and teach us what they need in order to develop. It leaves room for us to be curious and observant and steadfast in our confidence that our students will grow and that we can hold them while they do it.

How do you project your fears and insecurities onto your students? What happens when you do? What suffering results?

Making the Flip 1

light-29858_1280

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!

Gleeful and Worried

gleeful and worriedNon-cognitive skills contribute to life success more significantly than cognitive skills. What does this mean for teachers?

I’ve been reading recently about Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, and I am excited to share the following good news:

* SEL is positively related to increased academic achievement in school

and

* SEL is positively related to higher scores on standardized tests.

That is, strength in such “non-cognitive skills” as the ability to regulate one’s emotions (to “self-soothe”), to plan strategically, to look at problems from different viewpoints, to set goals, and to get along with others influences academic outcomes. (Go here to read more about this connection.) This kind of counter-intuitive correlation — I mean, being able to control one’s impulses leads to higher test scores? — might interest schools and, maybe more importantly, policy makers, encouraging more (welcome) emphasis on students’ emotional and relational development.

But there’s more. At the request of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a big ol’ report was recently published by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College that looks at “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning.” Seems like a good thing to investigate, considering the academic value SEL appears to have. I can’t tell you what a start I experienced on the first page of the summary (p. 3) of this report, where I read,

“[I]t is now becoming widely recognized that social and emotional learning in schools can be as important as or even more important than cognitive gains in explaining important developmental and life outcomes.”

Feel free to read that quote again, slowly.

Hank Levin is one of the authors of this report. He wrote an article in 2012 that is cited in the Teachers College report in which he patiently reviews the evidence that the impact of cognitive skills on economic success is exaggerated. Further, he claims what apparently is “becoming widely recognized”: that non-cognitive skills (SEL) play a large if unappreciated (in part because they are so difficult to measure) role in life success.

(Don’t you love it when hard science and common sense converge on the exact same conclusion? Even if it takes science way longer to get there?)

As an opponent of standardized testing and a proponent of SEL, this good news makes me gleeful! So gleeful that I feel I must share some juicy quotes from Levin’s article (all of these come from the second to last page of text, which is unnumbered):

“Far from being harmless, the focus on test scores and the omission of the non-cognitive impact of schools can create far-reaching damage.”

“And the instructional strategies used to raise test results, such as test preparation, cramming, tutoring, and endless memorization, may have little effect on the broader cognitive and non-cognitive skills that people need if they are to perform as competent adults contributing to a dynamic economy.”

“The obsession with the gap in test scores among races obscures the non-cognitive gap, which may be even more serious and a higher priority to address to improve various outcomes.”

“A singular focus on students’ scores on cognitive tests can also introduce instructional policies that ignore the importance of non-cognitive skills and fail to value the roles that teachers and schools play in developing students’ non-cognitive skills.”

BRAVO, Dr. Levin! As you can imagine, I especially love this last quote, as I am all about supporting teachers “in developing students’ non-cognitive skills” (as well as, of course, their cognitive abilities). It feels fantastic to have scholars at the top of the field confirm this stance.

What is not yet “widely recognized,” though, is the toll such labor can take on teachers and administrators. It’s going to take some time, I guess, for researchers and other bellwethers who are just noting the value for students of SEL to step back and wonder about teachers’ and administrators’ SEL, their abilities to self-regulate and take different perspectives and get along with others. Just because we’re adults, alas, does not mean we are experts in SEL! And even if we are highly competent socially-emotionally, that doesn’t always protect us from the impingements of relentless, ruthless, needy students!

Just as teachers need to be adequate models of subject matter knowledge, they need to be models of Social Emotional Competence (SEC). Just as teachers need to be able to move freely within the conceptual realm of their subject matter(s), they need to be flexible and smart in the realm of relationships. Just as teachers are crucial to the development in students of Social-Emotional Learning, which can lead to a productive and fulfilling life, so do teachers need support in surviving the incredibly demanding role of Developmental Partner so they can at the very least avoid burnout.

I am gleeful about the status student SEL is gaining in schools! Yet I am worried about the unacknowledged and sometimes heavy toll teaching anything, SEL or otherwise, can take on teachers’ bodies and minds.

But perhaps I needn’t worry. Perhaps the toll isn’t as great as I think it is (or as it was for me). I’d love to hear from you: What’s the state of your Social-Emotional Competence? What social and emotional toll does teaching take on you? How much emphasis does your school place on teachers’ SEC and social-emotional health? Are you gleeful? Are you worried?

 

 

7 Things….

seven-706891_1280…Teachers Can Do When Their Emotions Take Over

I have noticed that many blog posts, especially those about education, reduce their messages to a particular number (and the numbers are almost always odd):

5 Ways to Use Twitter to Teach Math

11 Things NOT to Do at an Interview

3 Mistakes All Principals Make — but Shouldn’t

Of course, I read these posts and think to myself, “Why don’t I have numbers in my blog post titles? What do I know that I can reduce to a sexy odd number?”

And then it hit me: I have something. I HAVE SOMETHING!!!!

Here it is:

7 Things Teachers Can Do When Their Emotions Take Over

(First, the brief intro:) Are you a teacher? Do you have emotions? Do you sometimes find that your emotions override rationality and make you do unfortunate things? like yell at students? or insult them? or punish them? Take heart, for you are normal. Teaching is a highly emotional enterprise (as is learning), and precious few teachers avoid feeling strong emotions in the course of a school day. The good news is that emotions are extremely valuable data for teachers, data that can help teachers align their classroom acts with students’ needs and get desirable learning to happen. Here are 7 things teachers can do when they realize their emotions have taken over (now for the bolded bullet items that make everything seem so simple):

Practice Awareness

The first thing teachers can do is turn inward and notice what they’re feeling. Another word for this is “mindfulness.” Practicing mindfulness gives teachers super-useful information, as it allows teachers to gain insight into themselves and, at the same time, suggests what emotions their students might be feeling. If, for example, I realize I’m feeling frustrated and angry when a student contradicts me in class, I can wonder (1) am I especially sensitive to criticism? (If so, that is not the student’s fault and is, rather, something I should work on outside of the classroom) and (2) is this student feeling frustrated and angry himself? (If so, I can try to address the possible source of the student’s frustration and anger — more on that in Thing #3.) Practicing awareness of oneself and of one’s students can be difficult to do in the heat of the moment. So taking this step after school, when a teacher has a minute to think, is perfectly acceptable.

Describe

When we’re feeling strong emotions, our perceptions are skewed. It’s like our emotions have suddenly switched out our normal lenses for slightly (or grossly) distorted lenses. If we don’t make an effort to remove those lenses so we can see what’s around us more accurately, we can act out inappropriately. Taking the time to slow down and describe as objectively as possible what we’re seeing or experiencing is an invaluable way to get to the bottom of difficult events. Describing what happened — “My student sent me an email at 11 o’clock at night that announced her refusal to do the homework I had assigned because, in her words, it was ‘stupid'” — without judgment or evaluation — “What an a-hole!” — can give us grounds to wonder, to exercise curiosity, about the student’s behavior. Which leads us to the next Thing.

Look for Good Reasons

“Why, o why would my student do such a thing?” (Or its close cousin, “Why o why would I do such a thing?”) is a great question to ask when our emotions have taken over. It’s a great question because there’s always a good reason. (And by “good” I don’t mean “laudable.” I mean “sensical.”) The emotions that arise when a student does something irritating are never, ever random. They are, rather, awesomely precise. If we can describe what we experienced in neutral terms that make the experience appear innocuous and then wonder how our (and our student’s) strong emotions relate to that description, we are looking for good reasons. “Why would Mindy send me such an email? It’s totally out of character! And what if, when she sent that email, she was feeling the way I felt when I received it? Namely, frustrated and angry? Why might she be feeling frustrated and angry about the assignment she announced she was not going to do? Ohhhh. I get it. I bet she was having trouble doing the assignment. And she wanted to get it done right.”

That’s a good reason.

Make a guess

Once we’ve settled on one or more possible reasons for our (and, by extension, our student’s) strong emotions, we can make a guess. One way to make a guess is to float it by the student. “Hey,” we can say after class the next day. “I was surprised by your email last night. I’m guessing you were pretty stressed out about the homework assignment.” The student’s reply will verify or nullify our hypothesis. In either case, we will have collected more valuable data that can illuminate the current difficult experience and help us handle others better. Another way to make a guess is simply to act on it. Having received a maddening email from an anxious student, and having looked for a good reason for that email, and having settled on the guess that the student was freaked out because she couldn’t complete the assignment the way she wanted to, we could send her an email that directly addresses that anxiety. “No worries. We’ll figure it out tomorrow.” Again, the student’s response will provide valuable data about the accuracy of our guess.

Good guesses can defuse difficult situations in a heartbeat.

Listen

Listening means paying attention to the new data our students provide once we’ve acted on our guesses. It means suspending the urge to take students personally, to evaluate or judge what they say, or to plan our rejoinder (when we listen to ourselves in our heads, not our students). It means detaching from students enough to let them be and to let ourselves simply see (and hear) them without threat or judgment. It means respecting boundaries, staying calm in the knowledge that whatever our students say or do, we can choose to react responsibly out of our own wisdom and maturity. It means taking in what students say but also double-checking to make sure we got it right. So, really, listening means communicating, not just through words but through respectful inaction.

Self-Disclose

Just so we’re keeping track: This is Thing #6. And it’s a tricky Thing. Self-disclosing means sharing relevant aspects of our experience with our students so as to connect meaningfully with them. What’s tricky about self-disclosing is that, when a teacher does it, the disclosure must always serve the students’ purposes, not the teacher’s. “I’m having a hard time concentrating today because I had a fight with my wife this morning” is a self-disclosure that does not serve students’ purposes. But “Would you mind repeating yourself? I’m sorry — I’m having a hard time concentrating today” might be more acceptable, as it conveys to students the teacher’s self-knowledge, her humanity and fallibility, as well as her willingness to take responsibility for her limitations. The latter type of self-disclosure would work only if the teacher were truly well-bounded and able to relieve students of any temptation to take care of her. That, for very important reasons that I go into elsewhere (see my post called Assumptions or, better yet, my book, The Feeling of Teaching), would be inappropriate — and, again, is what makes self-disclosing so tricky.

Plan

Why do all this work (indeed, I call these 7 Things “emotion work”) if it has no impact on the classroom?  Herein lies the value of planning. Once we have a good guess about what underlies a difficult classroom event, we can make a deliberate plan for bringing our newfound understanding back to the student(s). Our plan might include talking, self-disclosing, listening, or acting. It might involve instructional design. It might involve meeting, setting ground rules, or drawing up a “contract” with a student or a class. As I already mentioned, doing emotion work in the heat of the moment can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Doing it after hours and coming up with an informed, compassionate, effective plan for tomorrow, one that has transformed difficult emotions into a possible liberating solution, is, to put it mildly, a good use of time.

So there you have them: my 7 Things Teachers Can Do When Their Emotions Take Over. Simple, right? Go forth and use them! And feel free to leave a comment about how ridiculous it is to boil teaching and human relationships down to 7 things.

 

 

 

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.

Expectations

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!

Action-Talk

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.

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