Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Justice

The Young Are at the Gates!

A 1917 speech by suffragist Lavinia Dock is just as relevant today.

This from Lavinia Dock, published in The Suffragist, June 30, 1917:

“If any one says to me: “Why the picketing for Suffrage?” I should say in reply, “Why the fearless spirit of youth? Why does it exist and make itself manifest?” Is it not really that our whole social world would be likely to harden and toughen into a dreary mass of conventional negations and forbiddances–into hopeless layers of conformity and caste, did not the irrepressible energy and animation of youth, when joined to the clear-eyed sham-hating intelligence of the young, break up the dull masses and set a new pace for laggards to follow?

“What is the potent spirit of youth? Is it not the spirit of revolt, of rebellion against senseless and useless and deadening things? Most of all, against injustice, which is of all stupid things the stupidest?

“Such thoughts come to one in looking over the field of the Suffrage campaign and watching the pickets at the White House and at the Capitol, where sit the men who complacently enjoy the rights they deny to the women at their gates. Surely, nothing but the creeping paralysis of mental old age can account for the phenomenon of American men, law-makers, officials, administrators, and guardians of the peace, who can see nothing in the intrepid young pickets with their banners, asking for bare justice but common obstructors of traffic, nagger’-nuisances that are to be abolished by passing stupid laws forbidding and repressing to add to the old junk-heap of laws which forbid and repress? Can it be possible that any brain cells not totally crystallized could imagine that giving a stone instead of bread would answer conclusively the demand of the women who, because they are young, fearless, eager, and rebellious, are fighting and winning a cause for all women–even for those who are timid, conventional, and inert?

“A fatal error–a losing fight. The old stiff minds must give way. The old selfish minds must go. Obstructive reactionaries must move on. The young are at the gates!”

Thank you, Memory Palace, for bringing this speech to our attention in this time of clear-sighted youth who are fighting against the stupidest of the stupid.

Bryan Stevenson

How teachers can change the world.

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

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

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

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

We are all broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



School Integration


Integrating schools is the single most effective way to reduce achievement gaps.

Here’s a great way to ring in the new academic year: Listen to two remarkable episodes of the podcast “This American Life.” The episodes are called “The Problem We All Live With” (broadcast on July 31, 2015) and “The Problem We All Live With – Part Two” (broadcast on August 7, 2015).  Both explore the single most important element in reducing the gap in achievement between white students and students of color: school integration.

The July 31 podcast tells the story of a totally unintentional integration experiment that took place right near Ferguson, Missouri. It will take you through the depths of despair — when you hear the suburban white families express their deep fears of welcoming black students into their schools — and the heights of admiration and inspiration — when you hear Maria and her mother talk with such pride and excitement about the educational opportunities this unexpected experiment opened up for them.

The August 7 podcast describes the opposite: a totally intentional integration experiment happening right now in Hartford, Connecticut. It is a thrilling account of a lawsuit that brought the abominable conditions of schools in inner-city Hartford to the courts’ and the media’s attention and, once the lawsuit was won, the ongoing high-stakes work being done to bring white suburban families to new inner-city magnet schools.

Both podcasts are just under an hour in length. Perfect for the commute to school, a few workout sessions, a good cleaning jag, or a lovely rock in the hammock. Listen and think about the future and the power of schooling and the value of teachers and the birthright of all children to a superb, challenging, caring education.

And welcome to the new academic year. May it be an amazing one for you and your students.

Prep Schools for Prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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