Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Learning

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


* 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?



A Poet-Teacher’s Minifesto

field-meadow-flower-pinkThis is a poem written by my good friend Amy Antongiovanni, a poet and writing teacher at Butte College in Chico, CA.

I was privileged to give a couple talks about my work at Butte College in early March, 2014, to some of the most warm, caring, and receptive faculty I have ever encountered. Thank you, Amy and Butte!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Listen to your students. Listen as though you were walking the streets of a strange city at night. Watch closely as you listen. They are your teachers.

Imagine each of them as an instrument, unique and essential to the whole. Play their notes lightly and with caution, as though from their song, you could tease out information from a foreign culture, learning its tastes, manners, myths and fears.

Ask your students challenging questions. When they answer, imagine you are the conductor and they, the composers of an orchestra. Study their melodies slowly and with patience.                                                                                                                         Let harmonies evolve organically and rearrange the dissonance.

Believe their answers about themselves and their world as you would believe an elder of a native tribe.

Trust that in their hearts, they care, even when they wear backwards hats and flip flops to class.                                         Even if they talk to their friends, interrupt, or check their phones. Remember: their hearts are caution-taped in an effort to defend against not knowing.

Stand at times before them in bewilderment. If you are brave enough to be vulnerable before them, courageous enough to say, “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” they will become brave enough to ask                                     the difficult questions and live with the unknown.

Be gracious. Their lives are harder than yours.

Share with them your passion for learning, your love for the subject. Be the aspen that sprouts new shoots from underground, your roots will become their trunks.

Be generous with your words; praise them often.

When they fail or falter, be kind in your criticism. Like toddlers, they’ve extended themselves into a new and strange environment, and in order to master this labyrinth, they must bump into walls clumsily, many times before learning to navigate it well.

A second chance never hurt anybody. Third, fourth and fifth chances can tear down a spirit.

Like all artistic endeavors, teaching is a moment to moment exercise in awareness and presence.                                                                                                                      Even though legislators focus on desired outcomes, who can say when our lessons will make a difference, or when they will manifest in the students’ lives?

The outcome is less important than small moments of brilliance along the way —                                                                                                           glimpse of a red fox emerging from the trees —

I do not remember the grades I received on each paper I wrote in college, nor have I hung my diplomas on the walls, but I remember my mentor bending down to show us a newt along the trail,                                                            fiery red, its nearly glowing salamander spirit

Take your students outside. Teach them to appreciate this land, this water, the creatures around them. Let them be quiet and listen to the wind in the leaves of the great sycamore that bows over the creek.

Be still and notice the bullfrogs, the blue-bellied lizard doing pushups on the fallen oak. Point out the swallows nesting in their mud-nests under the eaves, the humming birds darting                                                                                                                           from blossom to blossom.

Teach them the names of flowers: penstamon, black-eyed Susan, salvia, willow-bark, English lavender, Russian sage, Shasta daisy, mule’s ear, monkey flower, thistle-weed, lupine, snow flower, aster.

Look around you, there are deer grazing in the fields. This is what matters. This is why we are here.

(The title was inspired by Brenda Hillman’s title: Ecopoetics Minifesto: Draft for Angie.)


group-hugOne assumption that is too often missing from educational policy and practice is that learning and growing depend on relationships with people.

I was just perusing the latest Chronicle of Higher Education, and my attention lighted on three different — but, it turns out, related — articles:

* one on high school AP courses vs. new college courses that are beginning to emphasize what AP courses do not, namely, cross-disciplinary thinking;

* one on dual-credit courses in which high school students tap in to college courses (usually by watching videos of professors teaching) and get credit in both institutions; and

* one on competence-based learning, where credit is given to life experience.

This brief journey got me thinking about the myriad (or perhaps much too convergent) set of assumptions that seem to underlie education these days. Some of these assumptions seem to be that

* successful learning can be replicated on a standardized test

* successful learning can be done via video

* successful learning is evidenced exclusively by behavioral outcomes

My purpose here is not to disagree with these assumptions. Rather, it is to remark on what is for me a distressing absence: the absence of any sense of learning as fundamentally relational.

Actually, the assumptions I’ve listed above are relational in that they imply that successful learning depends on forging some sort of relationship with content, either through focused practice in an AP course or exposure to lecturing professors or actual experience in the field. And I agree that learning pretty much by definition must include a relationship with content.

But I also think learning is more than just content- or cognition-based. I’ve come to think of learning as synonymous with development, with emotional and cognitive and social and identity development. And my understanding of these types of development points to the undeniable fact that they happen through human relationships.

For me, teachers are developmental partners to students. They play incredibly valuable and difficult roles in students’ lives — as ideals, as mentors, as mirrors, as opponents, as attachment figures, as test objects. Teachers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are structures within which students grow (or not) regardless of the subject matter. While few teachers consciously embrace these roles or know how to use them to their own and their students’ advantage, the roles, the relationships, are nonetheless at the heart of learning.

(Shameless Plug here: My book, The Feeling of Teaching, shows how teachers can use these roles and others to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.)

I just wonder what conversations about MOOCs or flipped classrooms or standardized testing or scripted curricula would sound like if this assumption — that learning means emotional and relational development — were included. After all, we don’t just want competent historians or architects or cabinet-makers or computer programmers to emerge from our schools. We want — at least, I want — mature, healthy, competent people to emerge.

What assumptions drive your teaching?