Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Reflection

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.

 

 

Metacogniscience

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A new term for something teachers should have.

A teacher I work with coined a new term a few weeks ago. She and five of her colleagues and I were talking about how we “make it so” in our classrooms: that is, how our expectations, shaped by our earliest experiences of emotional survival, determine what we perceive and how we interpret our perceptions. You’re trying a new (risky) activity in class today? New (risky) activities make you nervous because you’re demonstrating self-confidence (and you believe deep down – because you’ve been taught this over the years – that you’re not allowed to be self-confident)? You go into class and make a mess of the lesson then feel terrible and yet validated by its failure? That’s you making it so. That’s you infusing your work with your maladaptive expectations of the world and making those expectations come true. That’s you enacting a self-fulfilling prophesy.

But that’s not what this post is about. (Maybe another time.) This post is about the label this teacher came up with for the work we were doing. Metacogniscience. A blend of metacognition and omniscience.

A remarkable term. Let us unpack it.

Metacognition and Omniscience

As you may know, metacognition is knowing about your knowing, thinking about your thinking. It is lifting up over your ideas or thought processes and looking down at them so as to scrutinize their workings. Metacognition gives you a more global perspective on your experience of thinking and knowing; it allows you to consider how you know or think, which can help you be more deliberate and critical in your knowing and thinking going forward.

Omniscience, of course, is knowing everything. Here are the two definitions I found in my beloved Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (published in 1984):

(1) having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight

(2) possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Yep. That’s omniscience all right.

So what’s metacogniscience? And why should teachers have it?

I propose that metacogniscience is the experience of rising above or stepping back from one’s experience of living (in a classroom, an office, a romantic relationship, a family, etc.) and

  • becoming as infinitely aware of that experience as possible
  • making one or more good guesses about what that experience might mean
  • taking steps that are informed by these well-constructed guesses

and

  • feeling amazed at how the guesses you make can fill in the gaps between you and others and lead to a feeling of complete and accurate knowledge.

Metacogniscience.

Teachers, of course, are not the only people who can use metacogniscience. Parents can use it when their kids act out. Bosses can use it when an employee falls apart. School administrators can use it with distraught parents. Lovers can use it when their intimate bond is threatened.

The teacher who coined this term really liked having the opportunity to go “metacogniscient” with her colleagues about their patterns in the classroom – the entrenched ways they relate to and interact with their students – and, importantly, to help each other revise these often hindering patterns. “Metacogniscience” felt like the exact right term for this work (what I call emotion work) because emotion work involves going meta, for sure, but also results in a sometimes miraculous feeling of clarity about how important relationships are functioning.

And this clarity leads, inevitably, to more attuned, rewarding, and effective teaching.

For me, the best part of this story – and of the term metacogniscience itself – is that it was born of a Freudian slip of sorts. The term this teacher was going for was “metacognitive,” but her felt sense of the work we were doing apparently called for something bigger. The root of “omniscience” that the teacher tacked on to “metacognitive” hinted, I’m guessing, at what she felt about emotion work: that, by examining emotions and relationships, we were able to know what is normally unknown. And I’m guessing – I’m hoping – she felt empowered by it.

I think this empowering metacogniscience is something teachers should have.

Going Metacogniscient

If you want to try going metacogniscient, here’s how: If you’re a teacher (or a parent or any other person) who is suffering in a relationship with a student or colleague or parent (or anyone else), try writing your story down. Change the names if you want to and be as precise as possible about what you’re feeling. Try making this flip and making that flip. Based on your guesses about yourself and the other person, come up with a plan you’re willing and able to try next time you encounter that person. See what happens.

If you’re having a hard time achieving metacogniscience, send your story to me. We can email back and forth, working our way towards a well-constructed guess. The correspondence will be confidential. And who knows? Your relief might be palpable! And, if you’re relieved, your students will be, too. A good thing all around.

I mean it. Metacogniscience works. Try it.

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?

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.

 

 

 

True Story

IMG_2116A teacher reflects on a student’s bad behavior and successfully defuses himself and the student.

Yes, it’s a true story, but I’ve changed it a bit to protect the innocent. Which isn’t all that big a deal because the teacher in this story did a really good job of using his Reflective Function. (If you don’t know what RF is, click here.) And it’s a story that will sound familiar to many, many teachers.

So here it is:

Mr. Krieger redesigned his 11th grade English class to incorporate technology more effectively. He was a little nervous when he made his first homework assignment using an online bulletin board, as he wasn’t sure how it would work for him or for his students. But he was downright shocked when one of his students emailed him at 11 p.m. with the following message:

“I don’t get this, it’s stupid and I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it.”

Aside from the flagrant comma splices, Mr. Krieger was incensed by the student’s arrogant, presumptuous tone. How dare she tell Mr. Krieger what she would and would not do? How dare she call Mr. Krieger “stupid”?!? And at 11 o’clock at night!!

Mr. Krieger hit “Reply” with shaking fingers. He would tell his student what for! He would put a stop to this outrageous behavior! His student wouldn’t know what hit her!

Then Mr. Krieger paused. He sat back in his chair and wondered. Why would a student write something so clearly insubordinate? Why would this particular student, who was a nice kid and a hard worker, write something so thoughtless and damaging?

As Mr. Krieger reported it to me, it was at this moment that he heard a voice calling out to him, a voice that floated to him from weeks of work in a Teacher Support Group:

“Where’s the anxiety, Mr. Krieger? Where’s the anxiety?”

“Oh,” Mr. Krieger said to himself. “The anxiety is in the student.”

Where might the anxiety be coming from? he wondered. It wasn’t hard to make some good guesses.

“I bet the student, like me, is unfamiliar with the technology and isn’t sure how to use it properly. Because she is a good student, someone who likes to do things right, AND because it’s late at night and she’s tired and frustrated, she’s gone a little out of her mind. This email seems to be more about expressing frustration than criticizing me. (And, now that I read the email more carefully and calmly, she called the assignment stupid, not me.) In fact, she’s done a super job of implanting her feelings in me. Very efficient, considering she only used 17 words to do it. Now THAT’S good writing!”

Just between you and me: This is Mr. Krieger mentalizing, or utilizing his Reflective Function. He’s imagining what’s going on emotionally inside his student and connecting his student’s state of mind with her behavior. Mr. Krieger is also noticing his own emotions and how intimately they are related to his student’s. As an added bonus, Mr. Krieger is able to step away, to detach, and commend his student on a job well done. This last move is very healing, as it allows Mr. Krieger to chuckle, which releases his rage and activates his fondness for this suffering, anxious student.

Having used RF, Mr. Krieger responded to his student. He made a conscious choice to avoid the content of the message — he did not combat the student’s assessment of “stupid,” for example; he did not deride the student for making an inappropriate unilateral decision or for being so inconsiderate as to email her teacher close to midnight — and directly addressed the anxiety. Here’s what he wrote:

“Not to worry. The technology is new to all of us. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Thanks for trying so hard! And get some sleep!”

Note that Mr. Krieger did not model mentalizing for his student by talking out loud in front of her. He simply did the work (what I call “emotion work”) on his own. Doing emotion work led to a sense of understanding and some good guesses which led to an email that conveyed compassion, reassurance, and a plan of action. This behind-the-scenes modeling of Reflective Function took very little time and effort. And it worked.

Immediately, Mr. Krieger received this note from his student:

“Phew! Thanks, Mr. K. I was about to throw my computer out the window. See you tomorrow.”

A job well done, indeed. True story.

Do you have stories about your teaching? Stories that show you using your Reflective Function well? Stories that continue to mystify you, that you’d like to figure out but don’t know how? I would love to hear them. And I’d love to post them. Leave a comment with your story in it and be sure to tell me if I may post the story (or not) and if you would like a private reply from me that might nudge you along in your RFing. Confidentiality guaranteed!

Reflective Function

gears-818463_1280Being reflective about internal emotional experience is crucial for teachers.

It’s March, I know. But I’m still working on my New Year’s Resolution, which is to actually read the professional journals that pile up in my home the way Hogwarts admissions letters flooded the Dursleys’ living room. I’m really on a roll! In just two journals, I encountered three articles that reinforced each other in a really nice and interesting way. The articles are

Zambrana, R.E., Ray, R., Espino, M.M., Castro, C., Cohen, B.D., & Eliason, J. (2015). “Don’t leave us behind”: The importance of mentoring for underrepresented minority faculty. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (1), 40-72.

Benbassat, N. & Priel, B. (2015). Why is fathers’ Reflective Function important? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32 (1), 1 – 22.

Borelli, J.L., Compare, A., Snavely, J.E., & Decio, V. (2015). Reflective Function moderates the associations between perceptions of parental neglect and attachment in adolescence. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32 (1), 23 – 35.

Here’s how these three articles are related: They all point to the importance of mentoring for young students.

The first article emphasizes how crucial (and still rare) it is for new college and university faculty who come from underrepresented backgrounds to find mentors who value their research and actively show them the professional ropes. Without this kind of support, underrepresented minority (URM) faculty, who are such critical models and mentors for URM students, can find it difficult to remain, let alone rise, in predominantly white academic institutions (PWIs). This first article also shares the finding that underrepresented minority faculty who had responsive mentors as young people were more likely to find and make use of mentors as adults.

Hmmmm.

The second two articles suggest a significant way that teachers, particularly male teachers, can be good mentors: They can “mentalize,” or utilize Reflective Function (RF).

And what, you might ask, does it mean to “mentalize”?

The term was coined by a pretty awesome psychoanalyst and researcher named Peter Fonagy. His research suggests that going “meta” on relationships – talking about one’s feelings, making guesses about others’ feelings and motivations, making the connection between feelings and behaviors, respecting the differences between people’s subjective experiences of reality – fosters in children the capacity to “mentalize,” or recognize their own internal lives as well as those of others. To be able to mentalize is to possess a “theory of mind” that notices differences in beliefs and abilities among people and provides a basis upon which to understand people’s experiences and behaviors. Utilizing this awareness means exercising one’s Reflective Function (RF) – that is, thinking about internal experience, one’s own and others’ – which allows one to be emotionally and cognitively flexible.

So Reflective Function is a really good thing.

The second article I listed above gives evidence that dads who mentalize are especially important to their children’s growth through adolescence. According to the authors, fathers’ mentalizing can help them deal authoritatively with recalcitrant teens (and “authoritative” as opposed to “authoritarian” parenting seems to promote the Reflective Function in offspring) (and, apparently, adolescence is a crucial time for the development of RF); it can help fathers figure out what roles to play in their children’s lives (extremely valuable for dads who travel, who are divorced, who have stepchildren, who didn’t have particularly active fathers themselves, etc.); and it can help them remain connected and real in their relationships with their wives, which doesn’t just contribute to a harmonious and supportive family life but also can undermine stereotypical, sexist thinking and behaving.

Obviously, fathers who exercise RF can also be teachers who exercise RF. Male and female teachers who utilize the Reflective Function can be valuable mentors to students of all backgrounds, setting those students up to expect and utilize mentors throughout their lives. In addition, as the third article above suggests, teachers who use RF can help develop RF in their students whose parents did not model mentalizing. Moreover, adolescents who experienced neglect and other trauma in their early lives but who have developed RF through secure interactions with non-parental caregivers such as teachers appear to be less likely to behave in destructive ways and more likely to be able to attach healthily to other adults later in life.

It just so happens that, in reading something else (The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, published in 1982 by Robert Kegan), I came upon a lovely way of conveying why RF is so important. Kegan makes the case that babies, with their inescapable cuteness, are able to “recruit” the attention they need not just to survive but also to thrive. “This sympathy is in great supply for newborns – and newborns share a powerful capacity to elicit it,” Kegan writes on p. 19.

“But Nature,” he continues, “having done her part when it is most needed, is not so democratic after infancy. The capacity to recruit another’s invested regard, so uniform at birth, becomes a various affair as people grow older: some people have a much greater ability to recruit people’s attention to them than other people do. This obvious fact, so underinvestigated by psychologists and so commonly denied by teachers, is never forgotten by teenagers, who could have told researchers – before huge sums of money were spent to discover it – that the greatest inequalities in education are not between schools (of different economic strata, for example) but within them; that greater than the inequalities of social class or achievement test scores is the unequal capacity of students to interest others in them – a phenomenon not reducible to social class or intelligence, and which seems to be the more powerful determinant of future thriving.”

So, to bring it back to the beginning: Students who find it difficult to “interest others in them” because, for example, they are African-American in a school that privileges whites or they are girls where men dominate or they are gay where otherness is deeply threatening or they are poor and do not share the social skills that come with being middle class – these types of students especially need mentors. (So do others, but students who “fit” better with the people and institutions around them are, like infants, better equipped to “recruit” the attention and help they need.) These students need people who show their care by seeing them and imagining what it is like to be them and engaging with them and offering support that is relevant to their particular situations.

In other words, at the very least, they need parents and teachers who mentalize, who utilize and model RF. This probably sounds super-simplistic after the moving paragraph from Kegan, but exercising RF is not as simple or obvious as it may sound. In my experience, it can take a lot of work.

What, in fact, might RF look like in a teacher or mentor? Funny you should ask. Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will show RF in action.