Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: resistance

Silence

shhh-carouselWhy is silence in the classroom so terrifying?

I just want to muse for a moment on the issue of silence in the classroom.

I’m reminded of a professor from my grad school years, Mary Budd Rowe, who had done research on what she called “wait time.” She discovered that teachers barely waited one second after asking students a question and after hearing a student’s response before beginning to talk again. She recommended, based on her research, that teachers wait for 3 (or more) seconds — 1. 2. 3. — before starting to talk. Teachers who did that, she found, ended up doing much less talking because their students did much more.

This discovery always fascinated me. And it’s relevant to Abigail’s story, which I’m still mining, because it makes me wonder: What’s so scary about silence?

Ask and ye shall receive. I actually posed this question to the teachers in Abigail’s Teacher Support Group o so long ago.

Here are their answers. What they’re afraid of when silence falls in class is, they said,

  • “that we’ll stare back and forth and nothing will get done.”
  • “that the students are judging me and deciding I’m not being responsible.”
  • “the pressure of having all eyes on you.”

These are pretty dire predictions. Imagine: Silence falls. The teacher stares at the students. The students stare back. The teacher continues to stare, as do the students. The clock ticks and time passes. The bell rings and the students exit the room. Nothing has gotten done.

Or this: Silence falls. The teacher stares at the students. They stare back, thinking, “I can’t wait to get out of here to report how irresponsible this teacher is being for not filling every waking moment with her own voice.”

Or this: Silence falls. The teacher becomes intensely self-conscious, wondering if his fly is down but not daring to check.

I share these scenarios to point out how ludicrous our fears can be if we follow them down. And I do recommend this approach to irrational fear (as opposed to rational fear, which is an appropriate response to real danger): follow it down to its logical conclusion to see how unlikely that conclusion is. It’s like an exposure therapy thought experiment that can make us laugh at our scary fantasies.

But, ludicrous or not, the fact remains: silence can be irrationally terrifying.

Why?

I wonder: Is it because silence invites us to get real, to get back into our own bodies, to feel things, to make contact, to actually notice what is going on around us and respond in the moment? spontaneously?

Is there something dangerous about spontaneity? or being in our bodies? or feeling? or making real contact with people or with our thoughts or with other people’s thoughts? Is there something dangerous about just dwelling in the moment? in public?

I don’t know. These are genuine questions. If you have any answers to the mystery of why silence in the classroom is so terrifying, I’d love to hear them.

But one thing Abigail’s story demonstrates: silence can be very productive. Because, even as her colleagues were making helpful suggestions as to what Abigail could do with her resistant students, she remained silent. And evidently what her silence signified was this: She was thinking.

That’s what Mary Budd Rowe presumed students would be doing in the 3 seconds of silence their teachers should allow after questions and answers. It’s undoubtedly what teachers want their students to be doing as often as possible. And surely teachers deserve a few seconds — even more! — to ponder and process and organize their own thoughts as they guide their students through the exciting and unpredictable morass of learning.

Yet another reason why I love this story: Abigail chose silence. She turned inward and thought about her students‘ silence. And she had an epiphany that, I daresay, could alter her teaching forever. Not a bad moment’s work.

Avoiding the Work

Danger_Enter_At_Your_Own_RiskTeachers can avoid their work just as masterfully as students can.

One of the remarkable benefits of Teacher Support Groups is their power to reveal classroom dynamics through the teachers’ own actions in the group. This power is called “parallel process,” or the existence in one setting of the very same processes or dynamics that exist in another setting.

This story is a perfect example.

To recap: Long ago and far away, in a Teacher Support Group, Abigail revealed something “dark” about herself. She confessed she can get sarcastic with students when she’s frustrated. This move — the move from generous teaching to frustration to sarcasm in the classroom — is a fascinating one. And Abigail is not the only teacher who makes it. Right? Not every teacher gets sarcastic when she’s frustrated with a student, but plenty do.

In a Teacher Support Group, this is a move I want to look into. I want to try to figure out what the move from generosity to frustration to sarcasm means about the teacher, her students, and the relationships governing this moment in the life of the classroom. I know from experience that looking into such “darkness” inevitably rewards us with insights that can change a teacher’s (and hence a student’s) life.

But this support group did not want to look into Abigail’s darkness. They didn’t wonder about Abigail’s emotions. They didn’t ask about the relationship between frustration and sarcasm. They didn’t share similar experiences. What they did was offer advice. They told Abigail what she could do to force the students to talk. They focused on the desired pragmatic outcome — student compliance — and avoided the data within Abigail’s darkness.

Interestingly, they did everything they could to fill Abigail’s silence with ideas about how she could prevent her students‘ silence.

Intellectualization, a High-Level Defense

I completely understand this phenomenon. Who wants to voluntarily enter into a person’s darkness? The teachers were being helpful, generous, and caring toward Abigail, whom they respect and admire. But this urge to talk about teaching rather than dwell in the actual experience of teaching can be a form of avoidance. I would even go so far as to say it can be a high-level defense against anxiety: intellectualization, where words and ideas distance us from unsettling emotions and feelings.

Don’t get me wrong: There are many benefits to talking about teaching. Talking about teaching can give us a feeling of control where we actually have none, where emotions arise and drive behaviors we can’t help and often don’t like. It allows us to flirt with ideals and speculate about what could be, to generate new ideas and get excited about them. These are all good things. I actually love talking about teaching.

But, in a Teacher Support Group, the experience of teaching — the emotions, the feelings — is the base metal that group process transforms into gold. And, while most of the group members in this story were most comfortable simply hammering at the metal lump, Abigail went for the gold. “I think I figured something out,” she said.

How She Figured It Out

We already know what Abigail figured out — that the students were probably disgusted by being asked to demonstrate they knew what their teacher already knew they knew — but I want to take a moment to lay out how Abigail figured it out:

  • She considered her own “dark” emotions
  • She allowed as how her students might have had the same emotions
  • She wondered why her students might have had those emotions
  • She made a good guess that resonated with her

She turned her darkness — her sarcasm, her frustration, her contempt for (and fear of?) her students’ silence — into insight: the very good possibility that her students were telling her through their inaction that they themselves were frustrated and contemptuous of her “ridiculous, time-wasting” assignment. That they expected more of her. That they respected themselves and their time.

Wow. Who knew darkness could carry such useful information?

I didn’t mention this parallel process to the teachers in the support group at the time (it can be quite difficult to discern these processes in the moment), but it is one of the reasons I love this story. Teachers can avoid hard work just as their students do. Who can blame them? But noticing one’s very human tendency to avoid what is difficult gives teachers first-hand perspective on their own students’ resistance. It can help teachers make sense of their students’ actions; it can dissolve frustration and sarcasm; it can activate empathy and understanding; and it can lead to the kind of relational alignment that makes teaching and learning most fruitful.

Pure gold.