Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Teacher Support Groups


“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.




Mining Emotions

Underground-Mining-SafetyTeachers benefit from examining stories of silence, sarcasm, and resistance — their students’ and their own.

It’s story time.

I’ve chosen this story because it is, to me, amazing. And it illustrates a whole bunch of ideas that can help teachers make sense of the emotional and relational data their classrooms are brimful of. I’m going to mine this story for the next couple of weeks because hey! it’s a great way to start the school year.

Here’s the story:

Once, many years ago, I was facilitating a particular Teacher Support Group. All six of the teachers in the group had checked in with stories from their classrooms that involved, in one way or another, the feeling of impatience. So we decided to talk about that feeling.

I asked for specific examples of times when the teachers felt impatient.

“When I give students instructions for the 17th time and a student asks me to repeat them yet again and then gets offended when I ignore him!” said one teacher.

“When I’ve planned something poorly and students point that out in one way or another,” said another teacher– let’s call her Abigail. At those times, Abigail said, “I can feel sarcasm coming on, and that’s dark.”

Abigail gave an example: On a recent day, after having combed through a passage from a Shakespeare play and defined all the vocabulary and phrases, she asked the class as a group to translate the passage line by line into modern-day speech. She gave them the first line and asked, “OK. How do we want to translate this?”


“Hello?” she prompted.


Cue impatience. Cue sarcasm.

“I know they know it,” Abigail told us in the TSG, “so I embarrass them when they don’t give me the energy.” She told us how, in a sing-song voice, she stepped the students through the passage word-for-word, cold-calling and saying condescendingly, “See? That’s not so hard.”

Making a Guess

The other teachers in the TSG totally sympathized with Abigail. One by one, they offered her advice — “tools for her toolbox” — to help her get the students to do what she wanted them to do.

“Have them write the translation down first and then cold-call them.”

“Have them work with a partner translating one line per pair then have them write their translations on the board in order.”

As the group facilitator, I was less interested in the toolbox than I was in the emotion work (more on that in another post). “What,” I asked Abigail, “are the students resisting in your story? What was the sarcasm about? Why did you go there?”

Abigail fell silent, as her students had done in her class. I had no idea what her silence meant, and her colleagues continued to offer pragmatic advice. After a few minutes, Abigail said, “I think I figured something out.”

What she figured out was this: Her students’ silence when she asked them to do something she-knew-they-already-knew might have been resistance to a “ridiculous, time-wasting” request. “Why should we do what you already know we can do?” the students might have been saying. She strongly felt that, had she described the silence to the students and asked them what it meant, the class would have turned out totally differently.

At this point, another teacher shared a different but similar story: In a recent class, this teacher (let’s call him Ravi) was “helping” a student by giving specific instructions on how to do a project. “I wanted to save the student the trouble of making mistakes that I knew how to avoid,” Ravi told us. So he went into detail about things the student should do and, lo and behold, when he returned to check on the student’s progress, she had done everything Ravi had told her not to do. Ravi, in a flash of brilliance, asked her why. “Because we’re kids,” the student said. “We’re supposed to do it wrong!”

Two stories about student resistance. Two different teachers. All wrapped up in a group dynamic that says a lot about teachers’ own resistance. A blogging motherlode! Please stay tuned for the gems that can be extracted!