Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Category: Teaching

Reading Minds


What the heck is going on in our students’ heads?

One of the greatest sources of stress for teachers, I have found, is students’ faces. Poker faces, bored faces, closed eyes, sidelong glances, frowns, wrinkled brows, sardonic smiles — these facial expressions are all grist for the teacher’s anxiety mill. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just read students’ minds? So we could know what the heck was going on in their heads and on their faces? I know: that’s impossible.

Except that teachers do it all the time.

At least, that’s what Abigail did. (Remember Abigail? That awesome teacher who figured out a great reason why her students didn’t do what she had asked them to do?) She saw her students’s faces — their dropped eyes, their frowns and yawns — and their bodies — slumped, with jiggling legs — and heard their silence and knew exactly what was going on inside their heads:

They hated her. They wanted to thwart her. They were leaving her dangling, exercising their power over her by being lazy and refusing to cooperate with her. They were disrespecting and embarrassing her.

As she put it, “I know they know it, so I embarrass them when they don’t give me the energy.” That is, she gets sarcastic and treats her students with the same disdain her mind-reading abilities suggest they feel for her.

But what if she was wrong?

Psycho Filters (Qu’est-ce que c’est?)

Time out for a psychodynamic moment: Abigail’s mind-reading, which happened so automatically she had no conscious awareness of it, was normal and common. She did what all human beings do: She read the students’ faces and experienced their silence and drew logical conclusions.

Oh. Did I say “logical”? What I should have said was “psycho.”

And what I mean by “psycho” is that our conclusions are colored by our psychic structures, the ways we have constructed ourselves over our lifetimes to manage stress and relationships and to perceive and interpret the world.

The students’ silence stressed Abigail out. The deep chasm that opened up between her and her students, the probability that her lesson plan was foundering, and the emotions — her own and her students’ — that flooded her kicked Abigail into reactive mode.

Did I say “reactive mode”? What I should have said was “psycho mode.” By “psycho mode” I mean the state where our psychic structures take over and determine our thoughts and actions based on expectations about the world that are old but are activated by our current circumstances. We can’t help it: We see things, they activate us, we believe we know what they mean because our feelings and beliefs and thoughts are all telling us we do. And we act on these “logical” conclusions.

Normal. Common. And, if we don’t carefully examine our conclusions, often wrong.

Back to Reading Minds

Another term for “psycho mode” is “reading minds.” And, as I said above, teachers (and other people) do it all the time. The news flash is that, while we are often wrong about other people in psycho mode, we are also often right.

How can we tell the difference? The answer depends on when you want to know. If you want to know at the end of the day whether or not your mind-reading was accurate, you can do emotion work. If you want to know right there in the middle of class, in the heat of the moment, you can ask.

Otherwise known as a “reality check,” asking people (such as students) what their faces or silence or reactions or statements mean is a great way to collect data about the students’ reality. Accurate knowledge of students’ reality grounds us when we’re in psycho mode. Grounding ourselves in actual knowledge of what’s going on in our students’ heads means

  • we suffer less (because we don’t torture ourselves with terrible beliefs that just aren’t true)
  • we can more easily adjust to our students’ needs (because they’ve told us what they are) and
  • we can more readily anticipate and avoid future problems (because we know our students better)

Abigail demonstrated this flip from psycho mode to grounding in her story. When she fell silent and did some emotion work, she “figured something out.” She guessed that her students were resistant to her teaching because they were insulted by it. And, once she tried looking at it from their point of view, she couldn’t blame them.

Abigail’s revised conclusion? As I wrote in that other post, “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.”

Brava, Abigail.



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


  • 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.


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.

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.


IMG_0584Endings are important when relationships are important, and relationships are important in classrooms.

I’ve been putting off writing about endings because, frankly, I hate endings. I hate saying good-bye; I hate getting all teary-eyed and sentimental; I hate the feeling of loss and being out of control and having to do or face something I just don’t want to.

There are many ways to avoid endings. One good way is to get angry at the person who’s leaving. Fighting makes separation easier and, paradoxically, maintains connection through lingering negative feelings.  Another good way is to pretend the ending isn’t going to happen, to just go along the way you normally do until — hunh! — that person you used to see at Book Club just isn’t there anymore.

Another way, one that therapy clients sometimes utilize, is the “no show” option: setting up a final appointment or meeting and simply blowing it off. This option is masterful because (1) it allows the client to avoid the ending and (2) conveys to the therapist the client’s ambivalence and, perhaps, anger at having to rupture the relationship.

When I want to avoid an ending, whichever method I utilize, the fundamental way I justify my avoidance is to believe I don’t really matter to the person I’m parting with. If I don’t matter, they won’t notice if I’m there or not to say good-bye. So I might as well not be there.

As a therapist, I cannot fall back on this self-serving approach. The fact is that I DO matter to my clients, and they matter to me. Our work actually depends upon this mutual attachment, because the healing my approach to therapy kindles relies on the relationship between me and my client.

It is the same for teachers.

I am positive there are plenty of teachers out there who are fantastic at orchestrating wonderful endings to their classes. I’m also guessing that there are a few who try to avoid any formal acknowledgment of the end of significant classroom relationships beyond having the students clean out their desks and lockers and maybe have a cupcake before heading out for the summer.

I’m here to advocate for formal, sentimental, powerful endings in school.

Here’s why: Teachers should and do matter to their students. Any learning that took place over the school year depended on this fact, on the relationships students were able to  have with their teachers (and each other, and the subject matter, all of which ties back to the relationship with the teacher). Ending the relationship with the teacher and with the class group is a big deal and deserves acknowledgment.

I’m not a big how-to kind of gal, as I prefer to support teachers in coming up with their own plans, but here are some ways I’ve overcome my aversions and celebrated endings:

* I’ve put ingredients for ice cream into a manual ice cream ball and rolled it back and forth between me and my client. (This rolling is what turns the ingredients into a frozen delight.) Each time we push it, we say something to each other about our work. In a classroom, the person who rolls the ball can call out a positive adjective about the person he’s rolling the ball to. And then, of course, everybody can dip into the ice cream.

* I’ve done the same activity with a ball of beautiful string or yarn. Every time someone throws the ball to another member of the group, they say something kind about the person who catches the ball. After weaving this visible evidence of the connections among us, each group member can cut off a piece of the string to keep.

* I’ve handed out paper to every member of a group and asked them to put their name on the top. Each member then passes their paper to their right (or left), and the group member next to them writes something positive about the person whose name is on the paper. We keep passing the paper around until each member receives their original back. Sometimes we read our papers out loud to each other.

* I’ve done découpage on flower pots, boxes, and in frames (mimicking diplomas), choosing and creating images that represent the person the gift is for. In classrooms, students can construct their own “self-portrait” collages from images cut out, drawn, or photographed by their classmates and teacher that depict something special about themselves.

The point of all these possible ways of ending a school year is to shine a strong spotlight on the basic and essential fact that each person in a classroom is in crucial relationship to the others and that each person has been seen. And, honestly, what students will remember about school will not necessarily be the content you taught or the activities you organized but the feeling of having been seen, understood, and, at best, valued.

Feeling seen. Feeling known. Feeling valued. These are bedrocks to successful education. When this experience ends, it is a great loss that should be acknowledged, memorialized, and gently mourned.

If you’re thinking “Pffft! My kids don’t care about me or each other enough to take this kind of ending seriously,” then I suggest you start thinking about beginnings. How might you attend and attune to the relationships in your classroom next year? How might you start the school year with attachment and connection in mind? How might you remember to see, know, and value your students and encourage them to do the same for each other?

And now I have to end this blog post. Damn.

But, seriously: How do you end your school year with your students?

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.)

The Power of Meditation


The effects of meditation for students in school are mind-blowing.

Wow. My husband recently forwarded me an article that discusses the implementation of a program called Quiet Time in a San Francisco school.

What the article claims is that making students (and teachers?) fall silent twice a day (when they hear the gong) has changed, well, everything at Visitacion Valley Middle School.

“In years past,” writes David L. Kirp, the author of the article, “these students were largely out of control, frequently fighting in the corridors, scrawling graffiti on the walls and cursing their teachers. Absenteeism rates were among the city’s highest and so were suspensions. Worn-down teachers routinely called in sick.”

Now, after four years of twice-daily meditation in school, here’s how everything has changed:

“Now these students are doing light-years better. In the first year of Quiet Time, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent. Within four years, the suspension rate was among the lowest in the city. Daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average. Grade point averages improved markedly. About 20 percent of graduates are admitted to Lowell High School – before Quiet Time, getting any students into this elite high school was a rarity. Remarkably, in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey, these middle school youngsters recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco.”

This makes my heart sing! Such a simple change, such mind-blowing results for students. It makes me wonder: What is it like for teachers to have Quite Time twice a day? What happens inside them and how does it change how they teach and relate to their students?

And that makes me wonder further: Do teachers need their schools to impose Quiet Time on everyone by striking the gong? Can teachers impose this discipline on themselves and on their students? Would it be impossible to start and even end classes with a little meditation? I don’t know how long Quiet Time generally lasts, and perhaps its salutary effects don’t kick in unless one meditates for a certain length of time. But this article suggests a little experimenting might be worthwhile!

Talk about slowing down in school.

Raising Students

school-clipartAre you teaching students or children — or both?

You know how you went into teaching because you love kids, you love your subject matter, and you love the idea of forging in your students the same passion and excitement for literature and math and science and politics that you feel?

And you know how there’s always one kid (or, alas, a large group of kids) who pops your bubble on a regular basis by saying, “I don’t know” or “That’s too complicated for me” or simply falls silent and stubbornly, unfathomably, waits you out? And you find yourself acting more like a parent than a teacher, doling out consequences and checking your anger and feeling yourself rushing way too rapidly towards burnout?

Why didn’t anyone tell you this was how it was going to be?

One possible answer is that people tend to think that teachers are going to be working with students: kids who know the difference between school and home, between gaming consoles and desks, between hanging out and learning.

That is, most teachers’ dream is to work with people who have committed to adopting the roles and responsibilities the student identity requires. Roles and responsibilities like listening in class; doing homework; respecting the difference between activities you do with your buddies and activities you do in a school; thinking; practicing respect; letting yourself get excited about ideas; delaying gratification; following instructions; etc.

But the truth is that many teachers are not necessarily working with students, or people who understand and embrace these roles and responsibilities. When that’s not the case — when teachers are not working with students — they are working with a different animal all together. They’re working with children.

Students, I propose, engage in learning and growing intellectually. They’re gathering information, making sense of it, organizing it, embellishing it, making connections, being creative, trying new things, learning from mistakes. They’re forging increasingly mature (one hopes) relationships with content and with the roles of learner, thinker, and knower, an endeavor that requires certain (usually supremely enjoyable) acts and responses from their teachers.

Children, in contrast, are still working on human relationships. They’re developing as people, not as intellectuals, and as such require sometimes unexpected and often highly resented acts and responses from their teachers. Where students might need limits to be erased so they can explore new territory, children generally need very firm limits to be set and reinforced. Where students raise their hands with the answer to every question, children need to be mirrored, to see accurate reflections of themselves, both of what they’re capable of and what they’re not making any effort to do. Where students might question a grade because they’re not sure how to make it better, children question the teacher’s integrity, brilliantly exemplifying the child’s dependence on an authority figure as an external model that can eventually be internalized.

The bad news is that many teachers, it turns out, hate teaching children! And who can blame them? After all, shouldn’t parents be raising children so teachers can raise students????

The good news is that, while the demands of teaching students might differ markedly from the demands of teaching children, it’s all teaching. Learning is development. Period. It’s just a question of what type of development a kid is ready for (and, of course, kids can zigzag between developmental needs dizzyingly, even shifting from being a student to being a child with no warning). Allowing oneself to say, “Ah! Here is a student today” or “OK, today I’m working with a child who is teaching me about her needs” might help teachers accept the inevitable: that the kids in their classes are trying to develop, and they need teachers’ help if that development is to proceed healthily and productively.


Back to School


Attachment is crucial to healthy relationships at home and in school.

I’m a little late in posting this recommendation, but the story is still well worth hearing: Check out This American Life’s podcast “Back to School” (#474), which was aired on 9/14/12.

The story looks at the “non-cognitive elements” of success in school and discovers attachment theory, which is an important way of thinking about the ways people (students, children, parents, etc.) relate to each other and to ideas. The narrator, Ira Glass, considers the help young mothers can get in learning how to attach to their children and shares research that shows how important relationships, both at home and in school, are to long-term academic and personal success.

The story acknowledges the importance of caring, educative support for young mothers, their children, and at-risk teenagers. What it does not mention is the importance of caring, educative support for the teachers to whom students need to be able to attach. If it can be difficult for some parents to attach to their own children, how much more difficult can it be for teachers? So, for those of you who listen to this podcast, I leave you with the question:

What about the teachers?



Care for the Caregivers

fire hydrantTeachers take care of their students; who is taking care of the teachers?

A definitive professional and parental moment happened for me when I was in social work school and saw one of the more disturbing videos of my life.

The video was a snippet from a research project conducted by some therapists on what they called a “failure to thrive” baby, or a baby who was not growing and developing as he should have been. The baby was basically starving, and no one could figure out why.

The video of a therapy session with the baby, his young mother, and a therapist suggested a possible reason. In order to eat, the five-month-old baby had to drag himself across the floor to a bottle of formula that his mother had placed several feet away. As the hungry baby struggled on the floor, the mother sat in a chair looking at her therapist.

Watching a tiny five-month-old crawl (which five-month-old babies don’t do) was agonizing. If I had been the therapist, my irrepressible instinct would have been to jump up, grab the bottle and the baby, and feed that child. My second instinct would have been to yell at the mother and make her feed the baby.

But that’s not what the therapist did.

What the therapist did was focus on the mother. She left that little baby to his own devices and focused on the mother. She asked questions not about the baby, not about childcare, but about the mother. What was her life like? What was her childhood like? What was going on with her?

The therapist realized that judging the mother for her shocking treatment of her baby was irrelevant. The truth about this mother was that, because of her own experiences and emotional limitations, caring for her baby was, at that moment, personally impossible. And, rather than make her client change to appease her own intense discomfort with what she was witnessing, the therapist sat with her horror and worked on understanding and accepting this young woman.

The therapist looked at and listened to her client. She acknowledged the mother’s feelings and emphasized how legitimate they were. She leaned in to that young woman – whom I was actively hating! – and showed her how much she cared.

And I’ll be damned. It wasn’t long before the mother reached down to her baby, picked him up, and fed him as she cradled him in her arms.

The moral of the video is this: caregivers need care. If we neglect the caregivers, they will neglect their children. Or they will burn themselves out in their efforts to do the personally impossible, which is to feed others when they themselves are depleted and undernourished.

In my view, teachers are caregivers. They are professional caregivers, people whose job it is to enable our children’s healthy cognitive and emotional development. Their care helps to determine our children’s character and capacities for life.

But who is truly capable of taking care of 20 youngsters or 120 teenagers a day? What superhero can see, hear, and understand so many students, some of whom are “failing to thrive,” all of whom are naturally acting out their own limitations in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times? What teacher does not reach and pass over the boundary of what is personally impossible at least once in a school year? How many teachers cross this boundary every day?

And if teachers are expected to do the personally impossible, why wouldn’t they expect, even press, their students to? (Note: It is neither effective nor healthy to attempt to do what is impossible.)

Who is taking care of the teachers?