Emotional and Relational Data

Pushed buttons are extremely useful sources of information. Teachers can gain much by simply observing their students’ behaviors. But greater illumination results when teachers observe themselves, that is, when they practice self-awareness. This first step of the emotion work teachers can do to understand enactments, or pushed buttons, is the most important, the one out of which all the other steps necessarily fall.

Self-awareness is important because it draws teachers’ attention to their emotions. And paying attention to their emotions gives teachers access to extremely valuable information:

  • Information about themselves
  • Information about their students’ preferred relational styles
  • Information about their students’ emotions

In other words, self-awareness gives teachers access to emotional and relational data that are crucial to understanding the ways students are or are not learning in their classrooms.

Information about Themselves

Since it takes two to push a button, gathering information about the potential role one is playing in an enactment can be enormously valuable.

Introspection. It should come as no surprise that introspection, paying close, honest attention to one’s own emotions and physical sensations, provides clues as to how one fits with other people. Noticing one’s internal experience makes it easier to take responsibility for one’s actions, for the ways one contributes to relationships. And taking responsibility for the roles one plays in relationships can lead to a number of benefits.

First, teachers who practice introspection and take responsibility for their feelings and behaviors are modeling self-regulation, a skill all students need to learn. Second, they are dissolving tension in themselves and others, an experience that is both relieving and liberating. Third, they are learning about themselves and how they fit with their students and, possibly, making lasting changes in the ways they will interact in the future. Fourth, they might discover actual flaws in the ways they are teaching. And last, they are opening up space in which others can exist and grow on their own terms (more on this in chapter four).

Self-care. Noticing one’s emotions also alerts teachers to the necessity of self-care; that is, it provides the following information: “Whoa — I’m feeling terrible. I need to do something about that so I can feel better.” Elementary as this information might seem, too many teachers (and caregivers in general) regularly ignore it. But the work of self-care is an essential part of a teacher’s job description.

Caring for oneself helps teachers stay in tip-top emotional shape. Being emotionally healthy means teachers are less reactive when enactments surface in the classroom. Being less reactive means teachers can respond to students more calmly and thoughtfully and, hence, more effectively. Effective responses to enactments means students will do more desirable learning.

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Self-care (and being cared for) is crucial for teachers. Figuring out how to get the care one needs is perhaps the single most important part of any teacher’s (or other caregiver’s) job.

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So self-awareness points teachers to their own need for self-soothing and rejuvenation, a need that is essential for teachers to satisfy on a regular basis. Self-awareness also invites teachers to read their own emotions and familiarize themselves with their own prongs and outlets so as to take responsibility for their contributions to classroom enactments. Simply turning inward and noticing oneself, doing nothing more, can have far-reaching consequences for teachers and students.

Information about Students’ Relational Styles

Self-awareness invites teachers to reflect on themselves, their own prongs and outlets. But it also opens a window into their students’ relational worlds, into the fits their students are accustomed to experiencing with other people.

As the notion of psychic structure states, one person’s behavior (her prongs) encourages appropriate (and unconscious) responses in others (their outlets). Those responses are both behavioral and emotional. When teachers are caught in enactments — when their buttons are pushed — they are, of course, behaving automatically, in ways that come naturally to them. But their behaviors are also accurate responses to their students’ compelling prompts and, as such, complete the enactments in just the ways their students have come to expect.

Enactments, then, are self-fulfilling prophecies. Especially under conditions of stress, when it is difficult to be flexible and forgiving, people seek connection with others in familiar ways. Students who act out in class are literally teaching their teachers (and classmates) how to treat them….Noticing these actions and reactions can give teachers insight into the types of relationships that have shaped their students and, consequently, the types of responses from caregivers that feel most familiar to them.

Noticing their students’ preferred relational styles can help teachers in a couple of ways. First, it further facilitates stepping back and detaching when their buttons are pushed. If teachers can view themselves and their students as playing necessary and familiar roles, as taking on dramatic parts in a play, they can stave off blame and judgment. They might also begin to feel compassion, which is an extremely useful emotion when dealing with students who are hurting.

Second, noticing the roles students compel teachers to play can suggest methods of corrective action. If students expect this reaction, how might they respond to a totally different reaction? Using self-awareness to identify relational styles and deliberately considering ways to fit differently and more productively with students is a powerful way to teach.

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Psychic structures, the prongs and outlets that people use to plug into each other relationally, are not fixed. They develop through repeated interactions with people, and they change through repeated, different interactions. These different interactions have been called corrective emotional experiences.

When teachers plan lessons that help their students learn new information and skills, they are enacting corrective academic experiences. Teachers’ acts are designed to correct their students’ current state of knowing by sharing information with the students and encouraging the students to think and operate differently. Effective teaching qualifies as offering “corrective academic experiences.”

When teachers shift their behaviors to fit differently with their students, to strengthen their relationships and make button pushing less necessary, they are participating in corrective emotional experiences.

Teaching, one might say, is the art of participating in corrective experiences. Thinking carefully about how to provide these academic, emotional, and relational experiences can give teachers an invaluable advantage in helping their students develop into educated, healthy people.

[Credit for the term “corrective emotional experiences” to F. Alexander, T.M. French, et al. (1946), Psychoanalytic therapy: Principles and application, New York: Ronald Press.]

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Information about Students’ Emotions

Enactments, or pushed buttons, compel responses that are both behavioral and emotional. When they fit together, people unconsciously perceive how to treat each other to make the fit work. The clues they pick up on are, of course, behavioral. But they are also emotional.

For emotions are contagious. When people successfully plug into each other, they complete an emotional circuit. This connection often induces, or creates, in one person the feelings that the other person is having. What this means for teachers is that what a teacher feels when her buttons are pushed is often exactly what her student is feeling. Knowing that one’s own emotions might match a student’s emotions can help a teacher better understand her student and plan ways of interacting more effectively.

In short, teachers’ emotions are an extremely valuable resource, as the following story illustrates….

— pp. 53-57, The Feeling of Teaching: Using Emotions and Relationships to Transform the Classroom