Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

What is this all about?

TTE first blog image

Working through emotions makes teaching much more effective.

“Teaching through emotions” refers to two truths about teaching:

  • that teaching necessarily involves emotions, and my emotions are going to affect what I do and say and think in the classroom (and outside of it)

AND

  • that effective teaching requires me to work through my emotions so I can engage in straightforward relationships that help students learn.

I won’t say much about the first truth, as I think it’s pretty self-evident to most teachers. Suffice it to say that when I yell at a student or dread going to class or want to write “What’s wrong with you?!!!” on a student paper, I’m “teaching through emotions.” My emotions are affecting what I do, say, and think as a teacher.

That is, I “teach through emotions” the way I see through a scrim or a veil or a filter or a lens.

The second truth means that, in order to sharpen what I can see through the scrim of my emotions, in order to straighten potentially crooked relationships, I have to work through my emotions. I have to acknowledge them, work to understand them, and make plans based on my understanding. In “teaching through emotions,” I actually use my emotions to make my teaching more attuned and effective.

This blog takes the first truth for granted. It also takes the second truth for granted, but I don’t assume all teachers know or understand the second truth. So I’m devoting my blog to illustrating and explicating and ruminating on the second truth, as I believe it is absolutely crucial to good teaching. And, as far as I can tell, it’s utterly neglected in the field of education today.

Here’s an emotion that some teachers feel but that most would like to deny: hatred. I remember, some months ago, reading about a teacher who posted on facebook her wish that one of her students would drown. Anybody remember that? I think it’s fair to say that this teacher probably “hated” that student. She made a terrible mistake in posting such a heinous thought online – in fact, in my opinion teachers should post NO personal thoughts about their students online – but her hatred for the student was not in and of itself a crime. The crime derived from the teacher’s failure to work through the hatred. Not working through the hatred allowed the feeling to fester and eventually to burst out in a totally horrifying post.

But doesn’t working through a feeling like hatred just make it worse? Isn’t it better just to pretend the feeling doesn’t exist?

No.

Here’s the deal with emotions: they are extremely accurate data. (They can also be very distorting, the way a scrim can blur the view.) If handled properly, emotions can tell us a lot about what is happening in a relationship. More specifically, they can tell us what is happening inside us (that’s pretty obvious) and (this is less obvious) what may be happening inside someone else. Discerning this information and acting on what we learn can lead to a miraculous and instantaneous shift in the relationship. And, when a teacher hates a student, a shift in the relationship is, to put it mildly, extremely desirable.

What might a teacher discover if she were to work through her hatred of a particular student? It’s quite possible that the teacher would realize that she actually fears the student. She might discover that she sees in the student parts of herself that she despises and can’t abide in others. She might believe the student hates her. In this case, the best defense is a good offense. The hatred could mean many other things. What those things are would have to come out in the teacher’s honest exploration of what her hatred of this particular student meant to her.

That’s why I call it “working through.” There’s no formula. There’s no easy translation, like THIS EMOTION = THAT MEANING. The meanings that emotions carry are personal. They’re peculiar to each individual. Figuring out what the emotion means is essential if a teacher is going to be able to use the emotion to effect a shift in her relationship with the student.

So what if the teacher who wanted her student to drown had worked through her feeling of hatred? Of course, I can’t say what the hatred meant about that particular teacher’s relationship with that particular student. But I absolutely guarantee that the hatred meant something. And I guarantee that, if the teacher had been able to figure out what the hatred meant, at least three things would have happened:

1)   She would have felt relief from the hatred. It would have gone away or changed into another, more fundamental (and useful) feeling.

2)   She would have had a clearer view of what was going wrong in her relationship with the student.

3)   She could have come up with a plan of action – a way of treating her student, of relating to her – that would have shifted their relationship in a positive direction.

And here’s what would not have happened: She would never have made that facebook post.

Important fact: “Working through” is best done with someone else. It’s really difficult, if not impossible, to do this work alone. Why? Because all of us have blind spots, or things we simply cannot see about ourselves and the ways we behave in relationships. It’s complicated, but the bottom line is that what we can know is based on what we perceive, and what we perceive is inescapably influenced by what we feel. (This means that our cognitions are intimately entwined with our emotions – that thinking and feeling are flip sides of the same coin.) (This means, in turn, that teaching and learning, insofar as they are about cognitions, are also necessarily about emotions.)

Another way of putting this is that what we know is subjective and therefore limited and partial. Examining our experiences with the aid of someone else can help us flesh out those experiences and gain richer perspective on them.

So finding someone who can help us see what we cannot see, someone who can illuminate our blind spots for us, is crucial in doing emotion work, or “teaching through emotions.” I believe wholeheartedly that teachers need these types of people and this type of support. This is a third truth about teaching that this blog takes for granted: that teachers need places to go where they can be supported emotionally and where they can work through their emotions about teaching towards productive, even miraculous, ends. I’ll write more about this crucial truth in future posts.

6 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more with the need for teachers to be able to recognize and work through the emotions brought on by teaching. It’s such a fraught environment – it’s just laughable that we do not explicitly prepare teachers for the land mines of emotion in the classroom. I look forward to more posts!

  2. Thank you for these thoughts. In my experience, the classroom is a very emotional space. I sometimes experience feeling unsettled about things I say or leave out while teaching that later I come to see are not the best way of addressing the issue or teaching the topic. I think as teachers, in addition to negotiating our anger at students, we also have to negotiate our own regret, shame, or anger at self when we notice we might have enacted microaggressions. In my case, when my personality patterns of self-silencing come into the classroom, I can leave out information or fail to interrupt things like racism as I see them happening. Normally, this pattern just impacts me, but when it manifests in the classroom, it reproduces harm for many others. As I am female-socialized, and have not been taught how to “talk back,” I often cannot think of ways to form sentences to address these issues. I’d like to get practice at *How* to intervene in a way that does not attack students or leave the issue unaddressed. Since I have no training in teaching, this really is a learn-as-you-go experience for me. I look forward to reading and discussing more!

    • Betsy

      March 27, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      You have said so many important things in this response. First and foremost is the fact that, in addition to having strong emotions about students, teachers can have strong negative emotions about themselves. There are so many opportunities for teachers to feel “regret, shame, or anger” at themselves! As you point out, these feelings can emerge from personal patterns, such as your pattern of “self-silencing,” and they can actually be induced by students. Witnessing episodes of racism, noticing our own microaggressions, realizing after the fact what we should have done but didn’t or shouldn’t have done but did — all this can be overwhelming for a teacher. It sounds as though you are already pretty darned aware of yourself: of your feelings and your relational patterns. This is hugely important! And you are ready to think about how to intervene. There is much to say about intervening, and I’ve said a lot in a book that I’m preparing for publication, but something simple that I can share here is that repair is always possible. That is, if you go home at the end of a school day feeling terrible about, say, having fallen silent in the face of a racist comment, you can decide to return to the comment tomorrow and handle it differently. You can make a plan. The plan can be “how I’m going to re-open the topic of that racist comment and address it appropriately” or it can be “what I’m going to do next time I hear a racist comment.” Intervening in the heat of the moment is extremely difficult and generally comes after lots of practice at repairing after the fact! And repairing, especially when it’s about something as difficult as racism, or homophobia, or misogyny, can take a lot of courage. Building up this kind of courage is much easier when you do the “working through” with people you respect and trust. And it can take time. Be patient with yourself. But don’t ignore your feelings. They are pointing you in an important direction.

  3. Amy Antongiovanni

    March 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    I just have to say “Bravo”, Dear Betsy! I’m so glad to see that you are publishing your book, and this blog is a brilliant way to start the process of helping teachers to understand the necessity of this kind of thinking about emotions in the classroom.
    I’m sending your link on to the teachers at my kids’ Waldorf school and also to some at my community college. I look forward to reading more of your work.
    You rock, Woman!

  4. Betsy: I agree it is an excellent use of resources to support educators in “Teaching through Emotions.” Way to illustrate the importance of self-awareness and how we can do our best teaching by not ignoring our emotions, and in fact, how we can enhance our teaching, our educators overall, by recognizing human nature and appreciating the role of confidence in the classroom. And that support should be available to everyone at little cost…gosh, if I didn’t have my mom-support groups when I was raising babies and toddlers, I might’ve exploded! So, well done you, for writing and researching and bringing to light the need and the answers, or at least the beginning of the answers.

  5. Diane H. Tracey

    May 29, 2012 at 8:31 am

    I am very interested in the relationships between emotions (affects) and learning, especially for students who struggle with reading. I am a college professor of literacy education who plans to conduct a literature review of related research this summer. I look forward to staying in touch. Please let me know when your book gets published!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*