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)
- 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?
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.