Recently, during a Teacher Support Group I was facilitating, the participants were airing their frustrations about working with students who had “learned helplessness,” about dancing around intrusive parents, about balancing between empathy and strictness. In the midst of the discussion, one of the teachers exclaimed, “I don’t want to feel!”
Right. Because the emotions teachers have can be onerous: frustration, confusion, anger, self-doubt, anxiety, shame, regret. Teachers who act out of compassion — say, extending a deadline when their students complain about the workload — can kick themselves when they realize they’ve been had: their students merely waited two more days before whipping the project off the night before it was due. How might a teacher feel? Foolish. Fatuous. Enraged. Vengeful.
“I don’t want to feel!” Because a teacher can never know precisely what’s going on inside their students — when students are genuinely trying, when they’re interested, when they’re bluffing, when they’re truly needy — and can fill the inevitable gap between themselves and their students with self-blaming and despairing thoughts that can feel like torture. “Am I asking too much?” “What am I doing wrong?” “Why am I such a terrible teacher?” “Do my students hate me?”
Yes indeed: the feelings of teaching can be terrible. And the most natural response in the world to terrible feelings is to wish them away.
But if this teacher got her wish and magically lost the power to feel, she would be doomed. Why? Because, at the very least, she’d miss out on the following information:
What’s going on with her. There is always at least one good reason for any emotion. If a teacher who is feeling angry or anxious can stop and wonder about these emotions, she might discover something very useful. She might realize, for example, that she feels invaded and disrespected — hence her anger — and needs to put more protective barriers around herself with certain people. Her anxiety might suggest she’s trying to do the impossible and needs to scale back or redesign. Not feeling emotions means missing crucial signals about what one needs for psychic (and even physical) survival.
What’s going on with her students. It’s strange, but emotions can be highly contagious. If you’re lucky enough to be hanging out with someone who’s brimming over with joy and excitement, it’s quite difficult not to feel happy yourself. If you’re interacting with a student who is angry or ashamed or anxious, it can be just as difficult not to share those negative feelings. Very often, then, the terrible feelings teachers have are direct broadcasts from their students.
If, for example, a teacher is struck by how stupid he feels after talking with a student, he could wonder if the student might actually feel stupid herself. If so, what can the teacher do to address that insecurity in the student? The move the teacher makes based on this hypothesis could turn a resistant student into a much more willing learner AND relieve the teacher of an emotion that wasn’t his in the first place.
What’s going on in the relationship. Emotions can seem like private experiences, but, in fact, they emerge from relationships. Sometimes they are vestiges of old relationships, as when a feeling — say, shame — that seems inappropriate in the present context nonetheless overtakes you. When that happens, chances are good that there’s something about the present situation that reminds you (usually unconsciously) of influential past relationships. Your unexamined emotions and actions can replicate those old relationships automatically, for better and for worse.
A lot of the time, though, emotions are associated with what is going on relationally right here and now. Are you anxious about a student’s tanking grade? Are you frustrated by a student’s passivity? Does a student’s chronic whining make your skin crawl? Such feelings point to the varied and very interesting ways in which people — parent-child, teacher-student, parent-teacher — fit with each other in relationship. Attending to emotions can help illuminate the workings, or dynamics, of these relationships. Attending to the dynamics of relationships can lead to ideas about how to make the relationships better. And in a classroom, where learning depends on relationships, knowing how to make relationships better is a crucial skill.
All this to say: Absolutely. Teachers should want to not feel. It’s hard to feel.
But, gosh DARN it, feeling is crucial.