irritation_b_14-5-11In which the author engages in psychodynamic interpretation of a pithy teaching moment

I can’t resist doing a little psychodynamic interpretation here of one teacher’s impatient moment. (The moment is when the teacher has given instructions 17 times already and one student asks for the 18th. The teacher ignores him, and he gets mad at her.)

Consider the child who errs.

First of all, there will be a very good reason for the error, which is, in this case, not hearing the teacher’s instructions. Here are some possibilities:

  • The child is daydreaming and doesn’t hear his teacher.
  • The child is attending to something in the classroom other than his teacher.
  • The child is anxious and preoccupied, turned inward and deaf to what is going on around him.
  • The child is resistant.
    • The child feels stupid.
    • The child believes there’s no way he’ll understand the instructions.
    • The child is anxious and turned outward — that is, looking for a fight he can start via passive aggression.
    • The child is angry at the teacher — and looking for a fight he can start via passive aggression.
    • The child expects irritation from adults in his life and is a master at fulfilling his own prophesy.

And on and on. This is an important law that teachers can use every second of every day: There is always a good reason for students’ behavior. (And by “good” I don’t mean “praiseworthy”; I mean “logical” according to the student’s psychic structure.) A super-valuable corollary is that there is always a good reason for teachers’ behavior, too.

Making a guess as to the good reason behind a student’s irritating behavior is a very good first move for a teacher to make. The teacher who gave this quick example, however, didn’t have the awareness or time in class to make such a guess. That’s very normal and common. But not having made a good guess that could have stopped the student’s maladaptive behavior (of not paying attention) opened the teacher up for even more trouble. When the student finally snapped to and asked the teacher to repeat the instructions, she “ignored” him. And he got mad at her!

What is THAT about?!?

First possibility: entitlement. If a child is accustomed to parents or a teacher who accommodates to him, he might develop an expectation of getting his way. He has learned that, without any effort on his part, his needs get met when he needs them to get met. When this norm is disrupted — as when a parent or teacher ignores him — he gets mad and blames the teacher for not doing her job, which is to allow him not to do his.

Teacher’s possible response to entitlement: Consider how you are reinforcing the student’s entitled expectations and do whatever it takes to stop enabling his passivity. (This might be very difficult to do, especially if the student pushes back vehemently.) In addition, do what the teacher in this story did: set limits for the student and allow for natural consequences. “I’m sorry,” you might say (rather than just ignoring him). “The maximum number of times I’m going to give instructions is 17. After that, you’re on  your own.”

Another possibility: shame. If a student’s response to being caught doing something wrong is to believe there is something wrong with him, he will be flooded with terrible feelings. The most natural thing in the world to do with terrible feelings is to avoid them. How to avoid them? Here’s a good way: project those feelings onto someone else and go on the attack. “It’s YOUR fault! (not mine)” is an excellent decoy that works best — as decoys do — when the teacher engages.

Teacher’s possible response to shame: First and foremost, don’t follow the decoy. Don’t engage. Be very clear about what is your responsibility and what is not. (It is a student’s responsibility to listen. It is your responsibility to give good instructions and address students’ confusions.) (It is not your responsibility to take on the student’s emotions.) Communicate your clarity simply and as neutrally as possible (so as not to deepen the shame). If you can, use humor. What might you say? See above.

Second, make a plan to address the student’s error in a way that reduces shame. Talk to him after class or invite him to lunch in your room so you can describe to him what you saw him do and why you responded by ignoring him. Ask him what it was like to be him at that moment. Wonder how the two of you can work together to help him execute his classroom responsibilities. Do this without anger or recrimination. (NOTE: Feel your anger, absolutely. Just don’t talk to him about a plan while you’re angry, as that will deepen his shame and defensiveness and you’ll get nowhere.)

One more possibility: fear. If a student fears attack for having done something wrong, he can “turn the passive into the active” and attack first. In other words, “the best defense is a good offense.” In still other words, the student could be “identifying with the aggressor.” His act of blaming you speaks volumes, namely, “I will not be the victim. You will be.”

Teacher’s response to fear: See above, replacing the word “shame” with the word “fear.” Ultimately, whatever feeling the student has matters less than the fact that he is desperately defending against that feeling by making you, not him, the bad guy. Hold firm. You are not the bad guy. You are a reasonable human being who can see through the student’s shenanigans and address him, when appropriate, in a way that will convey to him that

  • you see him accurately
  • you expect him to take responsibility for himself
  • you are able to take responsibility for yourself (and to model it in your relationship with him)
  • you are open, curious, caring, connected, and flexible

There are other possible guesses this teacher could have made about her irritating student. She would be the best person to make the guess, as she was there. In fact, the best place to start when you’re making guesses about a student or an incident in the classroom is with your own feelings. Since emotions are contagious, the chance that your student feels the same way you do is quite high. When you start with your feelings, you get to wonder, “Why might my student be feeling this way?” And you’re off and running!