Another friend was suffering.
This friend — let’s call him Jamal — had just finished teaching a class that had turned out to be a disaster. His students were working on a Constitution unit, one in which they were divided into teams and researching the various sides of controversial issues in preparation for a big debate. On this the third day of the students’ research time in the library, Jamal noticed that the class was unruly. Students were chatting and giggling over their computers or wandering aimlessly through the stacks. He caught some students whispering and scowling; they stopped as soon as he drew near. Other students seemed to look right through him as if he weren’t even there. Jamal was not a particularly paranoid guy, but he felt decidedly alienated and nervous by the end of class.
That’s when I ran into him.
I could tell Jamal was hurting by the lost look on his face. “What happened?” I asked.
“Ohhhhh,” Jamal moaned. “My students hate me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, they seem to really hate this debate unit. They weren’t working on it at all today; just about everybody was goofing off. Every student I looked at gave me either an irritated face or a poker face. I can tell they think this is a terrible unit, a really stupid idea. And I know they think I’m a terrible teacher!”
Does this sound familiar?
One of the most difficult parts of teaching, for me, is my inability to know what is going on inside my students’ heads. I am constantly gathering data about them — are they answering my questions? are they lively? what do their faces look like? Are they interested? bored? asleep? — and jumping to conclusions about what those data mean.
That’s what Jamal was doing, too.
His conclusions were that his debate unit was stupid and he was a terrible teacher. All this based on evidence of restlessness in his students and glimpses of their faces. Oh, and one more thing: projection. His conclusions depended on the automatic and powerful forces of perception and emotion, belief and expectation and, ultimately, interpretation, that o so commonly fill the gap between us and them, between what we do know and what we don’t know about other people.
His way of filling this gap between him and his students — projection — was causing Jamal a great deal of suffering.
So I asked Jamal to make the flip. I asked him to wonder if his emotions of alarm and fear of judgment might be shared by his students. It wasn’t hard for Jamal to imagine, as the day of the debate and the dreaded public speaking drew near, that his students were feeling more and more anxious and opposed to their task. It was possible, he conceded, that he was witnessing resistant behavior.
But Jamal went further. He wondered what his emotions meant about him. He wondered why he so quickly decided he knew what his students felt: that he and his ideas were bad. Why the immediate projection? Why, specifically, the assumption that any of these data had anything to do with him?
Here, Jamal made another flip. He didn’t just switch from worrying to wondering about his students. He switched from immersion in his troubling feelings to detachment from them so he could reflect on himself. From worry to wonder. Making the flip. Utilizing the cornucopia of emotional data from his classroom to make sense of his teaching and his students’ learning.
Flipping into Self-Reflection
So here’s what Jamal thought:
We’re separate people. I am not the students, and they are not me.
When we’re so invested in helping our students, in influencing and even controlling them, we can slip into merging with them. We can forget (because it can be so damned stressful!) that our students are “separate people” with their own motives, drives, strengths, weaknesses, and power, all qualities that we simply must deal with if we’re going to be in relationship with them. De-merging, as Jamal did with this thought, allows him to see himself and his students more clearly, which can lead to much more effective teaching interventions.
These students are not feeling about me the way I’m feeling about me.
Just as no teacher can see inside his students’ heads, students cannot see inside their teachers’ heads. Unless we act out on our students to induce in them our disowned feelings (and teachers can do that just as students do), we can expect that students (1) don’t know how we’re feeling and (2) don’t care. A safe assumption all teachers can make about their students, who are caught in the swirl of growth and development, is captured by the tired (but still relevant) cliché, “This is not about me.” No, it’s not. Guaranteed. It’s about them.
Students have a right to have or form their own relationships to ideas. The idea is not me; the assignment is not me; the curriculum is not me.
Again, beware of merging! Another way of putting this is that teachers can easily take their students’ responses in class personally. By viewing the content or the acts of teaching we choose as extensions of ourselves, we set ourselves and our students up. If students struggle with the content or resist it or appear to disapprove of it (all legitimate response to new ideas, especially if they’re difficult to assimilate for whatever number of reasons) and we take that struggle personally — as if it’s about us and not the students — we join the students in shutting down their learning. We crush the potential for them to form their own relationship with the content.
And, hear ye: Students’ learning — the relationships they form with the content we teach — is a process we teachers have no actual control over. We can only influence it. And if we take our students’ reactions to our work personally and begin teaching apologetically or half-heartedly or resentfully or defensively because of our fear or insecurity or merging, we weaken our influence.
All this thinking and introspection Jamal did? This was good work. Jamal made a good flip. A perfect 10.
Note that making this kind of flip, one that involves reflection on oneself, can work with floods of positive feelings as well as negative feelings. Any time a teacher’s irrational beliefs affect his experience of the classroom, whether the beliefs are negative and undermining or hyper-positive and inflating, he can afford to make the flip and wonder about himself.
The goal for the teacher is finding a balance in a realistic and relaxed humility. This leaves plenty of room for students to be themselves, act out, struggle, create, and teach us what they need in order to develop. It leaves room for us to be curious and observant and steadfast in our confidence that our students will grow and that we can hold them while they do it.
How do you project your fears and insecurities onto your students? What happens when you do? What suffering results?