Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Page 2 of 5


labelsI say: Down with labels!

Last summer or maybe the summer before, I read the first half of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I really liked the first half, as I recall, because I had so many gratifying moments that sounded like this: “Oooh! Oooh! That’s me!” Which is a little weird, because I don’t consider myself introverted. I’m fairly outgoing.

I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t stand the second half of the book. So I stopped reading and gave the book away in disgust. I don’t remember exactly what turned me off, but, looking back at the Table of Contents (online), I’m willing to bet it was this: the rush to reify — to make real, to etch in stone — the category of “introvert” (and, by comparison, “extrovert”) as something fixed in the brain or in our genes or in our personalities.

This need to build walls around an identity makes me very uncomfortable. One reason, of course, is that it invites people to oversimplify themselves. It can be so relieving to find a label that seems to capture and explain one’s experience! I have found that a mental health diagnosis can have this effect on clients. I myself hope and pray every time I take my son to the doctor that he has strep throat because that label means easy treatment. Labels, in their limited ways, can be quite helpful.

But, once we get our hands on labels, we can turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. A student with a learning disability can quickly learn to avoid certain problems because he comes to believe (and, sadly, so do others) that he is too dumb or limited or incapable to do them. A child who decides he hates sports (because his father loves them) deprives himself of a certain brand of pleasure for the rest of his life. (Here’s that story — it’s a good one.) A teacher who refuses to delegate responsibility loads herself down with her own competence and implicitly labels others as “less competent” or, worse, “incompetent.”

Which leads me to another reason why labels and walled-in identities make me uncomfortable: Labels are way too easily ranked. It’s almost a human reflex: Let’s take two opposite labels like “introvert” and “extrovert” and compare them! And let’s make the one I identify with the better one! Oooh! Oooh!

I think the author of Quiet wanted to normalize introversion, to make introverts feel better about the label. That’s fine — except when people start ranking. Once I’ve decided I possess a certain quality, especially when I think that quality makes me look good, it’s way too likely that I will avoid self-reflection and just lay claim to the identity, no more questions asked. Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset, has discovered this in teachers, much to her dismay. A colleague of hers calls it “false growth mindset”: when teachers who routinely display “fixed” mindset characteristics put themselves in the “growth” mindset category. A kind of ironically “fixed” way of seeing oneself.

My biggest complaint about labels is this: they allow us to overlook the adaptations that underlie the labels. Even if we consider a label we’ve adopted — like “introvert” or “growth mindset” or “grit” — to be good, the underlying adaptations may not be.

Here’s an example: I recently ran a Teacher Support Group where I stepped out of my standard facilitator role. Rather than act in a restrained fashion that emphasized observation, reflection, and brief and efficient bouts of psychoeducation, I became impassioned. I began to “exhort.” I went into full-fledged pep talk mode. In short, I let ‘er rip.

My behavior felt relevant and justified at the time. (After all, I am outgoing.) But no sooner had I left the meeting than I began feeling something terrible: shame. I worried that I had surprised or insulted or bored the teachers. I worried that my self-image did not match their image of me and that my confidence was completely unwarranted. They knew the truth about me and I couldn’t even see it! I felt vulnerable and exposed. As I wrote in my TSG journal immediately afterwards, “I felt I took up too much space.”

Let’s pause for a second. These uncomfortable responses I had to “taking up space” were raw data about myself. They pointed to beliefs that I have created about myself over time. They are bedrock and, therefore, extremely useful.

Now let’s let the tape roll again. If I were someone who wanted to escape these uncomfortable responses and ignore my bedrock beliefs (true or not), I had two very good options. One would have been to beat  the shame down by saying to myself, “Hey! No problem. I’m an extrovert. It’s just how I am. The teachers can take it. They have no choice: It is what it is.”

The other option would have been to say, “This is what I get when I push out of my comfort zone. What I should have done and need to do in the future is act more like an introvert. I should not have taken up space, presumed that I knew something important, imposed myself on other people. I should have stopped talking and, instead, sat in supportive silence. I should have been Quiet.”

These two adaptations make good use of labels. The first adaptation banishes negative feelings by justifying problematic or risky behavior; the second prevents negative feelings by avoiding problematic or risky behavior. The first is not particularly fair to the teachers; the second is not fair to myself. Both adaptations, both uses of different labels, accomplish the same thing: stagnation. Status quo. Zero growth.

There’s a third way, a middle way, a way that transcends personality type or mindset or grit. It’s the way I call “emotion work.” It’s what I do to turn negative feelings into understanding that empowers me to grow.

When I do emotion work, I look for the “good” reasons for my emotions. In the case of my TSG, my shame arose from a number of bedrock beliefs that I have: As a therapist and group facilitator, I’m supposed to make space for others. As a teacher, I value supporting others in coming to their own conclusions, not in agreeing with (or caving to) mine. As a child, I learned to yield intellectually to others — or else. As a woman, I have been trained to protect others from my power.

These beliefs, even the self-undermining ones, can all come in handy under certain circumstances. It’s essential that I make space for my therapy clients and my students so I can listen and learn and so they can come to their own conclusions. As an adult child, I can develop strategies for avoiding intellectual bullies. As a woman, I can tone down the powerful personality in high-stakes situations —  such as when I’m negotiating a salary and want to avoid activating my employer’s gender bias.

But these beliefs are maladaptive in other situations. Sometimes my clients and students need to know what I’m thinking. As an adult, I can choose not to be a fearful child. My power as a woman is a force for incredible good in the world. Paying attention to my raw data makes me resilient and invites me to be deliberate and strategic. It also makes me more centered and connected.

Blanketing all these contradictory and complex beliefs under a label robs me of crucial raw data about myself. I mean, come on: “Grit” in one situation is just plain stubbornness in another. Sidestepping the raw data can make me feel better about myself; it can certainly protect me from emotional pain (it sucks to feel shame). But it also prevents me from growing, from taking risks and discovering my own nuances that encourage me to — dare I say it? — take up my space with confidence, compassion, flexibility, and wisdom.

Popular enthusiasm about labels worries me because it’s just a whole lot easier to take on a label than it is to do emotion work.  Blanketing nuance, overlooking the bedrock truth, enacting a distracting adaptation doesn’t really help anybody. It just perpetuates stagnation, status quo, and zero growth. I, for one, find these outcomes unacceptable — especially in schools.



By Degrees


“You can learn to live with anything [no matter how horrible it is] when it happens by degrees.”

Thank you, Mark Erelli, for allowing me to post your moving letter that, for me, captures the heart and soul of educating: supporting and celebrating students who care, take risks, make mistakes, show courage, and come out stronger. And thank you for your moving song, “By Degrees.”


Last night [3/16/16], students at the Burr & Burton school in Manchester VT performed a 90 minute-long medley of highlighting musical works of social change. I am deeply honored that my song “By Degrees” was featured alongside works by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many other influential artists and composers. I can’t imagine how hard the student orchestra and singers rehearsed for the performance, which was an intricate feat of endurance. It was streamed live, but I was on the road and missed the show (you can see my song here at 01:21:00: http://livestream.com/burrburton/events/4977399)  After the fact, I learned that the student who sang my song had made a few mistakes during his performance, and was working through some tough emotions about his performance. I don’t know the student’s name, but I wanted to reach out to him with this open letter:

Dear G______,

I want you to know that I saw a recording of the show and that as a writer there is no higher compliment than having others give voice to your songs. It doesn’t matter who sings it, it could be an artist of some renown in a big hall or a weekend warrior belting it for disinterested patrons at a barroom open mic. It’s an act of tribute for which I am grateful.

I heard through the grapevine that you might be working through some tough emotions in the wake of your performance. I know—some verses of the song were repeated, others not sung at all—but I want you to know that none of that really matters. I’ve done this professionally for 17 years and I still forget words to my own songs. I make mistakes. All. The. Time. Mistakes are funny: they emphasize what we all have in common, embodying all that makes us human, but they also have a strange way of emphasizing what makes us unique. Music biographies are littered with stories of musicians’ limitations that evolved into their personal style, oft-copied by future generations. This won’t be the last mistake you make—and not your biggest by a long-shot—but I hope you can learn to embrace the fact that such things are a normal part of how we grow, what makes us “us,” and most importantly, what makes you “you.”

It takes an incredible amount of courage to perform, particularly at this point in your life. When you step onstage, you ostensibly hope to blow the audience away with your brilliance and charisma. What you are actually doing is making a public declaration that you care about something, something you love so much that you are compelled to share it with others. As a younger person, and sometimes even as adult, it’s often not cool to care, to love so publicly. A performer’s vulnerability often makes others uncomfortable. I hope your friends and colleagues applaud your efforts, but if anyone ever gives you grief about your mistakes, it’s only because your bravery reminds them of what they might not be courageous enough to do.

You stood up there, surrounded by so many other talented peers, in front of an audience of friends, relatives and witnesses, and for 90 minutes you showed them you cared—about art, social change and so much more.  That kind of courage is just one of the many ways you may someday change the world. I’m not talking of some widespread revolution. Maybe you only change the heart of a few people who witness your art, but never underestimate the power of that. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not ashamed to admit that your performance brought me to tears, and I can’t thank you enough for caring.

With respect,
Mark Erelli

The Middle Class


When teachers and the middle class are squeezed dry, systems become unhealthy.

I don’t know how many times I have talked to teachers about how squeezed they can feel between management and students.  Squeezes like being required to use a grade-recording computer system that does not work consistently. Or trying to hold a student accountable only to be overridden by the principal. Or draining themselves dry with care for their students without any effective mentoring for themselves. At these times the image that comes to mind for me is that of the middle class, the meat between the bread slices that gives the sandwich its flavor, the layer of working people that enriches the upper layer through its labor and supports the lower layer through taxes.

I am no economist, so the metaphor pretty much ends there. What I am is an educator and a psychotherapist who is deeply concerned about the toll that teaching can take on teachers. From my perspective, it is a teacher’s job to be available to students for the students’ use as they develop and grow and struggle and resist. This is the job of the developmental partner, the person who holds students through risk, who offers corrective action without retaliating, who reflects back to students accurately, who is present and optimistic, empathic and wise, even when a student cannot be.

It is no coincidence that this is the role most commonly held by women, mothers, nannies, and other feminized professionals like teachers.

Because this job of being a developmental partner is so hard AND SO CRUCIAL, I firmly believe that teachers need support and care as they work through their students’ wily — and totally normal — attempts to avoid the risks of growing and learning. Developmental partners need care and support so they can continue to do their absolutely crucial jobs and avoid burnout. The problem is that this work tends to be utterly invisible, not just to students (who really do not need to know how hard their teachers work) but to management, who generally know how hard their teachers work but who do not necessarily provide structures that ameliorate teachers’ suffering.

And teachers suffer. Not all the time, of course, but often. They doubt themselves; they feel frustrated and powerless; they live in the gap between all the goodness they see for their students and the students’ own lack of confidence and even self-destructiveness. They respond to mandates from way above even when those mandates make no sense in the actual classroom. They strive for approval and feel disappointed and exploited. They hurl themselves into their work with relentless energy and blame themselves when they crash.

Living like this is untenable. It is unsustainable. It leads to burnout, of course. And it is avoidable. At least, I believe it is. The simple solution is to care for teachers. The complex version of this simple solution is to create an environment that expects teachers to develop, grow, and learn in the company of developmental partners of their own. That is, teachers need developmental partners, too: people who hold teachers through risk, who offer corrective action without retaliating, who reflect back to teachers accurately, who are present and optimistic, empathic and wise, even when a teacher cannot be.

As I understand it — and, again, I’m no economist — the middle class symbolizes a healthy economy. When the middle class is squeezed dry, things get unhealthy. Why wouldn’t we care with the utmost attention for the people upon whom our children’s health and well-being depend?




A new term for something teachers should have.

A teacher I work with coined a new term a few weeks ago. She and five of her colleagues and I were talking about how we “make it so” in our classrooms: that is, how our expectations, shaped by our earliest experiences of emotional survival, determine what we perceive and how we interpret our perceptions. You’re trying a new (risky) activity in class today? New (risky) activities make you nervous because you’re demonstrating self-confidence (and you believe deep down – because you’ve been taught this over the years – that you’re not allowed to be self-confident)? You go into class and make a mess of the lesson then feel terrible and yet validated by its failure? That’s you making it so. That’s you infusing your work with your maladaptive expectations of the world and making those expectations come true. That’s you enacting a self-fulfilling prophesy.

But that’s not what this post is about. (Maybe another time.) This post is about the label this teacher came up with for the work we were doing. Metacogniscience. A blend of metacognition and omniscience.

A remarkable term. Let us unpack it.

Metacognition and Omniscience

As you may know, metacognition is knowing about your knowing, thinking about your thinking. It is lifting up over your ideas or thought processes and looking down at them so as to scrutinize their workings. Metacognition gives you a more global perspective on your experience of thinking and knowing; it allows you to consider how you know or think, which can help you be more deliberate and critical in your knowing and thinking going forward.

Omniscience, of course, is knowing everything. Here are the two definitions I found in my beloved Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (published in 1984):

(1) having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight

(2) possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Yep. That’s omniscience all right.

So what’s metacogniscience? And why should teachers have it?

I propose that metacogniscience is the experience of rising above or stepping back from one’s experience of living (in a classroom, an office, a romantic relationship, a family, etc.) and

  • becoming as infinitely aware of that experience as possible
  • making one or more good guesses about what that experience might mean
  • taking steps that are informed by these well-constructed guesses


  • feeling amazed at how the guesses you make can fill in the gaps between you and others and lead to a feeling of complete and accurate knowledge.


Teachers, of course, are not the only people who can use metacogniscience. Parents can use it when their kids act out. Bosses can use it when an employee falls apart. School administrators can use it with distraught parents. Lovers can use it when their intimate bond is threatened.

The teacher who coined this term really liked having the opportunity to go “metacogniscient” with her colleagues about their patterns in the classroom – the entrenched ways they relate to and interact with their students – and, importantly, to help each other revise these often hindering patterns. “Metacogniscience” felt like the exact right term for this work (what I call emotion work) because emotion work involves going meta, for sure, but also results in a sometimes miraculous feeling of clarity about how important relationships are functioning.

And this clarity leads, inevitably, to more attuned, rewarding, and effective teaching.

For me, the best part of this story – and of the term metacogniscience itself – is that it was born of a Freudian slip of sorts. The term this teacher was going for was “metacognitive,” but her felt sense of the work we were doing apparently called for something bigger. The root of “omniscience” that the teacher tacked on to “metacognitive” hinted, I’m guessing, at what she felt about emotion work: that, by examining emotions and relationships, we were able to know what is normally unknown. And I’m guessing – I’m hoping – she felt empowered by it.

I think this empowering metacogniscience is something teachers should have.

Going Metacogniscient

If you want to try going metacogniscient, here’s how: If you’re a teacher (or a parent or any other person) who is suffering in a relationship with a student or colleague or parent (or anyone else), try writing your story down. Change the names if you want to and be as precise as possible about what you’re feeling. Try making this flip and making that flip. Based on your guesses about yourself and the other person, come up with a plan you’re willing and able to try next time you encounter that person. See what happens.

If you’re having a hard time achieving metacogniscience, send your story to me. We can email back and forth, working our way towards a well-constructed guess. The correspondence will be confidential. And who knows? Your relief might be palpable! And, if you’re relieved, your students will be, too. A good thing all around.

I mean it. Metacogniscience works. Try it.

Making the Flip 2

light-29858_1280This simple emotional move can also help teachers avoid taking their students personally.

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?

Making the Flip 1


This simple emotional move can transform terrible feelings into attuned, effective teaching.

A friend of mine was suffering.

She’s a teacher. And this year she has a student who bugs her. The student is “pushy, interrupts, does not listen, and acts self-absorbed.” My friend — let’s call her Helen — has been teaching this student — let’s call him Derek — for almost a month. On the morning of her suffering her buttons were so pushed that she was actually dreading going to work.

“I’ve got to calm down about this student,” Helen said out loud to herself as she drove her kids to school. “This is a lousy way to start the year. I can’t let Derek sabotage me and my class. But I can’t stop fretting over it! I simply cannot stand this kid!”

From the back seat, Helen’s daughter piped up. “Have you talked to Betsy?”

Seriously: I love this child. But now I love her even more.

Here’s what Helen wrote to me:

Brilliant!  Of course: channel Betsy.  My student and I are fitting in a way I have not fit with a student in many years.

What Helen means, of course, is that her student is somehow managing to push her buttons because of his own emotions and needs. The “fit” allows him to communicate with Helen directly but unconsciously. Her complaining in the car on the way to school was a discharge of her own feelings; when she “made the flip” thanks to her daughter and began wondering what Derek might be feeling, she made some good guesses and, importantly, began feeling compassion instead of aversion.

He likely is not pushy, but nervous, and he likely interrupts because he is scared and vulnerable.

It is difficult to feel angry at someone you see as nervous, scared, and vulnerable. It is easy (or easier) to understand the dynamic between yourself and another person when you separate their experience from your experience and honor both.

Once I started thinking about this in terms of why we were fitting so well, then it was very easy to come up with theories about what was likely going on with him, and also why I was responding in the way I was.  I was interpreting his anxiety as criticism of my teaching. The fact that he was contacting all kinds of OTHER people about his sense of things (other teachers, my department chair) and not me, his instructor, only made it worse.

A “pushy” student who goes over his teacher’s head to get what he wants — thereby making his own teacher feel exposed, criticized, and unsafe — is offering up a lot of valuable information about himself. Helen guessed he was feeling nervous, scared, and vulnerable; is it possible that, when Derek feels this way, he goes on the attack and blames others before they can blame him? Would that account for the surprisingly strong feelings of dread, defensiveness, and uncertainty in Helen? Is he inducing these feelings in her as a means of disowning them himself and (unconsciously) letting her know how terrible he is feeling?

By the way, this trick of implanting in other people one’s own emotions is called projection. It is an amazingly common phenomenon in classrooms. Students do it (as Derek seems to have). And teachers do it (just wait until my next post!).

What’s certain is that Derek succeeded in drawing Helen’s attention to himself and prompted her, through her own intense discomfort, to make some guesses about what he was feeling and why. Once she had made those guesses, she met with Derek to have a little talk.

Here’s more or less what Helen said to Derek:

Obviously, this is not your first history class. And you are a very good student. But I’m not teaching this class in the way you’re used to. Right? I’m bringing in all this weird theory and original documents you’ve never heard of! I bet you’re feeling a little thrown off by this unfamiliar approach.

Derek’s response? “Yes!! Yes yes yes!!!”

The rest of the meeting, and a few more since then, was devoted to brainstorming about what Derek can do to adjust to and succeed in Helen’s difficult and stimulating course. Helen reports just two weeks after her revelation in the car that her attitude towards Derek and his class has completely reversed. She’s having a great time.

The key to Helen’s work with Derek was this: she made the flip. She toggled from discharging her own feelings to wondering about her student’s. Flipping from discharging to wondering is perhaps the single most important emotional move a teacher can make with a difficult student. It certainly made a world of difference for Helen — and for Derek.

How can you make the flip? What phrase or question can remind you to switch between your perspective and your student’s? Write it down. Keep it in a drawer or purse or pants pocket. Pull it out when you’re having terrible feelings. Make the flip.

And let me know how it works!

New Year’s Resolution

happy new yearIt’s a new (academic) year. Time for a resolution!

I know. New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time. Who keeps them? They serve only to assuage guilt and fool us into thinking we’ll actually change.

But change is a worthy goal, especially if it’s change that will reduce suffering, our own and others’. And my work is dedicated to reducing suffering, first in teachers and then (when teachers feel better) in students.

So here’s my New (Academic) Year’s Resolution: to post teacher stories on this very blog that illustrate how teachers can reduce their own (and, by extension, their students’) suffering.

This resolution is very important to me. In an age of increasing awareness of racism, mental illness, poverty, and other ills that severely handicap learners coupled with bizarrely irrelevant pressures on teachers to raise test scores, suffering in schools abounds. I know not everyone is hurting all the time; I know many people don’t feel their suffering or see suffering in others; I know the words “suffering” and “school” don’t seem to go together. But suffering is happening nonetheless.

It’s happening in schools where dark-skinned children are separated from white-skinned children and forced to learn with much less. It’s happening in schools where children sit in class while their stomachs rumble or their teeth ache. It happens inside the heads of children whose parents fought violently last night or were too busy or preoccupied or self-absorbed to see anyone clearly, least of all themselves and certainly not their growing children. It happens inside teachers when they feel they haven’t reached a student or that they have messed up with a student or that they are fed up and have nothing left to give a student. It happens in a most unbearable way as a teacher approaches burnout.

I want teachers’ suffering to be addressed and palliated. Most importantly, I want teachers to learn how to utilize their emotions to figure out what is going on relationally with their students (and others) so as to re-align with them. I want schools to be places of healing, where relationships between teachers and students and among students form the proper bedrock for growth and development.

I want teachers to have the support they need to be healthy developmental partners for their students. I want it because that’s what education is: development. And if our students’ development is hampered by suffering, by senseless, needless, preventable suffering, they will grow to be contorted, and their skills and talents will lie hidden or will be channeled into self- and other-destructive acts.

This outcome is, to me, morally reprehensible. It is utterly unacceptable.

And so I resolve to do what I can here on this blog and in my face-to-face interactions with teachers to help them reduce their suffering by facing it and learning from it and then passing on their compassion and understanding to their students, thereby reducing their students’ suffering. It is, I believe, the most important work I can do.*

What is your New (Academic) Year’s Resolution? What do you think of mine?

*That and being a good-enough mother.

School Integration


Integrating schools is the single most effective way to reduce achievement gaps.

Here’s a great way to ring in the new academic year: Listen to two remarkable episodes of the podcast “This American Life.” The episodes are called “The Problem We All Live With” (broadcast on July 31, 2015) and “The Problem We All Live With – Part Two” (broadcast on August 7, 2015).  Both explore the single most important element in reducing the gap in achievement between white students and students of color: school integration.

The July 31 podcast tells the story of a totally unintentional integration experiment that took place right near Ferguson, Missouri. It will take you through the depths of despair — when you hear the suburban white families express their deep fears of welcoming black students into their schools — and the heights of admiration and inspiration — when you hear Maria and her mother talk with such pride and excitement about the educational opportunities this unexpected experiment opened up for them.

The August 7 podcast describes the opposite: a totally intentional integration experiment happening right now in Hartford, Connecticut. It is a thrilling account of a lawsuit that brought the abominable conditions of schools in inner-city Hartford to the courts’ and the media’s attention and, once the lawsuit was won, the ongoing high-stakes work being done to bring white suburban families to new inner-city magnet schools.

Both podcasts are just under an hour in length. Perfect for the commute to school, a few workout sessions, a good cleaning jag, or a lovely rock in the hammock. Listen and think about the future and the power of schooling and the value of teachers and the birthright of all children to a superb, challenging, caring education.

And welcome to the new academic year. May it be an amazing one for you and your students.


colored-pencils-656202_1280What are some drawbacks to the Success Academy’s definitions of success?

When it comes to articles about education, I usually know exactly where I stand: in the land of the progressives, where discovery, growth, care, and authenticity lie.

I recently had a reading experience, though, that threw me into no-man’s-land. I had to admit, after reading this NYT article by Kate Taylor, that I wasn’t sure where I stood in relation to its topic, which is a group of charter schools called Success Academy.

The reason I found myself in no-man’s-land was, basically, that the Success Academy schools appear to be working. I mean, here’s how other public school students in New York City did on their standardized tests last year: 29% of students passed reading and 35% passed math. In blazing contrast, 64% of Success school students passed reading and 94% passed math. That’s a dramatic difference.

How does Success Academy do it?

According to the article, the Success Academy approach to education is “driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.” In Success schools, rules rule. Student behavior is completely controlled, from how students sit — backs straight, feet on floor, hands folded on desks, and eyes glued to the teacher during lessons — to how they walk — silently, in lines, obeying teachers instantly.

The academic life at Success schools is demanding and highly structured. From what I can tell, the curriculum is almost exclusively focused on the subjects in which the students will be formally tested: English, math, and science. Thinking skills such as glossing every paragraph in a reading passage appear to be routinized. Students who do well are praised and rewarded with such gifts as Nerf guns and candy. Students who do not do well are sent to “effort academy,” where they re-do their work to get it right while their peers take fun breaks. Students are frequently suspended, and those who deviate too far from the norm — students for whom English is not the first language, for example, or who require special education services — are under-represented.

Students’ scores on class assignments are posted for all to see, so poor performance can become public humiliation. In fact, one Success school administrator exhorted teachers to make students who were not doing well to feel “misery.”

Did I mention that the vast majority of students who attend Success schools are African American and Hispanic?

With all due respect to no-man’s-land, I have some concerns.

First, I’m concerned about the focus on standardized test scores. This one’s pretty obvious. As a hot-blooded progressive, I have no use for standardized tests. Of course, I am all for students’ working hard and feeling proud of their accomplishments, and this is something Success Academy aims for. But there is actual evidence that the skills required for success on standardized tests do not translate into success in life as directly as was previously assumed and that they can even “create far-reaching damage” (that’s a quote from the second-to-last page of Henry Levin’s 2012 article “More Than Just Test Scores”). And there is no evidence that Success Academy students (who are all elementary-level) will apply to, get into, go to, and graduate from college, this last being an achievement that can translate into life success.

But that’s the obvious concern. Here’s perhaps a less obvious concern: the emphasis on, the requirement of, compliance in the Success Academy.

I don’t see forced compliance in classrooms as a good thing. While supportive structure — consistency, reasonable predictability, and routines — can really help students get down to work in school, tightly controlled environments of the type advocated in Success Academy are not hospitable to emotional or cognitive development.

Here’s why: Growth requires space. In psychodynamic terms, healthy development requires “potential space” (a term coined by my hero, D.W. Winnicott). It is in potential space that children/students/people-in-general play, which is to say they engage, experiment, create, make mistakes, and organize data about the world into meaningful understanding. I (and some others) like to call potential space “the Third” because potential space is a “third reality” that emerges from interactions between and among at least two other realities (two people’s realities, for example, or one person’s reality and a book’s reality, etc.).

Forced compliance is the enemy of potential space. As I like to characterize it, forced compliance crushes the Third; it stamps out creativity and meaning-making. It prohibits authentic relationships with people and ideas. And, while it might lead to high test scores, it robs students of their birthright, which is to grow up into people who are, at the very least, intellectually flexible; innovative and confident in their problem-solving capacities; and self-regulated, able to live in a healthy, balanced way.

But that’s not the worst of it.

My final concern is my biggest. It is related to the issue of compliance coupled with the fact that so many of the students who are being treated to the Success Academy approach are children of color. Is it a coincidence that the strict environment they’re learning in could be called “slavedriving”? Is it fair to characterize Success schools as browbeating children of color into conformity? Am I the only one who sees the behavior requirements, the public postings of scores, the punitiveness, the normalization of underlings’ misery, the complete centralization of power and approval that requires slavish adherence to rules as recapitulations of slave culture?

If there’s even the hint of a possibility that this is so, then that’s a serious drawback to the Success Academy.

I confess, I was proud of myself for being open-minded enough to stand in educational no-man’s-land for a while when it came to passing judgment on these charter schools. But here’s my own uncomfortable realization: Was I, a white middle class woman, in no-man’s-land because of my own unconscious racism and classism, which prevented me from immediately seeing the disturbing parallels between Success Academy norms and the controls and aims of slavery?

What do you think?

Open Letter to an Open Letter

blank_sticky_note_clip_art_12197Teacher burnout is way too understandable. Here’s a way to possibly avoid it.

I just read a very moving Open Letter written by a teacher, Chase Mielke, who is tired of feeling ineffective with his most difficult students. It is a good letter, a fervent reminder to himself that he must not give up. As a teacher, therapist, mother, and caring citizen of this country and this globe, I’m writing my own Open Letter back to him and to other teachers who are giving their all not to give up on their students.

Dear Chase Mielke and other great teachers,

First and foremost: You are right not to give up. Thank you for re-committing to this crazy job with these crazily troubled students.

Second, and very important: You are right to want to give up. There is just so much one person can do. And there are just so many years that caring, creative, energetic people can throw themselves at insoluble problems without cracking.

But there might be another way to think about your frustration and your commitment that could save you from exhaustion and burnout.

Here’s the way to burnout: Thinking that you as the teacher must try harder, must engage more energetically, must overcome your negative emotions and pump out hope, must put out 120% to make up for your students’ -20%. Noble as that commitment is, it is, frankly, unsustainable. If you are an awesome teacher (as you, Chase Mielke, appear to be), we are in danger of losing you if this is the approach you insist on taking.

Here’s another way: Slow down. Breathe. Notice your feelings: Frustration. Hopelessness. Fear. Anger. Incompetence.

Now think about your students. Might they be having these same feelings? If so, then breathe again and smile. Your students are communicating very effectively and even hopefully with you. Through their behaviors, they are teaching you how they feel every day in your classroom (and, probably, outside of your classroom). If you can notice these feelings and sit with them, then you are beginning to see your students very clearly. They are frustrated. They are hopeless. They are afraid and angry. They feel incompetent in school.

Next step: Why might your students be having these feelings?

I’m guessing you won’t have any trouble answering that question. I’m guessing your students have every reason to feel frustrated, hopeless, afraid, angry, and incompetent. I’m guessing their lives have taught them to feel this way.

Next step: Notice your desire to give up on these students. Wonder if that is precisely what your students expect of you. Is it possible that other adults in your students’ lives have given up on them? Or have never had any hope for them in the first place? Is it possible that your students are simply being realistic? Is it possible they are protecting themselves from the probability of intense disappointment and confusion when their efforts to succeed are met with indifference or ridicule or contempt or oblivion?

If you have gotten this far, you might feel as though you’re onto something. Why wouldn’t your students be acting out so egregiously? Why wouldn’t you, as a feeling, functioning human being, respond exactly as they are teaching you to respond? And, given this natural, logical psychodynamic fit, what should you as a teacher do?

My answer is to aim at the truth, which is that your students know they can’t trust you — that is, they do not know how to trust you. If they do not know how to trust adults in their lives; if they do not have the capacity to make use of your care; if they have no faith in their own ability to “recruit” (to use a term from another of my blog posts) consistent positive attention from their mentors, then they are not going to respond to any of your attempts to teach them content. Your job, as I see it, is to teach them how to trust you.

This won’t be easy, Chase Mielke. It takes honest reflecting back at your students, reflecting of the “good” and the “bad” with curiosity and care. It takes consistency. It takes ongoing emotion work on yourself so you can keep the students’ needs separate from your own and your own needs met so you can address the students’ as well as you can, within your totally acceptable limits. It takes detachment. It takes a commitment to not doing the students’ work for them but to narrating, wherever possible and without judgment, what the students’ actions (or inactions) might mean for them. It takes a commitment to being a developmental partner, not just a subject matter teacher, and it takes acceptance of the fact that emotional development — the growing of trust in oneself and others, the awareness of one’s strengths, repeated experiences of honest connection and care that start becoming a new normal — takes time.

This job of teaching students to trust you won’t be easy, but it won’t be impossible, either. If you continue to try to teach them as hard as you can, you’re just throwing yourself on the craggy rocks of their lives. That’s the path of impossibility, and it leads to burnout. If you focus on seeing your students accurately, on caring about them with detachment so they’re not oppressed by your expectations, on living within your own limits and consistently holding them to limits that make sense (something they might not have experienced in their own lives), then you might be able to get somewhere.

And you might not get anywhere. But at least you will still be there, in school, ready for students who can use you, patient with students who for very good reasons cannot use you — yet. Your hope is in your ability and willingness to show up and connect. And my hope is that you get the emotional support you need to keep at it without giving up and burning out. We need you too much, Chase Mielke.

I am sincerely yours.

« Older posts Newer posts »