Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: anxiety (page 1 of 2)

Voids I Have Known

There are so many ways we fill voids — to everyone’s detriment.

Here are just a few of the ways I and other teachers avoid struggle, our own and our students’.

Preferences

I give a writing assignment; a student’s word choices are not quite accurate; I fill the void (between my choices and hers) by crossing off her words and substituting my own.

Why are my words better than the author’s? Will this act help the student become a better writer?

Resistance

I assign a multi-week project; a student avoids every single opportunity I give them to work on the project; the day before it’s due I fill the void (between failing and passing) by helping them get something done.

What are the possible benefits of failing? What are the possible drawbacks of passing?

Struggle

A student is receiving a solid C- in my class; they need to maintain a C+ average in order to participate in a sporting event; the coach is pressuring me; I fill the void (between the student’s academic reality and the coach’s athletic needs) by raising the grade.

What would happen if the student (and the coach) suffered the consequences of the student’s actual academic performance?

Distraction

Someone’s dirty dishes are sitting next to the sink; I should be grading papers; I fill the void (between my desire to get the papers graded and my desire not to grade papers) by getting up and distracting myself with cleaning.

What is my dread about? What keeps me from committing to my work?

Experience

I am speaking to a group of students; I pause and look at their faces, which are largely blank; I fill the void (between my experience and theirs) by assuming I’m not making any sense; I lose confidence and realize I should not be a teacher.

Why do I assume the worst? How can I curb my assumptions in the first place to allow for richer possibilities?

I have known these voids and so many more! I actually meet new voids-to-fill every day. And I do my best to let them be. Why? Why do I claim that filling the void can harm everyone involved? As I wrote in an earlier post, doing things for other people is not necessarily detrimental. It can reduce suffering. It can show care. It can be instructionally appropriate. It can just be easier sometimes.

But filling voids defensively — as a means of managing our own anxiety — can mean we completely miss the mark:

  • Students’ writing will not improve when I give them the word rather than ask them to tap into their felt sense and find a word that works better.
  • Failing a student who has been completely avoidant reflects an accurate reality back to the student (who knows very well that he deserves to fail). Even better, it provides a meaningful opportunity to examine that avoidance with the student. Accurate reflection of reality and curiosity about that reality are crucial for students’ development — even if they are hard to do.
  • What a bummer to miss an athletic event because of a silly grade! But what an opportunity for struggle when poor performance is not rewarded but is, rather, remediated through sacrifice, extra effort, and commitment. And no one learns the crucial skill of surviving disappointment if they never have to experience it.
  • OMG grading papers is such a scourge! But it is essential. Is my dread related to my sense that I have to make every paper perfect? Is it related to my resistance to putting out the energy required to engage intimately with my students’ thinking (or lack thereof)? Is it related to a lack of faith that the students can — or want to — improve? Can I turn my avoidance into a more efficient approach to grading that helps me focus my attention and feedback (and, therefore, helps to focus my students)?  Bonus: Examining my avoidance will give me insight into my avoidant students, who might actually feel the same way I do.
  • Ah, assumptions! They can be so misleading! Perhaps being a teacher means holding respectfully to my reality while feeling curious about my students’ realities. And asking about them. And seeing what kind of Third emerges.

I think learning and growing necessarily involve struggle. I do not believe that struggle is bad. I think people need to figure out how to struggle well. I think we can help each other do that. A first step is for me to become comfortable with my own struggles.

Unfortunately, filling the void too often prevents that.

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:

First,

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.

Second,

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.

Third,

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?

True Story

IMG_2116A teacher reflects on a student’s bad behavior and successfully defuses himself and the student.

Yes, it’s a true story, but I’ve changed it a bit to protect the innocent. Which isn’t all that big a deal because the teacher in this story did a really good job of using his Reflective Function. (If you don’t know what RF is, click here.) And it’s a story that will sound familiar to many, many teachers.

So here it is:

Mr. Krieger redesigned his 11th grade English class to incorporate technology more effectively. He was a little nervous when he made his first homework assignment using an online bulletin board, as he wasn’t sure how it would work for him or for his students. But he was downright shocked when one of his students emailed him at 11 p.m. with the following message:

“I don’t get this, it’s stupid and I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it.”

Aside from the flagrant comma splices, Mr. Krieger was incensed by the student’s arrogant, presumptuous tone. How dare she tell Mr. Krieger what she would and would not do? How dare she call Mr. Krieger “stupid”?!? And at 11 o’clock at night!!

Mr. Krieger hit “Reply” with shaking fingers. He would tell his student what for! He would put a stop to this outrageous behavior! His student wouldn’t know what hit her!

Then Mr. Krieger paused. He sat back in his chair and wondered. Why would a student write something so clearly insubordinate? Why would this particular student, who was a nice kid and a hard worker, write something so thoughtless and damaging?

As Mr. Krieger reported it to me, it was at this moment that he heard a voice calling out to him, a voice that floated to him from weeks of work in a Teacher Support Group:

“Where’s the anxiety, Mr. Krieger? Where’s the anxiety?”

“Oh,” Mr. Krieger said to himself. “The anxiety is in the student.”

Where might the anxiety be coming from? he wondered. It wasn’t hard to make some good guesses.

“I bet the student, like me, is unfamiliar with the technology and isn’t sure how to use it properly. Because she is a good student, someone who likes to do things right, AND because it’s late at night and she’s tired and frustrated, she’s gone a little out of her mind. This email seems to be more about expressing frustration than criticizing me. (And, now that I read the email more carefully and calmly, she called the assignment stupid, not me.) In fact, she’s done a super job of implanting her feelings in me. Very efficient, considering she only used 17 words to do it. Now THAT’S good writing!”

Just between you and me: This is Mr. Krieger mentalizing, or utilizing his Reflective Function. He’s imagining what’s going on emotionally inside his student and connecting his student’s state of mind with her behavior. Mr. Krieger is also noticing his own emotions and how intimately they are related to his student’s. As an added bonus, Mr. Krieger is able to step away, to detach, and commend his student on a job well done. This last move is very healing, as it allows Mr. Krieger to chuckle, which releases his rage and activates his fondness for this suffering, anxious student.

Having used RF, Mr. Krieger responded to his student. He made a conscious choice to avoid the content of the message — he did not combat the student’s assessment of “stupid,” for example; he did not deride the student for making an inappropriate unilateral decision or for being so inconsiderate as to email her teacher close to midnight — and directly addressed the anxiety. Here’s what he wrote:

“Not to worry. The technology is new to all of us. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Thanks for trying so hard! And get some sleep!”

Note that Mr. Krieger did not model mentalizing for his student by talking out loud in front of her. He simply did the work (what I call “emotion work”) on his own. Doing emotion work led to a sense of understanding and some good guesses which led to an email that conveyed compassion, reassurance, and a plan of action. This behind-the-scenes modeling of Reflective Function took very little time and effort. And it worked.

Immediately, Mr. Krieger received this note from his student:

“Phew! Thanks, Mr. K. I was about to throw my computer out the window. See you tomorrow.”

A job well done, indeed. True story.

Do you have stories about your teaching? Stories that show you using your Reflective Function well? Stories that continue to mystify you, that you’d like to figure out but don’t know how? I would love to hear them. And I’d love to post them. Leave a comment with your story in it and be sure to tell me if I may post the story (or not) and if you would like a private reply from me that might nudge you along in your RFing. Confidentiality guaranteed!

Expectations

rock imageExpectations can compel us to look for and find evidence of our own worst beliefs about ourselves and our students.

‘Tis the season of expectations! When school begins, anticipation abounds. Will I be able to find my classrooms? Will I like my students/teacher(s)? Will I be able to handle the workload? Right about now, when most everyone has started classes, expectations are beginning to settle into reality, for better or for worse. Yes, I can find my classrooms. Yes, I more or less like my students/teacher(s). No, I can’t handle the workload. Experience has set our anticipation, our expectations, right.

But there is a type of expectation, a swath of expectation, that can be impervious to experience; in fact, it can feed on our experience and actually tweak our sense of reality. This swath of expectation is called “transference” in psychoanalytic parlance. I call it psychic structure. (I also call it “Chicken from Hell” in my blog post from March 20, 2014.)

The idea behind psychic structure is that we’ve all constructed ourselves in response to our earliest environments to expect certain things from the world. Some of us expect to have to go it alone and hence are terrible at asking for help. Some of us expect rejection when we dare to take up our proper space. Some of us expect to be used or demeaned. Some of us, especially if we are “different” from or threatening to the norm around us, expect to be defined by others’ fear and ignorance, their bigotry. At best, we are all quite flexible and can adjust to changing, unpredictable circumstances appropriately and productively. At worst, as when we’re especially stressed out, we start expecting really negative treatments and attitudes.

Nay, we actually look for them. Here’s an example: I’m in front of a class talking about what makes a good claim in an argumentative paper. (Wait — don’t change the channel! Argumentative claims are really awesome!) I love talking about this stuff; I’m feeling full and authoritative and maybe even a little self-important because I know what I’m talking about and I really want my students to get it. I scan the class, making eye contact, trying to pull the students in.

And my gaze falls on Jimmy’s face. He is frowning and, just as I look at him, he rolls his eyes, leans back in his chair, and says something under his breath to his neighbor while he stretches languidly. He and his neighbor chuckle, and my skin catches on fire.

In this split second, my joyous self-confidence has become fear and self-doubt which just as quickly has morphed into anger and a NEED to squash Jimmy and his neighbor flat. “Jimmy,” I say venomously. “How about you give us a good argumentative claim right here and now?” And, without giving him a chance to respond, “No? No? Hmm. Perhaps you can’t because you’d rather snark than listen.” I smile nastily as some students in the class snicker. Jimmy pulls his hood over his head and slumps in his chair.

OK, so where’s the expectation? It seems pretty obvious that I expected Jimmy to be snarky in his comment to his neighbor. I expected him to disrespect me. I might believe these expectations to be justified based on previous experiences with Jimmy in which he avoided work, spoke in mumbles to me but in hilarious whispers to his friends, and lazed around in class looking everywhere but at me or the board. These expectations were all about Jimmy, all about who he was and how he needed to be corrected and improved.

But there’s another level of expectation going on here that is much more fundamental. It is the expectations I have about myself in the world.

It is no coincidence in this story that Jimmy’s face activated me when I was soaring as a teacher, when I was feeling full of myself and happy and confident. Because of how I am structured, these moments of self-confidence are actually my most vulnerable moments. How can that be?

If I grew up in a family where I was squashed (similarly to how I squashed Jimmy) every time I took up space or expressed an opinion or an enthusiasm, then I learned at least a couple of things: (1) don’t take up space! and (2) if you do, expect to be taken down, to be disrespected and reviled. Even if I grow up to be a functioning, confident adult, I continue to be most vulnerable in these moments of unprotected joy, excitement, and competence.

In other words, because of how I am structured, because of the relational lessons I learned while growing up (and, of course, because of hard wiring), I will always be inclined to reach for any evidence I can find that my expectations of the world are accurate — even when those expectations are self-undermining and unfair to others.

Here it is again: We are all inclined to seek out evidence from the world around us — from others’ behaviors and attitudes, their faces and body language — that confirms our expectations about how we get to exist in the world. No matter how senseless or unwarranted those expectations might seem when held up to the cold light of rationality, they nonetheless rule us emotionally. Our skin catches on fire, alarms go off in our heads, and our emotions topple like dominos into automatic behaviors that are, more often than not, defensive and punitive.

And when teachers get defensive and punitive, it is bad news for students.

I like the image of teachers’ reaching out and grabbing evidence from the world that reinforces their deepest expectations about themselves. I like it because it emphasizes how internal and sealed off this psychic process is. In these moments of transference, the complexity of the surrounding reality matters not. What matters is the teacher’s expectations and, importantly, her inability to see the world any differently at that moment. She is, after all, constructed to see the world through these lenses of expectation; her expectations, like astigmatism, determine how and what she sees.

What all this means, to me, is that teachers deserve to notice their difficult emotional reactions and examine them. What are we expecting? What evidence are we unthinkingly grabbing onto? How else might that evidence be interpreted? Can the astigmatism be corrected, even for just a moment, so that we can see ourselves and our students more clearly and accurately?

Just in case you’re constructed to seek out evidence that you are somehow terribly deficient or under par and hence should be feeling bad about yourself right now for falling prey to your inaccurate expectations, please note: Everyone, every human being on this planet, experiences transference. Every single one of us has constructed expectations and unthinkingly finds support for them every moment of every day. (This is called “perception.”) The trick is not to somehow transcend this normal psychic process. The trick is to use it so as to spare yourself unnecessary suffering and to turn a more discerning eye on your students, who are actually telling you about themselves, not you, and who need you to know them.

And, hey: Welcome back to school!

Action-Talk

POW-WeddingsTeachers can help students move from hurtful action-talk to helpful actual talk.

I just read an article that (1) made me smile because of its simplicity and compassion and (2) blew my mind a little because it worked.

The article is titled “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But What About Words?” It’s by a guy named William Sharp and is published in a journal that probably isn’t on every teacher’s nightstand: The International Journal of Group Psychotherapy (volume 64, number 3, July 2014, pp. 281-296).

Here’s what William Sharp wrote about: He ran a group for inner city third graders who had “behavioral issues” in the classroom. They routinely yelled, threw things, got antsy, interrupted, fought with other students, etc. In their weekly meetings (of 42 minutes each), the 8 boys who signed up spent the first few months playing and resisting opportunities to talk. Importantly, Sharp made time for talk, and he was very explicit about how much time and when “talk time” began (using a timer).

The goal of the group was to help the boys start talking rather than acting out, but Sharp noticed something important: For these active boys, “words held no real meaning” (p. 285). Rather, actions carried meaning. For example, as Sharp describes, one boy often asked to go to the bathroom. Sharp noticed that this boy “asked” to use the restroom when it came time for him to listen to someone else in the group. Sharp hypothesized that this boy felt extremely uncomfortable waiting on other people and wanted to escape as soon as he began feeling this way. Hence, the action. The question itself held no meaning, as the boy didn’t really have to go to the bathroom; what he needed was to flee.

Sharp shared his guess with the boys and asked this particular boy if he could try to wait for a few minutes every meeting. The boy agreed and was able to increase his wait time every week. “As a testimony to the power of the group,” Sharp writes, “by spring, no one in the group needed to take a bathroom break during group time” (p. 285).

This is where I began to smile out of sheer joy at this man’s brilliance, compassion, and clear seeing.

Sharp noted that the boys needed to pass through an intermediate phase before becoming comfortable with direct talking. That stage Sharp calls “action-talk.” He defines action-talk this way: “Instead of with fists, a child can punch with insults and slanders. There is no symbolization with words, however, just discharge” (p. 286). In this intermediate stage, rather than act out with their bodies, the boys acted out with their words, hurting others and relieving themselves.

Sharp’s automatic response to this aggressive talk was to want to SHUT IT DOWN. The anxious feelings that come through in action-talk can be highly contagious, and any self-respecting adult naturally wants to alleviate her own anxiety by squelching the source. But Sharp gave the boys room to express themselves AND to experience the aftermaths with each other and with their self-aware and patient group leader. Over time, the boys had to learn that words actually WOULDN’T hurt them, something they were supposed to believe but clearly didn’t. They had to learn how to turn action-talk to (just) talk — and to trust that talk would work.

Smiles. Smiles, smiles, smiles. This work was transformative for those deserving boys, and reading about it made me happy.

It also made me a better parent. Instantaneously. Here’s a true story that happened the night I read this article. The characters in this story Shall Remain Unnamed In Order to Protect the Innocent.

Once upon a time, a pre-teenage boy was going to bed after a long, deadly hot day at soccer camp. He was lying on his bed; his mother was encouraging him to brush his teeth; and his father was downstairs, calling up to his son.

Dad: Son, there are some smelly soccer socks on the floor here in the living room. Please come get them.

Son: Shut up, you jerk!

Mom (wanting to smack this obnoxious child but thinking “action-talk to talk, action-talk to talk”): Whoa! Son, why don’t you try using some different words here?

Son: No! Stop being a jerk.

Mom (gritting her teeth): Son, the words you’re using are only hurting. Try using different ones that will explain what’s going on with you.

Son: I’m-really-tired-and-don’t-want-to-do-anything-right-now-because-I’m-really-tired!!!

Dad: That’s close enough.

The next morning, the mother and father noticed that the soccer socks had disappeared from the living room floor.

From action-talk to talk. From fear of being coerced and misunderstood to honest self-expression, self-care, and, eventually, right action. All because hurtful action-talk was neither shut down nor punished, but acknowledged and diverted. (Fortunately, the son in this story had ready access to words thanks to years and years and years of being encouraged to use them.)

Why should teachers care about this article? Because most teachers have boys in their classrooms, and many of those boys will prefer action and action-talk to actual talk. Because those teachers will find themselves wanting to shut those boys down before giving them a chance to say what they need to say — and practice at using words is essential to developing the emotional literacy all boys (and girls) need to function healthily throughout their lives. Because developing emotional literacy is just as important as developing any other kind of literacy.

And because teachers need the kind of hope and compassion that William Sharp demonstrates for his trouble-making boys, hope and compassion that can blossom into a broad and joyous smile — something else all teachers need.

Britches

clothesline2Teachers who are too big for their britches can handicap their students.

There’s probably no good way to introduce the actual topic of this blog post without causing anxiety. So, in preparation, I’m going to ask you to empty your mind of preconceptions and judgment and fill it with curiosity and kindness.

Ohm. Ready?

The topic of this post is grandiosity, or being “too big for your britches.”

The reason I think this topic is anxiety-producing is that, well, there’s nothing really good about grandiosity. If you’re grandiose, you’re inflated and out-of-touch. If you’re too big for your britches, you’re arrogant, conceited, narcissistic, and insufferable. So why in the world would anyone want to think about grandiosity?

The reason I believe people, especially teachers, should think about grandiosity is that there’s a more humane (and relevant) definition: feeling more powerful and influential than you actually are. And, given that we’re heading towards the end of the school year, when teachers might be tempted to either take more credit than they deserve (“She couldn’t have done it without me”) or, far more likely, blame themselves disproportionately (“I have failed him!”), getting a handle on grandiosity can be helpful.

The truth is that grandiosity is a totally adaptive quality if you’re someone who takes care of other people. If you didn’t believe you could have a far-reaching positive influence on others, why would you enter any caretaking profession? Being too big for your britches becomes a problem when it destabilizes you: when you become filled with anxiety about staying on top (keeping those compliments coming, keeping your students’ or administrators’ or peers’ or school parents’ approval, etc.) or when you tear yourself down for the poor performance of people under your care.

The key to thinking about grandiosity is, first, to notice it and refrain from judging yourself. Are you feeling resentful that others aren’t working as hard as you are? Are you feeling somehow superior to others? Are you feeling hyper-responsible and lonely? Are you worried that you’re actually a phony and at risk of being discovered? Are you working overtime to win and keep others’ approval?

On the flip side, are you feeling terrible about yourself for not having gone the extra 100th mile, for not having seen signs ahead of time, for not having rescued someone from a fate worse than death, for having done your best and discovered your best isn’t good enough? Are you blaming yourself for other people’s setbacks or failures?

Ohm.

Another key to thinking about grandiosity is to meditate on this fact: You can control no one but yourself.

If this is hard for you, meditate on it some more.

Yet another key is to meditate on this fact: Wherever you go, the best you can do is to bring yourself along. (Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it in his 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.) If you are someone who has an internal center (rather than an external one, lodged in other people’s opinions) and a willingness to stop, listen, think, and feel, you will be able to respond to other people adequately. You might not be able to fix them or solve their problems, but you will be able to offer them two crucial things: empathy and boundaries.

And, of all people, teachers need to understand unequivocally the value of these two responses. Empathy means “I see you and hear you and support you in your learning.” Boundaries mean “But it is your learning, your struggle, not mine. By trying to save you from it, I am robbing you of your birthright to grow and develop into a secure, healthy person.” Teachers help in this developmental process, but they cannot do it for their students.

Grandiose teachers try.

What’s great about noticing grandiosity and meditating on who you are and what is yours — that is, meditating on the boundaries that both separate you from others and connect you healthily to them — is that you can cultivate yourself. You can wonder about your need for approval or success or influence or power or appreciation or love. Understanding your needs and getting them met by appropriate sources (hint: not your students) can strengthen you as a teacher and allow you to offer your students scaffolding they can actually use to learn and grow.

And trimming yourself down to fit comfortably in your britches can be a relief. It can feel great. A big reason, I think, is that fighting reality — trying to be more powerful and influential than you really are — is exhausting and, ultimately, futile. Attuning with reality, on the other hand, is calming and liberating.

But note: Being just right for your britches does not mean giving up on caring for others, on teaching and helping your students to grow. It just means accepting your own limits and valuing your ability to be authentically and simply present to yourself and others. Such a sense of realistic balance is inexpressibly precious.

 

Chicken from Hell

Chirostenotes_BW

Our expectations about how the world will respond to us are often limiting and self-fulfilling — and can feel like being gripped by a Chicken from Hell.

So there’s a new dinosaur in town, Anzu wyliei, the Chicken from Hell. Eleven feet long, weighing 500 pounds, “a really absurd, stretched-out chicken” (as one scientist described it). “Nightmarish” says the Daily Beast. “[A] cross between a velociraptor and an ostrich.”

And a great blog post title.

But it’s related to what I want to talk about today. Really. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon psychotherapists and -analysts call “transference,” the capacity we all have to project a hologram from the past onto people in our present and to interact with the hologram as if it were real. We generally engage in transference in times of stress, when we’re taking risks or feeling insecure or unsafe. The hologram represents what we expect to happen, how we expect to be treated or viewed. And the ways we behave when we’re engaging in transference usually, ironically, guarantee that our expectations will be fulfilled.

Here’s an example: It’s Parent-Teacher night. Ms. Z is a little nervous about meeting her students’ parents. But she’s ready with folders of student work and lists of scores that bolster her evaluation of each student’s performance so far.

Ms. Z was doing just fine until Skippy’s parents showed up. When she described her curriculum, Skippy’s dad made a sour face. When she indicated that Skippy’s writing was a little undisciplined, both parents looked at her in surprise. “But he loves to write!” they exclaimed. Ms. Z suddenly felt extremely defensive. “Well, he might love to write at home,” she said. “But he doesn’t love to write in school. And that’s got to change!” Ms. Z’s comments carried an accusatory tone for the remainder of the conference; Skippy’s parents sat stony-faced to the end and didn’t thank Ms. Z when they left.

This is a story of transference. It’s an interesting example, because it shows how little someone has to do to activate anxiety in someone else. In this example, it was the sour face and the surprised comment about Skippy’s writing that set off the psychic alarm inside Ms. Z. She had grown up with faces like that and negative judgments about her abilities. Though she tried to fight off these contemptuous messages when she was little, she nonetheless successfully internalized them in such beliefs as “I’m not smart” and “I don’t really know what I’m doing” and “One of these days someone is going to call me out as a phony.”

Often these beliefs were silent or at least quiet inside Ms. Z. But this parent-teacher conference released them as a howl. Without even thinking, Ms. Z blocked the parents’ imagined contempt by expressing it about them. “I’m not the incompetent one,” she seems to be saying. “You are.”

Where’s the hologram? Ms. Z projected an image from her past onto Skippy’s parents that embodied her expectations of how they felt about her (based on how others from her past had apparently felt about her): that she was stupid, incompetent, and self-deceiving; that she was contemptible. Because this hologram was so convincing to Ms. Z, she (1) couldn’t see Skippy’s parents or discern their actual thoughts and feelings about Ms. Z’s class and (2) responded to a reality that she had in effect created. Her response, which she had perfected as a child, was to deflect others’ contempt and judgment by going on the offensive and accusing them instead. And lo and behold! By doing this she ensured that Skippy’s parents left feeling the contempt and judgment for her that she most feared.

What does any of this have to do with the Chicken from Hell? The way I see it, the anxiety that fuels transference, that powers up the hologram, is a Chicken from Hell. The expectations of blame, judgment, censure, inadequacy, etc., that we have constructed through our lives can be as “nightmarish” as an 11-foot, 500-pound velociraptor ostrich. These terrible feelings can come out of nowhere; they can come with incredible speed; they can appear sometimes as a stretched-out chicken, sometimes as a velociraptor, sometimes as an ostrich; they are always totally convincing and they grip us in their claws without mercy.

And they can really screw up our relationships.

Just as the discovery of Anzu wyliei is exciting, so is uncovering your own Chicken from Hell. For, if you can see that thing coming, you can protect yourself. You can prepare for it, think differently about it, notice your instincts and wonder about them, try entirely new behaviors and see what happens. You can say,

“Here comes my Chicken from Hell, Anzu wyliei, my nightmarish, absurd dinosaur. There was a time when this creature was a genuine threat, when I was afraid for my safety or my integrity or my right to exist, when I feared I’d be abandoned or destroyed, when I thought I’d lost the love or protection or admiration I desperately needed.

“But that dinosaur is dead. It’s a pile o’ bones somewhere in North or South Dakota. The thought of it still terrifies and controls me, but if I can remind myself that it is a memory, an expectation, that it is not necessarily real right now, then maybe I can try something new.”

What might you try?

You could try peeking out from behind the hologram projector to see what the person you’re interacting with is actually doing. Maybe they won’t live up to your expectations; maybe they’ll treat you differently from what you anticipate. You could try protecting yourself from situations you know will activate your anxiety either by avoiding them entirely or arming yourself with tactics you know you will use to maintain your balance and sense of agency.

You could try unearthing the beliefs about yourself the Chicken from Hell represents. You could generate new, more accurate beliefs and say them to yourself and post them all over your apartment and carry them with you on index cards so you can refer to them whenever you need to. You can label feelings and think about their significance to you, what they mean, when you’ve felt them before, where they came from.

You could try getting curious about what your feelings might be telling you about other people, how they might be feeling right now. You could wonder why you’re so quick to assume you know what’s going on inside someone else. You could ask a clarifying question or two. You could practice affirming what is true and good about yourself and commit to taking care of yourself when you’re in emotional trouble.

And, when you’re feeling especially strong, you could try looking at that absurd chicken and laughing. Or hell with it: you could take out an imaginary shotgun and blow the damned thing away. Your Chicken from Hell deserves to be extinct.

Pineapple!

Pineapple-22What can classrooms and BDSM have in common? Safe words!

I was recently talking to some teachers and students about emotions in the classroom. The teachers and the students wanted to talk about ways to manage difficult conversations in class, particularly conversations that trigger or offend one or more participants. Examples came up: when a white person uses the “n-word”; when someone states a homophobic belief; when someone reveals hurtful cultural ignorance.

The beauty of having this conversation with teachers AND students was that we could hear from both sides. Some teachers expressed their intense discomfort at being squeezed between a feeling of offense — “I can’t believe you just said that!” — and a desire to protect the offender — “If I call you out, I’ll shame you — and I don’t want to do that.” Students shared their experience of feeling unsafe when teachers let these uncomfortable moments pass. When they feel unsafe, even for a moment, these students confirmed, their long-term response is to shut down, which makes learning very difficult and, of course, can reinforce all-too-familiar shame in them.

We talked about the importance of laying ground rules for all conversations at the beginning of the school year. We talked about the importance of maintaining a safe place for all students to express themselves, what I call “holding” or “containing,” and what I consider to be the teacher’s job. (It’s nice when the students in a class cooperate with keeping the classroom a safe place, but it’s when this cooperation breaks down that the intense discomfort floods in and teachers have to step up.) We talked about teachers as developmental partners and the good possibility that at least one student will “act out” in class, making it essential for the teacher to set a limit that the student might resist but that all students need. And we talked about “safe words.”

“Safe words,” I discovered, are words used in the BDSM world, in Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism enactments. While I don’t want to compare teaching with BDSM scenarios, I do want to share the value of using “safe words” in classroom conversations that could get scary for the participants.

One “safe word” that a teacher came up with was “pineapple” — a word that probably wouldn’t be used in class conversations so would stand out if anyone uttered it. The idea is that, if anyone in a class said “pineapple,” all conversation would stop and care would be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. This care could involve a few seconds of silence; it could involve a description, stripped of bias and judgment, of what just happened; it could involve psychoeducation about the possible effects of certain words or acts on others; it could require some disclosure from the teacher: “This just happened, and I’m not sure what to do about it”; it could involve individual writing: “Please write down words that describe how you’re feeling right now”; “Please write down what you would like to have happen right now.”

In short, “pineapple” would break the classroom frame. It would stop the regular performing that makes up a day in the life of a classroom and ask everyone to pay attention to each other and the impact, intentional or not, of their words and behaviors. “Pineapple” would invite the teacher and students to peer at the innards of their learning, which would give them a chance to adjust their process so the surface learning could continue.

A normal response at this point might be something like “Good LORD!!! Why would any teacher let discussions get to the point where a safe word would be necessary?!?”

One answer is that some teachers are comfortable with “disrupting” students’ safe, often unquestioned assumptions about the world. These teachers might argue that discomfort in the classroom is a useful sign that students are actually learning something, that they’re integrating new ideas and changing their world views, their thoughts, their behaviors.

Another answer is that teachers have no actual control over when or how a classroom environment might become unsafe for one or more students. The occurrence of bullying in schools and on-line between classmates testifies to this fact. A bedrock reality of classrooms is that relationships and emotions happen there, whether anyone likes it or not. Teachers who are unprepared for eruptions of emotion, whether in the guise of an offensive comment or in a student’s withdrawal from all class participation, handicap themselves. And they curtail their students’ education.

What role might a pineapple have to play in your classroom?

“I Don’t Want to Feel!”

feelingsTeachers should want to not feel because feeling is hard. But it’s crucial.

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.

Older posts