Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: caregiver

Tend to the Tender

“If you want a child to be functioning well, tend to the person who’s tending the child.”

I recently read this quote by Suniya Luthar, PhD, in the September 2017 issue of Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association. I think it’s a great quote to start off the academic year with.

I have written about this before. But it bears repeating: Caring for people is exhausting, demanding work. It requires a whole list of skills.

  • self-control
  • empathy
  • patience
  • selflessness
  • presence
  • awareness
  • intelligence
  • discipline
  • understanding
  • curiosity
  • grit

Utilizing these “soft skills” day after day can take a hard toll on caregivers. Because “soft skills” tend to be taken for granted, especially in caregivers, especially in female caregivers, there often is very little recognition of this hard toll. But it’s there, and neglect of it can easily lead to burnout.

Teachers are caregivers. They are tenders (and many of them are also tender). They are crucial developmental partners to precious growing human beings. Their job as developmental partner demands the above soft skills (and more), and the above soft skills demand support. I wish all of you teachers reading this the wherewithal to get that support for yourself. Get tended to!

If you need ideas about how, look here.

 

 

 

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.

Reflective Function

gears-818463_1280Being reflective about internal emotional experience is crucial for teachers.

It’s March, I know. But I’m still working on my New Year’s Resolution, which is to actually read the professional journals that pile up in my home the way Hogwarts admissions letters flooded the Dursleys’ living room. I’m really on a roll! In just two journals, I encountered three articles that reinforced each other in a really nice and interesting way. The articles are

Zambrana, R.E., Ray, R., Espino, M.M., Castro, C., Cohen, B.D., & Eliason, J. (2015). “Don’t leave us behind”: The importance of mentoring for underrepresented minority faculty. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (1), 40-72.

Benbassat, N. & Priel, B. (2015). Why is fathers’ Reflective Function important? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32 (1), 1 – 22.

Borelli, J.L., Compare, A., Snavely, J.E., & Decio, V. (2015). Reflective Function moderates the associations between perceptions of parental neglect and attachment in adolescence. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32 (1), 23 – 35.

Here’s how these three articles are related: They all point to the importance of mentoring for young students.

The first article emphasizes how crucial (and still rare) it is for new college and university faculty who come from underrepresented backgrounds to find mentors who value their research and actively show them the professional ropes. Without this kind of support, underrepresented minority (URM) faculty, who are such critical models and mentors for URM students, can find it difficult to remain, let alone rise, in predominantly white academic institutions (PWIs). This first article also shares the finding that underrepresented minority faculty who had responsive mentors as young people were more likely to find and make use of mentors as adults.

Hmmmm.

The second two articles suggest a significant way that teachers, particularly male teachers, can be good mentors: They can “mentalize,” or utilize Reflective Function (RF).

And what, you might ask, does it mean to “mentalize”?

The term was coined by a pretty awesome psychoanalyst and researcher named Peter Fonagy. His research suggests that going “meta” on relationships – talking about one’s feelings, making guesses about others’ feelings and motivations, making the connection between feelings and behaviors, respecting the differences between people’s subjective experiences of reality – fosters in children the capacity to “mentalize,” or recognize their own internal lives as well as those of others. To be able to mentalize is to possess a “theory of mind” that notices differences in beliefs and abilities among people and provides a basis upon which to understand people’s experiences and behaviors. Utilizing this awareness means exercising one’s Reflective Function (RF) – that is, thinking about internal experience, one’s own and others’ – which allows one to be emotionally and cognitively flexible.

So Reflective Function is a really good thing.

The second article I listed above gives evidence that dads who mentalize are especially important to their children’s growth through adolescence. According to the authors, fathers’ mentalizing can help them deal authoritatively with recalcitrant teens (and “authoritative” as opposed to “authoritarian” parenting seems to promote the Reflective Function in offspring) (and, apparently, adolescence is a crucial time for the development of RF); it can help fathers figure out what roles to play in their children’s lives (extremely valuable for dads who travel, who are divorced, who have stepchildren, who didn’t have particularly active fathers themselves, etc.); and it can help them remain connected and real in their relationships with their wives, which doesn’t just contribute to a harmonious and supportive family life but also can undermine stereotypical, sexist thinking and behaving.

Obviously, fathers who exercise RF can also be teachers who exercise RF. Male and female teachers who utilize the Reflective Function can be valuable mentors to students of all backgrounds, setting those students up to expect and utilize mentors throughout their lives. In addition, as the third article above suggests, teachers who use RF can help develop RF in their students whose parents did not model mentalizing. Moreover, adolescents who experienced neglect and other trauma in their early lives but who have developed RF through secure interactions with non-parental caregivers such as teachers appear to be less likely to behave in destructive ways and more likely to be able to attach healthily to other adults later in life.

It just so happens that, in reading something else (The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, published in 1982 by Robert Kegan), I came upon a lovely way of conveying why RF is so important. Kegan makes the case that babies, with their inescapable cuteness, are able to “recruit” the attention they need not just to survive but also to thrive. “This sympathy is in great supply for newborns – and newborns share a powerful capacity to elicit it,” Kegan writes on p. 19.

“But Nature,” he continues, “having done her part when it is most needed, is not so democratic after infancy. The capacity to recruit another’s invested regard, so uniform at birth, becomes a various affair as people grow older: some people have a much greater ability to recruit people’s attention to them than other people do. This obvious fact, so underinvestigated by psychologists and so commonly denied by teachers, is never forgotten by teenagers, who could have told researchers – before huge sums of money were spent to discover it – that the greatest inequalities in education are not between schools (of different economic strata, for example) but within them; that greater than the inequalities of social class or achievement test scores is the unequal capacity of students to interest others in them – a phenomenon not reducible to social class or intelligence, and which seems to be the more powerful determinant of future thriving.”

So, to bring it back to the beginning: Students who find it difficult to “interest others in them” because, for example, they are African-American in a school that privileges whites or they are girls where men dominate or they are gay where otherness is deeply threatening or they are poor and do not share the social skills that come with being middle class – these types of students especially need mentors. (So do others, but students who “fit” better with the people and institutions around them are, like infants, better equipped to “recruit” the attention and help they need.) These students need people who show their care by seeing them and imagining what it is like to be them and engaging with them and offering support that is relevant to their particular situations.

In other words, at the very least, they need parents and teachers who mentalize, who utilize and model RF. This probably sounds super-simplistic after the moving paragraph from Kegan, but exercising RF is not as simple or obvious as it may sound. In my experience, it can take a lot of work.

What, in fact, might RF look like in a teacher or mentor? Funny you should ask. Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will show RF in action.

Psychological Maltreatment

smiley-822365_1280Many students suffer from Psychological Maltreatment, and teachers risk reinforcing it if they don’t know the antidote.

I am such a weenie.

When I read about children who have suffered emotional abuse and/or neglect, even if I read about them in an academic article with a lot of tables and p values, I want to weep. I cannot stand the thought that people who are so dependent on adults for their well-being can be so totally betrayed by their caregivers. It just makes me hurt.

And it doesn’t end with the children. The very caregivers who are unable to contain their emotions, who cannot hold their children safely, are also terribly hurt. Chances are super-good that those parents were abused themselves and are passing the treatment on, generation after generation.

The article I just read, called “Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes,” is full of tables and p values. But it makes a very clear claim that teachers need to hear: Psychological Maltreatment (PM), or emotional abuse and neglect, is basically more highly correlated to emotional and behavioral problems than other forms of maltreatment (physical abuse and sexual abuse).

Specifically, children and adolescents who experience PM are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc., and to engage in substance abuse than are children and adolescents who have been physically and/or sexually abused. Those who have suffered PM are as likely as children and adolescents who have been physically abused (and more likely than kids who have suffered sexual abuse) to act out in ways that harm themselves and others.

Why should teachers know about this? Because these children and adolescents, of course, are in our classrooms. It would be nice (I guess) if children who are hurting would keep their hurt at home. But very often they can’t. They bring their hurt to school.

And, in their eyes, we are potential caregivers. We are people who might be able to provide what they don’t get at home: Accurate seeing. Containment. Holding. Connection. Hope. Ironically, though, their behavior invites us to reinforce their expectations of ongoing Psychological Maltreatment. They resist, offend, disrupt, disrespect. We attack, banish, ridicule, give up. In the case of students who have internalized their pain, avoiding contact with adults (who have proven themselves to be utterly unreliable) and making themselves extremely difficult to detect, we completely overlook (read: ignore and neglect) them.

In other words, whether we like it or not, teachers are implicated in Psychological Maltreatment even if we don’t have a mean or neglectful bone in our bodies. We risk exhausting ourselves either battling and perpetuating students’ negative behaviors or tolerating them with compassion. And, given that most teachers are not parents to their students, this is INCREDIBLY hard work.

But figuring out how to read students’ suffering is essential. No child deserves to hurt that badly. If they are to develop cognitively, they also have to develop and thrive emotionally. If parents can’t provide a healthy environment, teachers must. And teachers, of course, need strong support in providing such an environment.

This is the way I manage my horror and sadness at the thought of Psychological Maltreatment: I put my hope in teachers and my energy into emotional support of teachers. Our students are future parents; any positive, healthy relationships they can have with reliable attachment figures like teachers could change the future of generations of parents and children.

I have to say it: This outcome is way more important to me than any test score could ever be.

Back to School

books-magazines-building-school

Attachment is crucial to healthy relationships at home and in school.

I’m a little late in posting this recommendation, but the story is still well worth hearing: Check out This American Life’s podcast “Back to School” (#474), which was aired on 9/14/12.

The story looks at the “non-cognitive elements” of success in school and discovers attachment theory, which is an important way of thinking about the ways people (students, children, parents, etc.) relate to each other and to ideas. The narrator, Ira Glass, considers the help young mothers can get in learning how to attach to their children and shares research that shows how important relationships, both at home and in school, are to long-term academic and personal success.

The story acknowledges the importance of caring, educative support for young mothers, their children, and at-risk teenagers. What it does not mention is the importance of caring, educative support for the teachers to whom students need to be able to attach. If it can be difficult for some parents to attach to their own children, how much more difficult can it be for teachers? So, for those of you who listen to this podcast, I leave you with the question:

What about the teachers?

 

 

Care for the Caregivers

fire hydrantTeachers take care of their students; who is taking care of the teachers?

A definitive professional and parental moment happened for me when I was in social work school and saw one of the more disturbing videos of my life.

The video was a snippet from a research project conducted by some therapists on what they called a “failure to thrive” baby, or a baby who was not growing and developing as he should have been. The baby was basically starving, and no one could figure out why.

The video of a therapy session with the baby, his young mother, and a therapist suggested a possible reason. In order to eat, the five-month-old baby had to drag himself across the floor to a bottle of formula that his mother had placed several feet away. As the hungry baby struggled on the floor, the mother sat in a chair looking at her therapist.

Watching a tiny five-month-old crawl (which five-month-old babies don’t do) was agonizing. If I had been the therapist, my irrepressible instinct would have been to jump up, grab the bottle and the baby, and feed that child. My second instinct would have been to yell at the mother and make her feed the baby.

But that’s not what the therapist did.

What the therapist did was focus on the mother. She left that little baby to his own devices and focused on the mother. She asked questions not about the baby, not about childcare, but about the mother. What was her life like? What was her childhood like? What was going on with her?

The therapist realized that judging the mother for her shocking treatment of her baby was irrelevant. The truth about this mother was that, because of her own experiences and emotional limitations, caring for her baby was, at that moment, personally impossible. And, rather than make her client change to appease her own intense discomfort with what she was witnessing, the therapist sat with her horror and worked on understanding and accepting this young woman.

The therapist looked at and listened to her client. She acknowledged the mother’s feelings and emphasized how legitimate they were. She leaned in to that young woman – whom I was actively hating! – and showed her how much she cared.

And I’ll be damned. It wasn’t long before the mother reached down to her baby, picked him up, and fed him as she cradled him in her arms.

The moral of the video is this: caregivers need care. If we neglect the caregivers, they will neglect their children. Or they will burn themselves out in their efforts to do the personally impossible, which is to feed others when they themselves are depleted and undernourished.

In my view, teachers are caregivers. They are professional caregivers, people whose job it is to enable our children’s healthy cognitive and emotional development. Their care helps to determine our children’s character and capacities for life.

But who is truly capable of taking care of 20 youngsters or 120 teenagers a day? What superhero can see, hear, and understand so many students, some of whom are “failing to thrive,” all of whom are naturally acting out their own limitations in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times? What teacher does not reach and pass over the boundary of what is personally impossible at least once in a school year? How many teachers cross this boundary every day?

And if teachers are expected to do the personally impossible, why wouldn’t they expect, even press, their students to? (Note: It is neither effective nor healthy to attempt to do what is impossible.)

Who is taking care of the teachers?