Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: connect

Only Connect

“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

This is a quote from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, a wonderful novel written in 1908 that is perhaps best known by its movie version, which is also wonderful. The quote is relevant to a hypothesis I’m working on, which is that we are living in a society in which technological innovation quietly encourages us to distance ourselves — to chronicle life — rather then to engage with each other — to practice life.

This hypothesis is important to me because my work, emotion work, requires willingness to engage with life. Yet I suspect that the momentum in the field of education, despite the increasing respect for “soft skills” and Social-Emotional Learning, continues to drive us towards the abstract, the disconnected: towards data, trends, scores, scripts, policy, programs, rules, legalese. Towards a chronicle, a narrative, about education that is quite distant from the lived reality.

Towards the thought, for example, that the quality of a teacher education program can be determined by the standardized test scores of the students their graduates teach.

Let’s step this one back: A group of students do not do well on a standardized test. Consider the many reasons why this might happen. (Hint: anxiety, inability to manage the test format well, cultural disadvantage, resistance to learning, fatigue, stress, lack of commitment, poor teaching)

If the reason or reasons for the students’ poor performance is any of the first seven, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the students’ anxiety and stress, their relationship (yes, that’s the word I would use) to the type of test and to the stakes it represents, their resistance and level of commitment to school or to their teacher? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

If the reason for the test scores is poor teaching, what type of response might be called for? A policy? A punishment? A ruling?

Or engagement? Like, say, looking into the teacher’s experience of teaching: their fears, self-doubts, insecurities; their flashpoints and pet peeves; their negative self-beliefs; their relationships (again, that word) with the content they teach, the students they teach, and their colleagues? Like, say, looking into their eyes and wondering about them?

And the same goes for teacher education programs. It’s gotta be difficult to assess the quality of a program in any case, but how do you capture a program’s success in changing people? (especially when the expectation of most prospective teachers is that they will spend less rather than more time earning their credential. There is no teacher education program in the history of the world that ever demanded as much training for teachers as the most basic medical school program does. Why is that?)

How do you change people? Through a policy? A punishment? A ruling?

No. Emphatically no. People change through engagement. Not from policies or punishments or rulings. Not from forced conformity to an idealized, distanced narrative.

Here’s another E.M. Forster quote, this one from Howard’s End:

Only connect!….Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.

Meaning, to me: Connect the abstract and the particular, the policies and the people, the chronicle and the practice. Bring the levels of experience together, let them inform each other, through connection. Just connect! Just engage! And we will all be exalted.

Unfortunately, in a world where desired “connection” is now overwhelmingly electronic, it is becoming much less likely that we will actually engage with each other as people. Instead, it seems we are free to objectify people, demonize people, anonymously act out on people, and legislate at all levels in ways that serve the legislators rather than those in need. Even in those moments when we do engage with people, it seems we are less and less willing to be honest in that engagement for fear of hurting and, importantly, being hurt back.

I am going to make a plug for engagement, for looking into people’s eyes, for reading data with our hearts, for surviving our hurt, for helping people change — whether to improve their teaching or simply to learn something new — by being in healthy relationship with them, by connecting viscerally, not electronically, with them. And I am going to shamelessly plug the value of emotion work in this fundamentally, inescapably human enterprise.

Only connect.


IMG_0584Endings are important when relationships are important, and relationships are important in classrooms.

I’ve been putting off writing about endings because, frankly, I hate endings. I hate saying good-bye; I hate getting all teary-eyed and sentimental; I hate the feeling of loss and being out of control and having to do or face something I just don’t want to.

There are many ways to avoid endings. One good way is to get angry at the person who’s leaving. Fighting makes separation easier and, paradoxically, maintains connection through lingering negative feelings.  Another good way is to pretend the ending isn’t going to happen, to just go along the way you normally do until — hunh! — that person you used to see at Book Club just isn’t there anymore.

Another way, one that therapy clients sometimes utilize, is the “no show” option: setting up a final appointment or meeting and simply blowing it off. This option is masterful because (1) it allows the client to avoid the ending and (2) conveys to the therapist the client’s ambivalence and, perhaps, anger at having to rupture the relationship.

When I want to avoid an ending, whichever method I utilize, the fundamental way I justify my avoidance is to believe I don’t really matter to the person I’m parting with. If I don’t matter, they won’t notice if I’m there or not to say good-bye. So I might as well not be there.

As a therapist, I cannot fall back on this self-serving approach. The fact is that I DO matter to my clients, and they matter to me. Our work actually depends upon this mutual attachment, because the healing my approach to therapy kindles relies on the relationship between me and my client.

It is the same for teachers.

I am positive there are plenty of teachers out there who are fantastic at orchestrating wonderful endings to their classes. I’m also guessing that there are a few who try to avoid any formal acknowledgment of the end of significant classroom relationships beyond having the students clean out their desks and lockers and maybe have a cupcake before heading out for the summer.

I’m here to advocate for formal, sentimental, powerful endings in school.

Here’s why: Teachers should and do matter to their students. Any learning that took place over the school year depended on this fact, on the relationships students were able to  have with their teachers (and each other, and the subject matter, all of which ties back to the relationship with the teacher). Ending the relationship with the teacher and with the class group is a big deal and deserves acknowledgment.

I’m not a big how-to kind of gal, as I prefer to support teachers in coming up with their own plans, but here are some ways I’ve overcome my aversions and celebrated endings:

* I’ve put ingredients for ice cream into a manual ice cream ball and rolled it back and forth between me and my client. (This rolling is what turns the ingredients into a frozen delight.) Each time we push it, we say something to each other about our work. In a classroom, the person who rolls the ball can call out a positive adjective about the person he’s rolling the ball to. And then, of course, everybody can dip into the ice cream.

* I’ve done the same activity with a ball of beautiful string or yarn. Every time someone throws the ball to another member of the group, they say something kind about the person who catches the ball. After weaving this visible evidence of the connections among us, each group member can cut off a piece of the string to keep.

* I’ve handed out paper to every member of a group and asked them to put their name on the top. Each member then passes their paper to their right (or left), and the group member next to them writes something positive about the person whose name is on the paper. We keep passing the paper around until each member receives their original back. Sometimes we read our papers out loud to each other.

* I’ve done découpage on flower pots, boxes, and in frames (mimicking diplomas), choosing and creating images that represent the person the gift is for. In classrooms, students can construct their own “self-portrait” collages from images cut out, drawn, or photographed by their classmates and teacher that depict something special about themselves.

The point of all these possible ways of ending a school year is to shine a strong spotlight on the basic and essential fact that each person in a classroom is in crucial relationship to the others and that each person has been seen. And, honestly, what students will remember about school will not necessarily be the content you taught or the activities you organized but the feeling of having been seen, understood, and, at best, valued.

Feeling seen. Feeling known. Feeling valued. These are bedrocks to successful education. When this experience ends, it is a great loss that should be acknowledged, memorialized, and gently mourned.

If you’re thinking “Pffft! My kids don’t care about me or each other enough to take this kind of ending seriously,” then I suggest you start thinking about beginnings. How might you attend and attune to the relationships in your classroom next year? How might you start the school year with attachment and connection in mind? How might you remember to see, know, and value your students and encourage them to do the same for each other?

And now I have to end this blog post. Damn.

But, seriously: How do you end your school year with your students?