Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: stress (page 1 of 2)

Stress and Burnout

Teacher stress and burnout are deeply damaging to all — and there are antidotes!

I just came across a most interesting and — weirdly, you might say — reassuring document called Teacher Stress and Health. The report is weirdly reassuring to me because it boldly states the truth about teaching these days: that teaching is MEGA-STRESSFUL.

“Of course it is!” you might be thinking. “Who doesn’t know that?!?” I’m guessing a lot of people don’t, but that’s less important than some of the specifics the report contains as well as its recommendations.

Here’s a specific that I bet few people know: teachers tend to experience more stress on a daily basis than people in other professions. As the authors of Teacher Stress and Health put it (on page 5), “According to a national survey, 46 percent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year [here they cite a Gallup poll]. This is the highest rate of daily stress among all occupational groups, tied with nurses, also at 46 percent, and higher than physicians, at 45 percent.”

Wow. And yeah. But consider: Even if nurses and doctors have difficult patients or have to witness unbearable suffering, the exposure is generally time-limited. Teachers return to their students every day for 180 days and, unlike most doctors and nurses, do not always enjoy the trust of their “patients.” Being helped — or forced — to learn is not always as welcome as being helped or forced to heal and feel better.

Here’s another specific: Teacher stress can lead to a number of very undesirable outcomes. The authors again (p. 2): “High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.” This list is disturbingly gloomy, but what astonishes me is the researchers’ use of the word “cause.” The claim that stress causes such terrible outcomes is HUGE. Researchers rarely lay claim to cause and effect. The fact that these authors do pretty much obligates us to do everything we can to reduce teachers’ stress.

A few more facts, just to confirm what you might already know:

  • High-stakes testing contributes to teacher stress because it “limit[s] teachers’ control over the content and pace of their own work” (p. 3)
  • Teacher stress is highest and most damaging in the neediest schools: “Because turnover is most likely to occur in poorly performing schools, it leads to long-term destabilization of low-income neighborhood schools which lose continuity in relationships between teachers, students, parents and community” (p. 6).
  • It’s not just students who make teachers’ lives miserable; parents do, too: “Managing students with behavior problems and working with difficult parents are two other demanding interpersonal challenges that produce chronic stress and leave teachers more vulnerable to depression” (p. 4)

And, finally, this: stressed-out teachers don’t teach very well, which means their students don’t learn very much. On the other hand, “engaged” teachers teach better and their students learn better. Another quote from the report (p. 5): “When teachers are highly stressed, children show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance. Most strikingly, a survey of over 78,000 students in grades 5-12 in 160 schools showed that higher teacher engagement in their jobs predicted higher student engagement, which in turn predicted higher student achievement outcomes.”

Perhaps to point out the obvious: When the students of stressed-out teachers “show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance” — that is, act out and resist learning — those students behave in ways that add to their teachers’ stress. Which leads to teacher and student disengagement, which leads to more acting out, which leads to more stress and disengagement. Which leads to burnout and attrition for both students and teachers. And, by the way, the cost of teachers’ attrition could be over $7 billion per year (this from p. 6 of Teacher Stress and Health).

And just to hammer the point home:

When high job demands and stress are combined with low social-emotional competence (SEC) and classroom management skills, poor teacher performance and attrition increase [citation]. A teacher’s own SEC and well-being are key factors influencing student and classroom outcomes [citation]. Yet, few teachers have had training opportunities to attend to and develop their own SEC. If a teacher is unable to manage their stress adequately, their instruction will suffer, which then impacts student well-being and achievement. In contrast, teachers with better emotion regulation are likely to reinforce positive student behavior, and support students in managing their own negative emotions [citation, citation]. Teachers with high SEC also report more positive affect, greater principal support, higher job satisfaction, and a sense of personal accomplishment [citation]. (pp. 4-5)

Let us pause for just a moment and dwell on this profound paragraph. Teachers, it says, need to be socially and emotionally competent. I don’t know what percentage of people develop social-emotional competence on their own, but my experience of life says: not many. And even if a vast majority of people demonstrate social-emotional competence at work or in their families, where they’re dealing with one or two people at a time, how many of them are equipped to exercise SEC with a roomful of toddlers or tweens or raging adolescents? None of whom is related to them? Some of whom do not share their goals and values?

The report’s authors seem to have similar questions. They stress that, even as teachers are expected to deliver SEL curricula to their students, the teachers are not expected or trained to exhibit Social Emotional Competence (SEC) themselves. “[F]ew teachers,” the report’s authors state, “are offered professional development to nurture their own social and emotional competence” (p. 10). But, the authors claim, “[t]eachers receiving coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students have led to a significant increase in student achievement [citation], suggesting that systematic and sustained coaching supports may be a critical component of SEL interventions for teachers” (p. 8).

Bottom line: Teachers need support and training in SEL. They need it for their own sakes — for their own health and wellness. But they need it for their students’ sakes as well. And, given the importance to human society of well-adjusted, mentally balanced, productive citizens, they need it for the world’s sake!

So what would teachers’ SEL look like? What kind of “coaching focused on improving the quality of their interactions with students” would teachers welcome? What kind of training would they seek out? What would their schools provide and for how long? Given its foundational relationship to effective teaching and learning, why isn’t this kind of support and training available on every school campus?

I actually offer this kind of support. And I still don’t know the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your answers!

 

 

 

Reading Minds

Brain

What the heck is going on in our students’ heads?

One of the greatest sources of stress for teachers, I have found, is students’ faces. Poker faces, bored faces, closed eyes, sidelong glances, frowns, wrinkled brows, sardonic smiles — these facial expressions are all grist for the teacher’s anxiety mill. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just read students’ minds? So we could know what the heck was going on in their heads and on their faces? I know: that’s impossible.

Except that teachers do it all the time.

At least, that’s what Abigail did. (Remember Abigail? That awesome teacher who figured out a great reason why her students didn’t do what she had asked them to do?) She saw her students’s faces — their dropped eyes, their frowns and yawns — and their bodies — slumped, with jiggling legs — and heard their silence and knew exactly what was going on inside their heads:

They hated her. They wanted to thwart her. They were leaving her dangling, exercising their power over her by being lazy and refusing to cooperate with her. They were disrespecting and embarrassing her.

As she put it, “I know they know it, so I embarrass them when they don’t give me the energy.” That is, she gets sarcastic and treats her students with the same disdain her mind-reading abilities suggest they feel for her.

But what if she was wrong?

Psycho Filters (Qu’est-ce que c’est?)

Time out for a psychodynamic moment: Abigail’s mind-reading, which happened so automatically she had no conscious awareness of it, was normal and common. She did what all human beings do: She read the students’ faces and experienced their silence and drew logical conclusions.

Oh. Did I say “logical”? What I should have said was “psycho.”

And what I mean by “psycho” is that our conclusions are colored by our psychic structures, the ways we have constructed ourselves over our lifetimes to manage stress and relationships and to perceive and interpret the world.

The students’ silence stressed Abigail out. The deep chasm that opened up between her and her students, the probability that her lesson plan was foundering, and the emotions — her own and her students’ — that flooded her kicked Abigail into reactive mode.

Did I say “reactive mode”? What I should have said was “psycho mode.” By “psycho mode” I mean the state where our psychic structures take over and determine our thoughts and actions based on expectations about the world that are old but are activated by our current circumstances. We can’t help it: We see things, they activate us, we believe we know what they mean because our feelings and beliefs and thoughts are all telling us we do. And we act on these “logical” conclusions.

Normal. Common. And, if we don’t carefully examine our conclusions, often wrong.

Back to Reading Minds

Another term for “psycho mode” is “reading minds.” And, as I said above, teachers (and other people) do it all the time. The news flash is that, while we are often wrong about other people in psycho mode, we are also often right.

How can we tell the difference? The answer depends on when you want to know. If you want to know at the end of the day whether or not your mind-reading was accurate, you can do emotion work. If you want to know right there in the middle of class, in the heat of the moment, you can ask.

Otherwise known as a “reality check,” asking people (such as students) what their faces or silence or reactions or statements mean is a great way to collect data about the students’ reality. Accurate knowledge of students’ reality grounds us when we’re in psycho mode. Grounding ourselves in actual knowledge of what’s going on in our students’ heads means

  • we suffer less (because we don’t torture ourselves with terrible beliefs that just aren’t true)
  • we can more easily adjust to our students’ needs (because they’ve told us what they are) and
  • we can more readily anticipate and avoid future problems (because we know our students better)

Abigail demonstrated this flip from psycho mode to grounding in her story. When she fell silent and did some emotion work, she “figured something out.” She guessed that her students were resistant to her teaching because they were insulted by it. And, once she tried looking at it from their point of view, she couldn’t blame them.

Abigail’s revised conclusion? As I wrote in that other post, “She strongly felt that, had she described the silence to the students and asked them what it meant, the class would have turned out totally differently.”

Brava, Abigail.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Raising Students

school-clipartAre you teaching students or children — or both?

You know how you went into teaching because you love kids, you love your subject matter, and you love the idea of forging in your students the same passion and excitement for literature and math and science and politics that you feel?

And you know how there’s always one kid (or, alas, a large group of kids) who pops your bubble on a regular basis by saying, “I don’t know” or “That’s too complicated for me” or simply falls silent and stubbornly, unfathomably, waits you out? And you find yourself acting more like a parent than a teacher, doling out consequences and checking your anger and feeling yourself rushing way too rapidly towards burnout?

Why didn’t anyone tell you this was how it was going to be?

One possible answer is that people tend to think that teachers are going to be working with students: kids who know the difference between school and home, between gaming consoles and desks, between hanging out and learning.

That is, most teachers’ dream is to work with people who have committed to adopting the roles and responsibilities the student identity requires. Roles and responsibilities like listening in class; doing homework; respecting the difference between activities you do with your buddies and activities you do in a school; thinking; practicing respect; letting yourself get excited about ideas; delaying gratification; following instructions; etc.

But the truth is that many teachers are not necessarily working with students, or people who understand and embrace these roles and responsibilities. When that’s not the case — when teachers are not working with students — they are working with a different animal all together. They’re working with children.

Students, I propose, engage in learning and growing intellectually. They’re gathering information, making sense of it, organizing it, embellishing it, making connections, being creative, trying new things, learning from mistakes. They’re forging increasingly mature (one hopes) relationships with content and with the roles of learner, thinker, and knower, an endeavor that requires certain (usually supremely enjoyable) acts and responses from their teachers.

Children, in contrast, are still working on human relationships. They’re developing as people, not as intellectuals, and as such require sometimes unexpected and often highly resented acts and responses from their teachers. Where students might need limits to be erased so they can explore new territory, children generally need very firm limits to be set and reinforced. Where students raise their hands with the answer to every question, children need to be mirrored, to see accurate reflections of themselves, both of what they’re capable of and what they’re not making any effort to do. Where students might question a grade because they’re not sure how to make it better, children question the teacher’s integrity, brilliantly exemplifying the child’s dependence on an authority figure as an external model that can eventually be internalized.

The bad news is that many teachers, it turns out, hate teaching children! And who can blame them? After all, shouldn’t parents be raising children so teachers can raise students????

The good news is that, while the demands of teaching students might differ markedly from the demands of teaching children, it’s all teaching. Learning is development. Period. It’s just a question of what type of development a kid is ready for (and, of course, kids can zigzag between developmental needs dizzyingly, even shifting from being a student to being a child with no warning). Allowing oneself to say, “Ah! Here is a student today” or “OK, today I’m working with a child who is teaching me about her needs” might help teachers accept the inevitable: that the kids in their classes are trying to develop, and they need teachers’ help if that development is to proceed healthily and productively.

 

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