Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: teaching (page 1 of 3)

Filling the Void

The key is to scaffold struggle, not to fill the void.

“Filling the void” is a term I use a lot with teachers. Filling the void is what we do when we perceive that something that needs to be done – often by somebody else – is not being done. We sense the void, and we feel anxious. So we jump right in and kill two birds with one stone: We do the job (thus demonstrating our competence) and we tamp down our anxiety.

And make way for resentment. But I’m sprinting way ahead.

Here’s how filling the void might sound:

Student: I don’t know how to do this.

Teacher: Sure you do! We just went over it.

Student: But I don’t get it. I do this…and then…this?

Teacher: I’ll show you.

Where is the void? (Actually, I perceive two possible voids here.)

Void #1: The student doesn’t know something.

Void #2: The student can’t do something.

These are very common voids, of course. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of them on the face of it. In fact, one might consider not knowing something and not being able to do something as valid steps along the path to mastery.

How does this teacher fill the voids?

Tactic #1: Deny the void’s existence

The teacher fills the void by insisting it’s not there. “No, you don’t not know. You do know.” This is not a great tactic because it totally overrides the student’s own reality. And students really need to have their own realities validated.

Tactic #2: Do it yourself

Showing students how to do things is a perfectly legitimate way to teach. Watch out, though: If you’re doing something to fill a void, you may be helping yourself more than the student.

The reason I say this is that, if voids make you anxious – because somewhere way back in your history you learned that competence is better than incompetence or merging is better than separation or (perhaps more recently) your student’s performance is a marker of your own value — then filling the void might be a knee-jerk reaction to your anxiety.

It may be that what your student needs more than anything is to feel that void himself. Feeling the void, especially with a teacher who is comfortable with void-induced anxiety, might spur your student to actually start struggling.

Which is what students need to become comfortable with. Struggling. While being “held” (more about this another time) by a curious and confident teacher.

In short, when students don’t know something or can’t do something, they might be exactly where they need to be: poised on the edge of struggle. Allowing students to struggle their way from not-knowing to knowing, from incompetence to competence, is not only ultimately gratifying (for student and teacher) but is, in fact, an acceptable definition of teaching-and-learning.

What voids do you fill?

Teacher-bots

“It doesn’t serve anybody to pretend that we’re teacher-bots with no emotions, which I think sometimes teachers feel like they have to be.”

So says Alex Shevrin, a teacher and community facilitator for Edutopia who used to work at a therapeutic high school.

Here’s something else Alex Shevrin said: “If I had one wish for every school in the country, it would be that they made time for teachers to really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work.”

Why? Why should teachers sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work?

Oh, baby! Let me count the reasons:

  1. Shevrin’s quotes appear in an Edutopia article about vicarious traumatization, or secondary traumatization, or compassion fatigue, or “the cost of caring.” The point of the article is that teachers who encounter traumatized students (and statistics cited in the article suggest that the chances of such an encounter are quite high, as “more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma”) are in danger of experiencing trauma themselves. What is a tried and true way to avoid secondary traumatization? “Talking it out” (as the article suggests). Talking to a peer, a therapist, a spouse, a peer group. So one reason educators should sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work is to prevent their own traumatization.
  2. Talking out feelings helps metabolize them. Not talking out feelings helps compound them. It’s better to digest feelings (and figuratively poop them out) than it is to allow them to build up into a thick constipated knot that erupts when you least expect it. And I think we’ve had enough of that useful metaphor.
  3. Just talking out feelings can be helpful. But talking about feelings in a particular way can be miraculous. That is, when teachers view their emotions as data, not just as inconvenient obstacles, they can learn a WHOLE HELLUVA LOT about their students and their classroom. They can learn
    1. how they themselves are contributing to bad behavior
    2. how their students might actually be feeling and why
    3. what kind of treatment their students expect from adults and others
    4. what they can do to correct misbehavior and attune classroom relationships
  4. Talking about feelings with a small group of peers (such as a Teacher Support Group) not only helps metabolize emotions and foster miraculous behavioral changes in the classroom but forges strong, reliable bonds among colleagues. As Micere Keels, an expert who is quoted in the Edutopia article on vicarious traumatization puts it, “Reducing professional isolation is critical. It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.” It also fosters deep connections that teachers can draw on whenever they need them — and most teachers need them.
  5. Talking about feelings makes people feel better. Plain and simple. Overcoming our fear of emotions and just letting them live is a very good way to let them go.

I share Alex Shevrin’s wish. I really really wish teachers would “really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work.” I wish it because it would make teachers feel better; it would help them stay in the field; it would help them feel safe and healthy; and it would help their students learn.

Down with teacher-bots.

 

 

 

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.

Gleeful and Worried

gleeful and worriedNon-cognitive skills contribute to life success more significantly than cognitive skills. What does this mean for teachers?

I’ve been reading recently about Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, and I am excited to share the following good news:

* SEL is positively related to increased academic achievement in school

and

* SEL is positively related to higher scores on standardized tests.

That is, strength in such “non-cognitive skills” as the ability to regulate one’s emotions (to “self-soothe”), to plan strategically, to look at problems from different viewpoints, to set goals, and to get along with others influences academic outcomes. (Go here to read more about this connection.) This kind of counter-intuitive correlation — I mean, being able to control one’s impulses leads to higher test scores? — might interest schools and, maybe more importantly, policy makers, encouraging more (welcome) emphasis on students’ emotional and relational development.

But there’s more. At the request of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a big ol’ report was recently published by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College that looks at “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning.” Seems like a good thing to investigate, considering the academic value SEL appears to have. I can’t tell you what a start I experienced on the first page of the summary (p. 3) of this report, where I read,

“[I]t is now becoming widely recognized that social and emotional learning in schools can be as important as or even more important than cognitive gains in explaining important developmental and life outcomes.”

Feel free to read that quote again, slowly.

Hank Levin is one of the authors of this report. He wrote an article in 2012 that is cited in the Teachers College report in which he patiently reviews the evidence that the impact of cognitive skills on economic success is exaggerated. Further, he claims what apparently is “becoming widely recognized”: that non-cognitive skills (SEL) play a large if unappreciated (in part because they are so difficult to measure) role in life success.

(Don’t you love it when hard science and common sense converge on the exact same conclusion? Even if it takes science way longer to get there?)

As an opponent of standardized testing and a proponent of SEL, this good news makes me gleeful! So gleeful that I feel I must share some juicy quotes from Levin’s article (all of these come from the second to last page of text, which is unnumbered):

“Far from being harmless, the focus on test scores and the omission of the non-cognitive impact of schools can create far-reaching damage.”

“And the instructional strategies used to raise test results, such as test preparation, cramming, tutoring, and endless memorization, may have little effect on the broader cognitive and non-cognitive skills that people need if they are to perform as competent adults contributing to a dynamic economy.”

“The obsession with the gap in test scores among races obscures the non-cognitive gap, which may be even more serious and a higher priority to address to improve various outcomes.”

“A singular focus on students’ scores on cognitive tests can also introduce instructional policies that ignore the importance of non-cognitive skills and fail to value the roles that teachers and schools play in developing students’ non-cognitive skills.”

BRAVO, Dr. Levin! As you can imagine, I especially love this last quote, as I am all about supporting teachers “in developing students’ non-cognitive skills” (as well as, of course, their cognitive abilities). It feels fantastic to have scholars at the top of the field confirm this stance.

What is not yet “widely recognized,” though, is the toll such labor can take on teachers and administrators. It’s going to take some time, I guess, for researchers and other bellwethers who are just noting the value for students of SEL to step back and wonder about teachers’ and administrators’ SEL, their abilities to self-regulate and take different perspectives and get along with others. Just because we’re adults, alas, does not mean we are experts in SEL! And even if we are highly competent socially-emotionally, that doesn’t always protect us from the impingements of relentless, ruthless, needy students!

Just as teachers need to be adequate models of subject matter knowledge, they need to be models of Social Emotional Competence (SEC). Just as teachers need to be able to move freely within the conceptual realm of their subject matter(s), they need to be flexible and smart in the realm of relationships. Just as teachers are crucial to the development in students of Social-Emotional Learning, which can lead to a productive and fulfilling life, so do teachers need support in surviving the incredibly demanding role of Developmental Partner so they can at the very least avoid burnout.

I am gleeful about the status student SEL is gaining in schools! Yet I am worried about the unacknowledged and sometimes heavy toll teaching anything, SEL or otherwise, can take on teachers’ bodies and minds.

But perhaps I needn’t worry. Perhaps the toll isn’t as great as I think it is (or as it was for me). I’d love to hear from you: What’s the state of your Social-Emotional Competence? What social and emotional toll does teaching take on you? How much emphasis does your school place on teachers’ SEC and social-emotional health? Are you gleeful? Are you worried?

 

 

7 Things….

seven-706891_1280…Teachers Can Do When Their Emotions Take Over

I have noticed that many blog posts, especially those about education, reduce their messages to a particular number (and the numbers are almost always odd):

5 Ways to Use Twitter to Teach Math

11 Things NOT to Do at an Interview

3 Mistakes All Principals Make — but Shouldn’t

Of course, I read these posts and think to myself, “Why don’t I have numbers in my blog post titles? What do I know that I can reduce to a sexy odd number?”

And then it hit me: I have something. I HAVE SOMETHING!!!!

Here it is:

7 Things Teachers Can Do When Their Emotions Take Over

(First, the brief intro:) Are you a teacher? Do you have emotions? Do you sometimes find that your emotions override rationality and make you do unfortunate things? like yell at students? or insult them? or punish them? Take heart, for you are normal. Teaching is a highly emotional enterprise (as is learning), and precious few teachers avoid feeling strong emotions in the course of a school day. The good news is that emotions are extremely valuable data for teachers, data that can help teachers align their classroom acts with students’ needs and get desirable learning to happen. Here are 7 things teachers can do when they realize their emotions have taken over (now for the bolded bullet items that make everything seem so simple):

Practice Awareness

The first thing teachers can do is turn inward and notice what they’re feeling. Another word for this is “mindfulness.” Practicing mindfulness gives teachers super-useful information, as it allows teachers to gain insight into themselves and, at the same time, suggests what emotions their students might be feeling. If, for example, I realize I’m feeling frustrated and angry when a student contradicts me in class, I can wonder (1) am I especially sensitive to criticism? (If so, that is not the student’s fault and is, rather, something I should work on outside of the classroom) and (2) is this student feeling frustrated and angry himself? (If so, I can try to address the possible source of the student’s frustration and anger — more on that in Thing #3.) Practicing awareness of oneself and of one’s students can be difficult to do in the heat of the moment. So taking this step after school, when a teacher has a minute to think, is perfectly acceptable.

Describe

When we’re feeling strong emotions, our perceptions are skewed. It’s like our emotions have suddenly switched out our normal lenses for slightly (or grossly) distorted lenses. If we don’t make an effort to remove those lenses so we can see what’s around us more accurately, we can act out inappropriately. Taking the time to slow down and describe as objectively as possible what we’re seeing or experiencing is an invaluable way to get to the bottom of difficult events. Describing what happened — “My student sent me an email at 11 o’clock at night that announced her refusal to do the homework I had assigned because, in her words, it was ‘stupid'” — without judgment or evaluation — “What an a-hole!” — can give us grounds to wonder, to exercise curiosity, about the student’s behavior. Which leads us to the next Thing.

Look for Good Reasons

“Why, o why would my student do such a thing?” (Or its close cousin, “Why o why would I do such a thing?”) is a great question to ask when our emotions have taken over. It’s a great question because there’s always a good reason. (And by “good” I don’t mean “laudable.” I mean “sensical.”) The emotions that arise when a student does something irritating are never, ever random. They are, rather, awesomely precise. If we can describe what we experienced in neutral terms that make the experience appear innocuous and then wonder how our (and our student’s) strong emotions relate to that description, we are looking for good reasons. “Why would Mindy send me such an email? It’s totally out of character! And what if, when she sent that email, she was feeling the way I felt when I received it? Namely, frustrated and angry? Why might she be feeling frustrated and angry about the assignment she announced she was not going to do? Ohhhh. I get it. I bet she was having trouble doing the assignment. And she wanted to get it done right.”

That’s a good reason.

Make a guess

Once we’ve settled on one or more possible reasons for our (and, by extension, our student’s) strong emotions, we can make a guess. One way to make a guess is to float it by the student. “Hey,” we can say after class the next day. “I was surprised by your email last night. I’m guessing you were pretty stressed out about the homework assignment.” The student’s reply will verify or nullify our hypothesis. In either case, we will have collected more valuable data that can illuminate the current difficult experience and help us handle others better. Another way to make a guess is simply to act on it. Having received a maddening email from an anxious student, and having looked for a good reason for that email, and having settled on the guess that the student was freaked out because she couldn’t complete the assignment the way she wanted to, we could send her an email that directly addresses that anxiety. “No worries. We’ll figure it out tomorrow.” Again, the student’s response will provide valuable data about the accuracy of our guess.

Good guesses can defuse difficult situations in a heartbeat.

Listen

Listening means paying attention to the new data our students provide once we’ve acted on our guesses. It means suspending the urge to take students personally, to evaluate or judge what they say, or to plan our rejoinder (when we listen to ourselves in our heads, not our students). It means detaching from students enough to let them be and to let ourselves simply see (and hear) them without threat or judgment. It means respecting boundaries, staying calm in the knowledge that whatever our students say or do, we can choose to react responsibly out of our own wisdom and maturity. It means taking in what students say but also double-checking to make sure we got it right. So, really, listening means communicating, not just through words but through respectful inaction.

Self-Disclose

Just so we’re keeping track: This is Thing #6. And it’s a tricky Thing. Self-disclosing means sharing relevant aspects of our experience with our students so as to connect meaningfully with them. What’s tricky about self-disclosing is that, when a teacher does it, the disclosure must always serve the students’ purposes, not the teacher’s. “I’m having a hard time concentrating today because I had a fight with my wife this morning” is a self-disclosure that does not serve students’ purposes. But “Would you mind repeating yourself? I’m sorry — I’m having a hard time concentrating today” might be more acceptable, as it conveys to students the teacher’s self-knowledge, her humanity and fallibility, as well as her willingness to take responsibility for her limitations. The latter type of self-disclosure would work only if the teacher were truly well-bounded and able to relieve students of any temptation to take care of her. That, for very important reasons that I go into elsewhere (see my post called Assumptions or, better yet, my book, The Feeling of Teaching), would be inappropriate — and, again, is what makes self-disclosing so tricky.

Plan

Why do all this work (indeed, I call these 7 Things “emotion work”) if it has no impact on the classroom?  Herein lies the value of planning. Once we have a good guess about what underlies a difficult classroom event, we can make a deliberate plan for bringing our newfound understanding back to the student(s). Our plan might include talking, self-disclosing, listening, or acting. It might involve instructional design. It might involve meeting, setting ground rules, or drawing up a “contract” with a student or a class. As I already mentioned, doing emotion work in the heat of the moment can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Doing it after hours and coming up with an informed, compassionate, effective plan for tomorrow, one that has transformed difficult emotions into a possible liberating solution, is, to put it mildly, a good use of time.

So there you have them: my 7 Things Teachers Can Do When Their Emotions Take Over. Simple, right? Go forth and use them! And feel free to leave a comment about how ridiculous it is to boil teaching and human relationships down to 7 things.

 

 

 

Invisible Work

man-person-cute-youngEmotional and cognitive development do not happen naturally; they happen as a result of hard work by caregivers, work that is, unfortunately, invisible to most.

I just finished a book that questions the traditional approach to developmental psychology. It critiques Piaget, for example, and Vygotsky, two popular theorists in the field of education. It goes into detail about Marx and Lacan and Althusser and Foucault.

Uhhhh.

I read it because I think and write about human development, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And I’m glad I finished the book, because it wasn’t until the second-to-last page that I understood why the author was so enthusiastic about “the anti-developmental project.” In a nutshell, it appears to be this:

“Babies are hard work,” the author (John R. Morss) writes on p. 157. “That work may or may not be ‘rewarding’ or rewarded, and if unrewarded may well be invisible. One consequence of that work is what we call development.”

Stay with me (and John Morss): He’s saying that, however we may feel about the work of raising or teaching children — of being what I call their “developmental partners” — that work is always in danger of going unnoticed, especially by people in power. He continues,

“If the work is done by someone other than oneself, it may appear that the results of [the] work are natural changes — the sort of natural changes we call development. A father might perhaps underestimate the work of a mother in this way. In the context of the school-aged child, both parents and teachers might ‘forget’ each others’ work in a similar manner. Developmental explanation facilitates this forgetting; it explains away.”

So a mother who has borne her son’s 45-minute-long tantrum, who has survived his emotional and physical attacks and has seen him through to a calming that allowed them to talk out what he was feeling, what he needed, and how he might go about getting his needs met differently — that mother’s exhausting work is nothing while her son’s tantrums are age-appropriate and bound to stop once he’s outgrown them?

And the teacher who overcomes fear of a particularly powerful and resistant student in her classroom by attending his sporting events, inviting him to eat lunch with her in her classroom, asking him about his interests and ambitions is extraneous, really, just a prop along the student’s natural developmental trajectory?

No, says Morss. The work that is done by caring adults counts. It is required. That is because human development is necessarily socially embedded. As my favorite psychoanalytic theorist, D.W. Winnicott, puts it, “‘There is no such thing as a baby’ — meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.” (This quote is from a book by Winnicott called The Child, the Family, and the Outside World, published in 1964). That is, development is “work” that is accomplished by at least two people: a baby and his mother/caregiver, a student and her teacher. It is not biologically programmed and is utterly dependent on collaboration with other human beings.

Of course, according to Morss, often the other human beings are women.  And, “in a bizarre, alienating twist [the caretaking woman] may come to perceive even the results of her own work as merely natural” (p. 157). Here, then, is one of the purposes of the “anti-developmental project”: for developmental partners, men and women, to recognize the absolutely essential work they do to enact and foster development in themselves and others. Their work is not “merely natural.” Without hard-working parents and teachers, babies and students simply would not grow.

Sorry for the academic lead-in to this idea, but I was pretty excited to find something useful in Morss’s book (which, by the way, is titled Growing Critical: Alternatives to Developmental Psychology and was published in 1996). My excitement isn’t about my eligibility to now be “anti-developmental” but, rather, to discover yet another expression of the belief that drives me in my work:

Being a developmental partner is hard work. This work, which is, at bottom, emotional and relational, must be seen. Teachers (and parents, and other caregivers) deserve support in doing this hard work. To deny this foundation and this necessity is to continue to fail the teachers whose job it is to help all their students, especially the most difficult ones, pursue their potential, grow and change, develop. Development is not “merely natural” but rests on the strong shoulders of people who think, feel, suffer, and care.

This difficult work must not be invisible.

 

 

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!

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.

 

Hold ‘Em!

hands-918774_1280In an age when teachers are discouraged from touching anybody, I want to exhort teachers to hold their students.

I don’t mean physical holding. I mean emotional holding. Teachers need to figuratively wrap their arms around their students, to create and protect the space around them, so their students can be safe to learn and grow. This kind of holding is actually essential for healthy emotional (and therefore cognitive) development.

My favorite psychoanalyst, Donald W. Winnicott, calls the space parents provide for their children’s growth the “holding environment” or the “facilitative environment.” Healthy holding environments “facilitate” growth and development. They are spaces in which children get to play and experiment safely; in which they get to “be alone in the presence of another”; in which they get to touch base with a trustworthy caretaker when things get rough; in which disruptive impingements are managed effectively; in which limits are established and maintained and “ruthless” tests of those limits are survived; in which reality is represented fairly and calmly and consistently. Healthy holding environments are good places.

In my view, classrooms need to be healthy holding environments. And teachers need to be healthy (in Winnicott’s words, “good enough”; in my words, “great enough”) holders. Not only must teachers provide an environment in which students can experience both structure and creativity, but teachers must be prepared to manage the testing and oppositional behaviors their students will inevitably enact as they come to grips with limits, reality, responsibility, and the existence and rights of others.

But classrooms should not be the only holding environments. In my view, the entire school should be a healthy holding environment. Just as children can play their parents off one another, they can play their teachers and administrators off one another. Teachers (and, whenever possible, parents) need to work together to hold students in ways that facilitate their growth.

That’s kind of obvious, I think. What’s not so obvious is the toll such holding can take on teachers. For holding can be INCREDIBLY HARD WORK. It’s exhausting and maddening to be resisted; it’s exhausting and maddening to be disobeyed; it’s exhausting and maddening to be interrupted, questioned, sassed, hated, and manipulated while all the time maintaining high academic standards and experiencing the relentless pressure to produce acceptable scores on mandated exams.

On top of all that, it can be shocking and traumatizing to encounter students whose psychic contortions have already begun: who have been abused, have witnessed abuse, are engaged in self-destructive or other-harming behaviors, are retreating from adults even as they desperately need caring containment from them. Increasingly, it seems, students come to school having seen and experienced situations that are unfathomable. If teachers and schools do not hold these students effectively, who will?

All this to say: It can be exhausting and maddening and shocking and traumatizing to be constantly adjusting and learning, seeing and feeling, growing and developing.

That’s true for students (which is why teachers need to be great-enough holders). And it’s true for teachers (which is why teachers need to be held, too).

What, then, would a school that is a true holding environment for teachers look like: What do teachers need to feel seen, supported, contained, safe, empowered? How can the development of students and teachers and administrators be facilitated simultaneously in schools? How can each of these constituencies be held caringly as they struggle to grow and learn? Where would parents fit in?

As I continue to grow and learn and take risks as a parent, teacher, therapist, and entrepreneur, I have become convinced that everyone needs to be held by someone at least some of the time. This is no weakness. It is a developmental necessity.

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