Expectations 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!