Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: working through (page 1 of 2)

Avoiding the Work

Danger_Enter_At_Your_Own_RiskTeachers can avoid their work just as masterfully as students can.

One of the remarkable benefits of Teacher Support Groups is their power to reveal classroom dynamics through the teachers’ own actions in the group. This power is called “parallel process,” or the existence in one setting of the very same processes or dynamics that exist in another setting.

This story is a perfect example.

To recap: Long ago and far away, in a Teacher Support Group, Abigail revealed something “dark” about herself. She confessed she can get sarcastic with students when she’s frustrated. This move — the move from generous teaching to frustration to sarcasm in the classroom — is a fascinating one. And Abigail is not the only teacher who makes it. Right? Not every teacher gets sarcastic when she’s frustrated with a student, but plenty do.

In a Teacher Support Group, this is a move I want to look into. I want to try to figure out what the move from generosity to frustration to sarcasm means about the teacher, her students, and the relationships governing this moment in the life of the classroom. I know from experience that looking into such “darkness” inevitably rewards us with insights that can change a teacher’s (and hence a student’s) life.

But this support group did not want to look into Abigail’s darkness. They didn’t wonder about Abigail’s emotions. They didn’t ask about the relationship between frustration and sarcasm. They didn’t share similar experiences. What they did was offer advice. They told Abigail what she could do to force the students to talk. They focused on the desired pragmatic outcome — student compliance — and avoided the data within Abigail’s darkness.

Interestingly, they did everything they could to fill Abigail’s silence with ideas about how she could prevent her students‘ silence.

Intellectualization, a High-Level Defense

I completely understand this phenomenon. Who wants to voluntarily enter into a person’s darkness? The teachers were being helpful, generous, and caring toward Abigail, whom they respect and admire. But this urge to talk about teaching rather than dwell in the actual experience of teaching can be a form of avoidance. I would even go so far as to say it can be a high-level defense against anxiety: intellectualization, where words and ideas distance us from unsettling emotions and feelings.

Don’t get me wrong: There are many benefits to talking about teaching. Talking about teaching can give us a feeling of control where we actually have none, where emotions arise and drive behaviors we can’t help and often don’t like. It allows us to flirt with ideals and speculate about what could be, to generate new ideas and get excited about them. These are all good things. I actually love talking about teaching.

But, in a Teacher Support Group, the experience of teaching — the emotions, the feelings — is the base metal that group process transforms into gold. And, while most of the group members in this story were most comfortable simply hammering at the metal lump, Abigail went for the gold. “I think I figured something out,” she said.

How She Figured It Out

We already know what Abigail figured out — that the students were probably disgusted by being asked to demonstrate they knew what their teacher already knew they knew — but I want to take a moment to lay out how Abigail figured it out:

  • She considered her own “dark” emotions
  • She allowed as how her students might have had the same emotions
  • She wondered why her students might have had those emotions
  • She made a good guess that resonated with her

She turned her darkness — her sarcasm, her frustration, her contempt for (and fear of?) her students’ silence — into insight: the very good possibility that her students were telling her through their inaction that they themselves were frustrated and contemptuous of her “ridiculous, time-wasting” assignment. That they expected more of her. That they respected themselves and their time.

Wow. Who knew darkness could carry such useful information?

I didn’t mention this parallel process to the teachers in the support group at the time (it can be quite difficult to discern these processes in the moment), but it is one of the reasons I love this story. Teachers can avoid hard work just as their students do. Who can blame them? But noticing one’s very human tendency to avoid what is difficult gives teachers first-hand perspective on their own students’ resistance. It can help teachers make sense of their students’ actions; it can dissolve frustration and sarcasm; it can activate empathy and understanding; and it can lead to the kind of relational alignment that makes teaching and learning most fruitful.

Pure gold.

Labels

labelsI say: Down with labels!

Last summer or maybe the summer before, I read the first half of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I really liked the first half, as I recall, because I had so many gratifying moments that sounded like this: “Oooh! Oooh! That’s me!” Which is a little weird, because I don’t consider myself introverted. I’m fairly outgoing.

I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t stand the second half of the book. So I stopped reading and gave the book away in disgust. I don’t remember exactly what turned me off, but, looking back at the Table of Contents (online), I’m willing to bet it was this: the rush to reify — to make real, to etch in stone — the category of “introvert” (and, by comparison, “extrovert”) as something fixed in the brain or in our genes or in our personalities.

This need to build walls around an identity makes me very uncomfortable. One reason, of course, is that it invites people to oversimplify themselves. It can be so relieving to find a label that seems to capture and explain one’s experience! I have found that a mental health diagnosis can have this effect on clients. I myself hope and pray every time I take my son to the doctor that he has strep throat because that label means easy treatment. Labels, in their limited ways, can be quite helpful.

But, once we get our hands on labels, we can turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. A student with a learning disability can quickly learn to avoid certain problems because he comes to believe (and, sadly, so do others) that he is too dumb or limited or incapable to do them. A child who decides he hates sports (because his father loves them) deprives himself of a certain brand of pleasure for the rest of his life. (Here’s that story — it’s a good one.) A teacher who refuses to delegate responsibility loads herself down with her own competence and implicitly labels others as “less competent” or, worse, “incompetent.”

Which leads me to another reason why labels and walled-in identities make me uncomfortable: Labels are way too easily ranked. It’s almost a human reflex: Let’s take two opposite labels like “introvert” and “extrovert” and compare them! And let’s make the one I identify with the better one! Oooh! Oooh!

I think the author of Quiet wanted to normalize introversion, to make introverts feel better about the label. That’s fine — except when people start ranking. Once I’ve decided I possess a certain quality, especially when I think that quality makes me look good, it’s way too likely that I will avoid self-reflection and just lay claim to the identity, no more questions asked. Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset, has discovered this in teachers, much to her dismay. A colleague of hers calls it “false growth mindset”: when teachers who routinely display “fixed” mindset characteristics put themselves in the “growth” mindset category. A kind of ironically “fixed” way of seeing oneself.

My biggest complaint about labels is this: they allow us to overlook the adaptations that underlie the labels. Even if we consider a label we’ve adopted — like “introvert” or “growth mindset” or “grit” — to be good, the underlying adaptations may not be.

Here’s an example: I recently ran a Teacher Support Group where I stepped out of my standard facilitator role. Rather than act in a restrained fashion that emphasized observation, reflection, and brief and efficient bouts of psychoeducation, I became impassioned. I began to “exhort.” I went into full-fledged pep talk mode. In short, I let ‘er rip.

My behavior felt relevant and justified at the time. (After all, I am outgoing.) But no sooner had I left the meeting than I began feeling something terrible: shame. I worried that I had surprised or insulted or bored the teachers. I worried that my self-image did not match their image of me and that my confidence was completely unwarranted. They knew the truth about me and I couldn’t even see it! I felt vulnerable and exposed. As I wrote in my TSG journal immediately afterwards, “I felt I took up too much space.”

Let’s pause for a second. These uncomfortable responses I had to “taking up space” were raw data about myself. They pointed to beliefs that I have created about myself over time. They are bedrock and, therefore, extremely useful.

Now let’s let the tape roll again. If I were someone who wanted to escape these uncomfortable responses and ignore my bedrock beliefs (true or not), I had two very good options. One would have been to beat  the shame down by saying to myself, “Hey! No problem. I’m an extrovert. It’s just how I am. The teachers can take it. They have no choice: It is what it is.”

The other option would have been to say, “This is what I get when I push out of my comfort zone. What I should have done and need to do in the future is act more like an introvert. I should not have taken up space, presumed that I knew something important, imposed myself on other people. I should have stopped talking and, instead, sat in supportive silence. I should have been Quiet.”

These two adaptations make good use of labels. The first adaptation banishes negative feelings by justifying problematic or risky behavior; the second prevents negative feelings by avoiding problematic or risky behavior. The first is not particularly fair to the teachers; the second is not fair to myself. Both adaptations, both uses of different labels, accomplish the same thing: stagnation. Status quo. Zero growth.

There’s a third way, a middle way, a way that transcends personality type or mindset or grit. It’s the way I call “emotion work.” It’s what I do to turn negative feelings into understanding that empowers me to grow.

When I do emotion work, I look for the “good” reasons for my emotions. In the case of my TSG, my shame arose from a number of bedrock beliefs that I have: As a therapist and group facilitator, I’m supposed to make space for others. As a teacher, I value supporting others in coming to their own conclusions, not in agreeing with (or caving to) mine. As a child, I learned to yield intellectually to others — or else. As a woman, I have been trained to protect others from my power.

These beliefs, even the self-undermining ones, can all come in handy under certain circumstances. It’s essential that I make space for my therapy clients and my students so I can listen and learn and so they can come to their own conclusions. As an adult child, I can develop strategies for avoiding intellectual bullies. As a woman, I can tone down the powerful personality in high-stakes situations —  such as when I’m negotiating a salary and want to avoid activating my employer’s gender bias.

But these beliefs are maladaptive in other situations. Sometimes my clients and students need to know what I’m thinking. As an adult, I can choose not to be a fearful child. My power as a woman is a force for incredible good in the world. Paying attention to my raw data makes me resilient and invites me to be deliberate and strategic. It also makes me more centered and connected.

Blanketing all these contradictory and complex beliefs under a label robs me of crucial raw data about myself. I mean, come on: “Grit” in one situation is just plain stubbornness in another. Sidestepping the raw data can make me feel better about myself; it can certainly protect me from emotional pain (it sucks to feel shame). But it also prevents me from growing, from taking risks and discovering my own nuances that encourage me to — dare I say it? — take up my space with confidence, compassion, flexibility, and wisdom.

Popular enthusiasm about labels worries me because it’s just a whole lot easier to take on a label than it is to do emotion work.  Blanketing nuance, overlooking the bedrock truth, enacting a distracting adaptation doesn’t really help anybody. It just perpetuates stagnation, status quo, and zero growth. I, for one, find these outcomes unacceptable — especially in schools.

 

 

Metacogniscience

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A new term for something teachers should have.

A teacher I work with coined a new term a few weeks ago. She and five of her colleagues and I were talking about how we “make it so” in our classrooms: that is, how our expectations, shaped by our earliest experiences of emotional survival, determine what we perceive and how we interpret our perceptions. You’re trying a new (risky) activity in class today? New (risky) activities make you nervous because you’re demonstrating self-confidence (and you believe deep down – because you’ve been taught this over the years – that you’re not allowed to be self-confident)? You go into class and make a mess of the lesson then feel terrible and yet validated by its failure? That’s you making it so. That’s you infusing your work with your maladaptive expectations of the world and making those expectations come true. That’s you enacting a self-fulfilling prophesy.

But that’s not what this post is about. (Maybe another time.) This post is about the label this teacher came up with for the work we were doing. Metacogniscience. A blend of metacognition and omniscience.

A remarkable term. Let us unpack it.

Metacognition and Omniscience

As you may know, metacognition is knowing about your knowing, thinking about your thinking. It is lifting up over your ideas or thought processes and looking down at them so as to scrutinize their workings. Metacognition gives you a more global perspective on your experience of thinking and knowing; it allows you to consider how you know or think, which can help you be more deliberate and critical in your knowing and thinking going forward.

Omniscience, of course, is knowing everything. Here are the two definitions I found in my beloved Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (published in 1984):

(1) having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight

(2) possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Yep. That’s omniscience all right.

So what’s metacogniscience? And why should teachers have it?

I propose that metacogniscience is the experience of rising above or stepping back from one’s experience of living (in a classroom, an office, a romantic relationship, a family, etc.) and

  • becoming as infinitely aware of that experience as possible
  • making one or more good guesses about what that experience might mean
  • taking steps that are informed by these well-constructed guesses

and

  • feeling amazed at how the guesses you make can fill in the gaps between you and others and lead to a feeling of complete and accurate knowledge.

Metacogniscience.

Teachers, of course, are not the only people who can use metacogniscience. Parents can use it when their kids act out. Bosses can use it when an employee falls apart. School administrators can use it with distraught parents. Lovers can use it when their intimate bond is threatened.

The teacher who coined this term really liked having the opportunity to go “metacogniscient” with her colleagues about their patterns in the classroom – the entrenched ways they relate to and interact with their students – and, importantly, to help each other revise these often hindering patterns. “Metacogniscience” felt like the exact right term for this work (what I call emotion work) because emotion work involves going meta, for sure, but also results in a sometimes miraculous feeling of clarity about how important relationships are functioning.

And this clarity leads, inevitably, to more attuned, rewarding, and effective teaching.

For me, the best part of this story – and of the term metacogniscience itself – is that it was born of a Freudian slip of sorts. The term this teacher was going for was “metacognitive,” but her felt sense of the work we were doing apparently called for something bigger. The root of “omniscience” that the teacher tacked on to “metacognitive” hinted, I’m guessing, at what she felt about emotion work: that, by examining emotions and relationships, we were able to know what is normally unknown. And I’m guessing – I’m hoping – she felt empowered by it.

I think this empowering metacogniscience is something teachers should have.

Going Metacogniscient

If you want to try going metacogniscient, here’s how: If you’re a teacher (or a parent or any other person) who is suffering in a relationship with a student or colleague or parent (or anyone else), try writing your story down. Change the names if you want to and be as precise as possible about what you’re feeling. Try making this flip and making that flip. Based on your guesses about yourself and the other person, come up with a plan you’re willing and able to try next time you encounter that person. See what happens.

If you’re having a hard time achieving metacogniscience, send your story to me. We can email back and forth, working our way towards a well-constructed guess. The correspondence will be confidential. And who knows? Your relief might be palpable! And, if you’re relieved, your students will be, too. A good thing all around.

I mean it. Metacogniscience works. Try it.

Making the Flip 1

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This simple emotional move can transform terrible feelings into attuned, effective teaching.

A friend of mine was suffering.

She’s a teacher. And this year she has a student who bugs her. The student is “pushy, interrupts, does not listen, and acts self-absorbed.” My friend — let’s call her Helen — has been teaching this student — let’s call him Derek — for almost a month. On the morning of her suffering her buttons were so pushed that she was actually dreading going to work.

“I’ve got to calm down about this student,” Helen said out loud to herself as she drove her kids to school. “This is a lousy way to start the year. I can’t let Derek sabotage me and my class. But I can’t stop fretting over it! I simply cannot stand this kid!”

From the back seat, Helen’s daughter piped up. “Have you talked to Betsy?”

Seriously: I love this child. But now I love her even more.

Here’s what Helen wrote to me:

Brilliant!  Of course: channel Betsy.  My student and I are fitting in a way I have not fit with a student in many years.

What Helen means, of course, is that her student is somehow managing to push her buttons because of his own emotions and needs. The “fit” allows him to communicate with Helen directly but unconsciously. Her complaining in the car on the way to school was a discharge of her own feelings; when she “made the flip” thanks to her daughter and began wondering what Derek might be feeling, she made some good guesses and, importantly, began feeling compassion instead of aversion.

He likely is not pushy, but nervous, and he likely interrupts because he is scared and vulnerable.

It is difficult to feel angry at someone you see as nervous, scared, and vulnerable. It is easy (or easier) to understand the dynamic between yourself and another person when you separate their experience from your experience and honor both.

Once I started thinking about this in terms of why we were fitting so well, then it was very easy to come up with theories about what was likely going on with him, and also why I was responding in the way I was.  I was interpreting his anxiety as criticism of my teaching. The fact that he was contacting all kinds of OTHER people about his sense of things (other teachers, my department chair) and not me, his instructor, only made it worse.

A “pushy” student who goes over his teacher’s head to get what he wants — thereby making his own teacher feel exposed, criticized, and unsafe — is offering up a lot of valuable information about himself. Helen guessed he was feeling nervous, scared, and vulnerable; is it possible that, when Derek feels this way, he goes on the attack and blames others before they can blame him? Would that account for the surprisingly strong feelings of dread, defensiveness, and uncertainty in Helen? Is he inducing these feelings in her as a means of disowning them himself and (unconsciously) letting her know how terrible he is feeling?

By the way, this trick of implanting in other people one’s own emotions is called projection. It is an amazingly common phenomenon in classrooms. Students do it (as Derek seems to have). And teachers do it (just wait until my next post!).

What’s certain is that Derek succeeded in drawing Helen’s attention to himself and prompted her, through her own intense discomfort, to make some guesses about what he was feeling and why. Once she had made those guesses, she met with Derek to have a little talk.

Here’s more or less what Helen said to Derek:

Obviously, this is not your first history class. And you are a very good student. But I’m not teaching this class in the way you’re used to. Right? I’m bringing in all this weird theory and original documents you’ve never heard of! I bet you’re feeling a little thrown off by this unfamiliar approach.

Derek’s response? “Yes!! Yes yes yes!!!”

The rest of the meeting, and a few more since then, was devoted to brainstorming about what Derek can do to adjust to and succeed in Helen’s difficult and stimulating course. Helen reports just two weeks after her revelation in the car that her attitude towards Derek and his class has completely reversed. She’s having a great time.

The key to Helen’s work with Derek was this: she made the flip. She toggled from discharging her own feelings to wondering about her student’s. Flipping from discharging to wondering is perhaps the single most important emotional move a teacher can make with a difficult student. It certainly made a world of difference for Helen — and for Derek.

How can you make the flip? What phrase or question can remind you to switch between your perspective and your student’s? Write it down. Keep it in a drawer or purse or pants pocket. Pull it out when you’re having terrible feelings. Make the flip.

And let me know how it works!

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.

 

 

 

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.

“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.

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