Teaching from the Heart

Several years ago, sitting in the kitchen of a hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland on a rainy Christmas Eve, I was engrossed in a book that explained teaching as an emotionally demanding profession. Oh, I thought, well of course.

When I first started teaching, I remember thinking that my time with students was a bit like an improv show. You have a plan that is more of an outline because it needs enough flexibility for nothing to go according to plan. You’re working with diverse groups of students for a specific amount of time and each group is somewhat different and requires varying amounts of time on different activities, but you’re time-bound regardless. Whatever happened before the lesson may or may not be relevant to the tone in the room that day, and whatever is in store later may or may not make an appearance. You never know exactly who you’ll get or how they’ll respond, and if certain students are missing, the whole dynamic could change. So you need a plan that is clear enough to create a predictable environment and effectively use the time available, but you also need enough tools in your toolbox to be immediately flexible. You are always, and I mean always, thinking on your feet. Sounds like an improv show to me!

What makes teaching emotionally demanding is not only that you are constantly “reading the room” and responding accordingly, but that it is relentless. One class leaves and another enters, requiring a change of pace, change of style, change of content. A lesson might have gone poorly but there’s no space for the teacher’s emotion or sufficient reflection during that lesson, in which the teacher is likely trying to figure out what to change while simultaneously managing the current environment. Add to this that young people (any people) have a range of wants and needs that may or may not align with those of the whole class or of the teacher. If a student needs to talk in the five minutes of passing time between lessons during which the teacher thought they might be able to go to the washroom, the washroom will just have to wait.

And this does not even reflect the critical point that students need and deserve someone who is calm, collected, organized, and happy to see them, regardless of how the teacher might actually be feeling. Every interaction, even within the same lesson, should be a new interaction, which can be hard to do. After all, teachers are humans and have feelings even though they are not able to respond to them. Teachers can’t leave the room when a situation becomes stressful or unpleasant. They can’t take a breather to gather their thoughts and they can’t pivot to a different topic when they don’t know how to answer. They can’t pin failure on someone else, separate themselves from someone causing a problem, or attend to anything else that might be on their minds. This is what makes teaching emotionally demanding, and this is why I need quiet when I get home. And to sit down, just for five minutes, because I may not have sat down all day.

So it was a relief to read a book that described my daily experience, all the trials and the joy, the uncertainty and the real love that goes into what I do. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Three very recent examples come to mind to illustrate what I mean.

Just the other day while on my bike, I found myself thinking of a particular student who I find emotionally demanding. Her moods are volatile and need to be managed very carefully (and it’s fortunate that she wears her heart on her sleeve), she is often deeply affected by any number of things, she fixates on minutiae, and it can be hard to approach her about the significant academic concerns that she is doing her best to avoid because of the high likelihood of setting her into a spiral. (And this is just one example of one student in one class.)

Yesterday this student asked if she could stay for a few minutes after school to talk about a personal issue. She wanted to talk to me because I teach psychology, she said. Years of questions framed exactly like this have led me to respond very cautiously and always with some trepidation. I do teach psychology, but I am not a psychologist. I am not a therapist, I am not a social worker, I am not trained to help anyone through crisis. Often the best I can do is refer the student to someone who can actually help them. But because I teach psychology, and perhaps because I listen, students think I know things and they come to talk.

As it turned out, and it took me greatly by surprise, this student wanted to talk about difficulties in communication with some of her relationships. She did not specify or provide any details, but explained that she is bothered by communication problems that certain people do not see the same way that she does. She wanted a right answer for how to proceed; she wanted affirmation that she was doing the right thing. We talked about communication styles and preferences, about respecting what people are telling us even when it’s not what we want to hear, and about setting boundaries. We didn’t find a right answer and she left, about 15 minutes later, clearly more comfortable with the idea that there isn’t a single answer, much less a right one.

Musing over this interaction last night, I found myself surprised that a student who is so reactive and volatile was quiet, thoughtful, and reflective when discussing a complex personal problem. She had insights I wouldn’t have expected and was intentionally discreet, showing a greater level of self-regulation that I had previously seen from her. The interaction allowed me to understand her differently, to see a different side of her, and this is perhaps something I can tap into the next time she’s having a rough day and brings that into class.

Teaching is comprised of dozens and dozens of relationships, all of which are enacted at once. And an emotionally demanding element of teaching is being the right person for each of those relationships, each and every time. After all, we are not equals and we are not peers. This is what I mean when I say that every interaction should be a new interaction. The student above should have my listening ear any time she asked for it, even on a day that had already been challenging.

Today, for example, after setting the rest of the class a task, I pulled two students out into the hall after asking them three times to change a behaviour. I had found what they were doing really frustrating and told them so. I am rarely upset in class, and can honestly only think of a couple of instances, but today I was and I could feel it through my whole body. It was an effort to keep my voice very quiet and very steady, and I could feel my elevated heart rate for several minutes after we all returned to class. I don’t know exactly why I was so bothered and it bears further thinking about, but I do know that I was very aware of how I behaved towards these students for the remainder of our lesson, and it took deliberate effort to act as though nothing had happened. Perhaps they felt the same, and it was perhaps as difficult for them to ask questions as it was for me to respond as clearly and gently as I normally do. But after the first “normal” interaction, the ice was broken, and the tension I felt diminished. When one of the students asked a second question, I knew we were alright and we carried on like before.

I can be upset at a behaviour, but this does not mean being upset at a young person learning to regulate their behaviour. When I took these students into the hall, I asked them to consider time and place and explained why this, our current context in class, was not it. Teaching is teaching, all the time, and we cannot expect students to know something if we haven’t made it very clear what it is we want them to know.

Considering what transpired between the end of the school day yesterday and the first lesson of the day today, I had to laugh when a student in my second lesson asked how I can always be so happy. I gave two answers and they’re equally true. First, I explained, what my students see comes with how I see my job as a teacher, regardless of how I might actually be feeling, and I acknowledged that there’s some level of performance in it. And second, I assured the students listening, I love what I do and am genuinely so glad to be able to do it.

My students looked a little distressed at the first answer and much happier about the second, but I think it’s good to have a bit of realism. Teachers are supposed to be teachers around students, and that largely means one thing. One very complex, multi-dimensional thing, but one thing. Teachers are not expected to be human because humanness would require us to acknowledge that complex, multi-dimensionality that we bring to the classroom as part of us and tuck away somewhere deep inside.

This is what I mean when I say that teaching is an emotionally demanding profession, and this is something I wish more people could appreciate. It’s more than lesson plans, more than marking papers, more than meeting with parents or sitting in faculty meetings. It’s more than working with students, writing letters of recommendation, and redoing unit planners. Teaching comes from the whole heart and I can think of no other way to do it.

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