▲ Your passion is part of what makes you a great teacher Photo courtesy OVAN
Can a teacher help someone learn something that they themselves have little or no understanding of?
I might be able to muddle my way through a lesson about the quadratic equation, but it would be a disservice to my students (unless, of course, there was some kind of algebraic emergency at school).
Strangely, emotions are treated quite differently.
Perhaps, because we all have emotions, there’s an assumption that we’ve mastered them. It’s a little bit like our ability to walk. We don’t usually examine this skill, or teach it at school.
However, the need for remedial emotional education isn’t always so obvious.
This fact is amplified for teachers. We are in a Catch-22 of being expected to guide students through a wide spectrum of emotional skill sets without having had the benefit of similar guidance.
American education, for instance, generally only cares about emotions when diagnoses like ADHD start getting thrown around.
It’s sad, but pathology is the alpha and omega of the average American’s emotional literacy. A terrible reduction of our feelings into what is “normal and healthy” and what is assumed to be broken or diseased.
This is not to suggest that emotional disorders don’t exist. Hell, I have a couple myself. However, doesn't it strike you as troubling that pharmaceuticals have become our primary response to so many experiences?
According to the CDC, from 2005 - 2008, 3.7 percent of Americans 12 -17 took antidepressants (followed by 6.7 percent of 18 - 39 year olds, and 15.9 percent of people aged 40 - 59).
And these trends aren’t improving.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 7.5 percent of U.S. children between the ages 6 and 17 took prescription medicine for “emotional or behavioral difficulties” in 2011 - 2012.
Globally, antidepressant use has significantly increased in most OECD countries since 2000. Germany, for instance, experienced a staggering 46 percent increase in antidepressant consumption between 2007 and 2011.
Korea ranks at the bottom of antidepressant use in the OECD, which some people believe is the reason it also has the highest suicide rate. However, this assessment feels impetuous.
Clearly there is something variegated and far-reaching at work here. We are collectively struggling with how to respond to emotions - as we always have - only now we live in a world of face-paced social, technological and medical changes.
The answers to difficult questions about depression and suicide can and should include the incredible leverage that pharmaceuticals can exert. However, we cannot reduce the complexity and challenge of our emotional lives to a simple regimen of daily medication.
Any attempt to bypass the normal function of emotional expression is an act of self abuse, and that’s exactly what we seem to be doing.
▲Human beings lost in a paper jungle Photo courtesy Tookapic
When rudimentary questions about what constitutes normal feelings aren’t being farmed for their profitability, they're being treated with the same brand of revulsion and avoidance that bowel habits receive.
Did you know that if you’re not defecating at least three times a week, you may have a problem?
It’s a question that provides us with a perfectly uncomfortable segue. How do you feel about this unexpected discussion about bowel movements? Are you confused? Nauseated? Offended?
If you’ll forgive me for making a vulgar pun, how can you respond to the challenges of complex emotions if you can’t even face your own crap?
I’m not making light of a serious topic. Nor am I suggesting that you run out and floodlight people with your most intimate and challenging personal experiences.
This is simply an attempt to reach past all of the logic and sentence structure in order to connect with you emotionally, in an area we all share but rarely divulge.
Emotions can be mortifying. However, this is the bedrock of emotional relevance. You must cultivate the ability to hold space for your own uncomfortable feelings if you have any hope of navigating emotional discomfort in the classroom.
The Emotions of Your Students
Do you know the names of your students? Not the nicknames that so many ESL classes rely on, but their actual names?
Nicknames can be fun, by the way. Assuming an English language identity has its uses. However, ignorance of your student’s names is also a distancing device.
People tend to think that they can get around immutable laws of interpersonal esteem. But you can’t negotiate with the rules that govern feeling valued.
How we prioritize our attention is every bit as potent as the quality of that attention. Checking your phone instead of making consistent eye contact is all it takes to make someone feel unimportant, insignificant, or worthless - even during a casual conversation.
Imagine how a student feels when you don’t even know their name.
Your job as an emotionally relevant teacher is to reduce the aesthetic distance in your classroom. You need to move past the occasionally beneficial theater of the student-teacher dynamic in order to connect with your students as human beings.
Learn about them. Be interested in their lives. Find ways to let them express how they feel. It’s that simple.
Simple, but not easy. Not when schools pack 30 or 40 students into a sterile, off-white classroom for eight hours a day, promoting benchmarks of success that depend on timetables, efficiency, and numbers, rather than any true mastery of content.
However, this is why your students need you to reignite simple human intimacy. We’re getting lost in the insensate machinery of our education.
Start with their names.
I used a spaced repetition flashcard program called Anki. You can download it at no charge onto your PC or Android phone. Apple charges for it, but you can always browse AnkiWeb for free.
I took pictures of each of my students and then put them into Anki along with their names.
It became part of my morning routine until I had memorized them all. It might sound daunting, but I assure you that it’s not only possible to retain 120 names in a matter of a couple weeks, it’s actually easier than you think. Especially if you are driven to give your kids something this important.
I also made sure this entire process was transparent. I told my students about Anki, showed them how it worked, and described my daily efforts to know their names.
I made sure my mistakes were out in the open too. I was honest about my progress as well as my failures.
What do we do when we forget someone's name over and over? How do we communicate our embarrassment, guilt, or even shame at making such a mistake?
And this leads us to another keystone of emotional relevance: How we handle our mistakes is how we learn.
Carefully sharing our fear, vulnerability, and uncertainty promotes humility, humanity, and trust. Learning can be a very upsetting process.
And like emotional discomfort, intellectual discomfort is more than just essential. It’s part of who we are. Acknowledge that fact, if for no other reason than to reassure your students that these things are normal.
▲The relationship between learning and ignorance, light and dark Photo courtesy Tookapic
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