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The Emotional Life of Teachers


hector j. vilaHector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners.

The other day I did what I always do at some point in the morning, black coffee in hand, the house quiet, I checked email. My day changed. There were two emails, one from a student I've known for over six years and is now in graduate school in California, the other from a colleague and friend that I've known for about 20 years.
From two ends of the teaching spectrum, both emails asked that I think about what I do and who I am. Both asked that I take responsibility for the place I hold in academia. And both emails tugged at my heart and my soul, asking that I voice what I know.

My former student's subject line was this: "check out my women's issue blog :)". The first line of her email read: "Here is your shout out!" And I proceeded to read a copy of a document titled, Social Learning Theory Lifeline." She talks about her journey as a writer, early success, change in schooling, the humiliation of suddenly being seen as a poor writer, and the ensuing depression that came with these critiques of her work.

Then she met me. "Professor Vila loved my writing," she writes. "He and I developed a special mentor relationship that still exists today, 6 years later. He was the first person in years who said that I could and should be a writer. With his belief in me, I pursued my dreams." She moved to California, became a writer and is now pursuing a graduate degree in psychology.

In the other email, my friend and colleague, during her Spring break, went out to Montauk, on Long Island, NY, and felt rejuvenated. I couldn't help myself, so I asked: why do we need to leave our work to be rejuvenated?

The work of a teacher should rejuvenate her—it should rejuvenate all of us that are teachers. Teaching requires that one's entire being be present. Roland Barthes, for instance, in his "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers," tells us that "...language is always a matter of force, to speak is to exercise a will for power; in the realm of speech there is no innocence, no safety." The teacher, upon walking into the classroom, is well aware of this—no safety, no innocence. It is definitely a will for power.

How do we interpret power in the classroom? What is the location of power in this quite sensual, moving and intensely frightening sphere called the classroom?

To answer these questions, we have to deal with a subject no one in education likes to talk about, the emotional life of a teacher. It is the unspeakable in education—that which should not be named. Yet, if anything, to be a teacher means that you will work with your senses, as well as your mind. Teaching is a science, and an art. And here lies the problem.

It is a problem of power, its representation in the classroom, and how it affects the teacher's emotional proximity to her students. In the case of my student, above, we "dove in" together, working hard, sometimes with tears, which came back to me when I read her note; and in the case of my friend and colleague, I, too, have jumped into the hard matters of the heart with her because I know for sure that the emotional life of teachers has no support, no avenues for the careful nurturing of these needs.

So let's look at power in the classroom—what it is and how we work with it, but more importantly, how it affects the emotional life of a teacher.

Institutional power, the power of the institution known as the Education System is always present, always a given; it speaks through the teacher and the teacher is it, always. A part of the teacher negotiates, psychologically, the demands of the institution, be it a public school setting, K-12, a public University or a private school. The teacher expends tremendous amounts of energy interpreting, diagnosing, and, ultimately, coming to terms with her role in the place she holds in the academy, a sphere that tries to direct and inspire, but also a sphere that asks for allegiance, subservience.

The teacher is constantly analyzing this role; it occupies a lot of her time. For this -- and many other reasons -- says Barthes, "every teacher occupies the position of a person in analysis." That is to say, a teacher, in the act of performing (teaching is a performance -- more later on this), falls into the position of the person on the couch before the psychiatrist -- she is being analyzed and she must confess. Teaching is showing; it is to show. This requires that the teacher must expose herself in order to show. This is daunting.

Barthes also tells us that "...for the teacher, the student audience is still the exemplary Other in that it has an air of not speaking -- and thus, from the bosom of its apparent flatness, speaks in you so much the louder: its implicit speech, which is mine, touches me all the more in that I am not encumbered by its discourse... Whether the teacher speaks or whether the listener urges the right to speak, in both cases we go straight to the analytic couch: the teaching relationship is nothing more than the transference it institutes; 'science', 'method', 'knowledge', 'idea' come indirectly, are given in addition -- they are left-overs."

Which means that what is left over, what is assumed to be the implicit subject of a course or a lesson, is not, in fact, what is primarily going on in a classroom. What then is the primary act in the classroom? What's going on?
If the teacher is the person on the couch being analyzed, the student is the analysant. Thus, the primary act of any classroom is to create an emotional space that is safe and sound because teachers and students must negotiate their interdependence at an emotional level. Teachers and students must sense that their emotional lives are growing, maturing, coming out, slowly. This is never obvious in tests, assessments, questions about a given equation or theme of a book, but rather, this emotive learning comes out in slight gestures—how a question is asked by a student, the silences and the reluctance to speak, how she raises her hand, where the student sits in proximity to the teacher and others, and so on.

But for the teacher, in her role as the speaker, there is a decision to be made: how close do I want to get to the student?  As the teacher analyzes her position in the academy, she is likewise forced to analyze her relationship to her students. This, too, is an ongoing analysis, an emotional inquiry into the self that asks the teacher to consider who she is and how she wants to represent the left-overs Barthes talks about -- the science, the methods, knowledge and ideas. So the first challenge of the teacher is how to perform herself, who she is and what she stands for.

In popular culture, we have two distinct models for teachers, accurately represented in Dead Poets Society and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The first is made obvious by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society: []

This is the teacher that has a deep social concern for the souls of students; this is the teacher that understands that self-actualization is why s/he is in teaching; and this is the teacher that understands that s/he must stand against the institution that exists to ensure that the conveyor belt to labor, and that the socioeconomic stratification of society, remains constant.

This romantic figure, a Quixote waving at the windmills of conformity, is reified but discarded; s/he is honored in song and story, but pushed aside and repressed, seen as dangerous to society's appetite for the status quo.
In 1976, another romantic figure-teacher, Mina Shaughnessy, wrote the classic essay, "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing." In this essay, Shaughnessy says that when we speak about teaching, we already assume that the only person that has to do some moving in the classroom is the student; we assume that the teacher is stationary and doesn't have to move anywhere, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This assumption is dangerous and contradicts what Barthes suggests is the place of the teacher.

This gives us another figure of the teacher in popular culture, quite beautifully played by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: []

This teacher, according to Shaughnessy's developmental scale for teachers -- there are 4 stages -- is stuck in what she calls GUARDING THE TOWER: the teacher is concentrating on protecting the tower, including himself / herself, from "outsiders, those who do not seem to belong in the community of learners." Many teachers are stuck here, particularly those intent on following their Power Point presentations obsessively, even reading from them, making no contact with students: []

In the second stage, CONVERTING THE NARRATIVE, the teacher, says Shaughnessy, wants to get closer to her students. But, unfortunately, the learner is seen as an "empty vessel." Here, "Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void." Of course, this is extraordinarily damaging to the teacher-student relationship and there's a greater void that's maintained: the self, the teacher's and the student's, does not delve deeper into the profound human questions of our time—What? How? Where? When? Why?

But a sensitive teacher, upon realizing that students are not responding, baffled, says Shaughnessy, arrives at the third stage: SOUNDING THE DEPTHS. Here, the teacher not only turns to her students, but to himself as well, seeking a deeper understanding of his behavior. This a harrowing turn. It is deeply emotional because the teacher questions her motives, her intent, her reason for doing what she's doing, from method to her purpose in the Education System.

After much frustration, existing in stages 1 and 2, Glenn Ford, working through stage 3, reaches his students in the classic Blackboard Jungle -- and moves closer to Robin Williams' representation of the teacher (stay with the clip, the pay-off is at the end): []

Finally, stage 4, DIVING IN. This is the most taxing and the most dangerous because, as Shaughnessy suggests, the teacher must make a decision that "demands professional courage -- the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and of his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence." We see this at the end of the Blackboard Jungle as colleagues question Ford's methods -- but one volunteers to go down this road with him. The message is clear: DIVING IN can affect others in the community, as well.

But lurking close behind this image is still Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams is dismissed; in the interim, a boy commits suicide because he cannot do what he feels he needs to do. He is punished for having passion, for loving the arts, so he feels trapped, in a cell, which then doubles for the cell of the teacher and the claustrophobia students feel when they're unable to pursue their imaginations. This is the message of Blackboard Jungle: stimulate the mind and the imagination will do the rest. Active use of the imagination can change a society because it changes people, one at a time. It's infectious.

This is exhausting for the teacher. In other professions—medicine, the law, psychiatry—there are support groups for professionals. In the Education System, the teacher must seek solace on her own—in Montauk, perhaps, or an email to a colleague. There is no support, just more challenges, more obstacles, more demands—and we deny the emotional life of the teacher, supplanting it with regimentation, standardization, homogeneity. We, in fact, reject the notion that teachers have emotional lives, which means we reject the idea that students do too. We are comforted by looking at the student from the head up, not the whole person. We think we can teach by numbers. We forget that a teacher's move from stage 1 to stage 4 is an emotional one. The repression of the teacher's emotional needs suggests that education is not interested in educating the entire being, rather it is keen on stunting growth, evolution.

A teacher, as she enters the classroom to give it voice, needs students; this is an emotional journey towards mutual self-actualization that needs various forms of support -- psychological and emotional, as well as professional, the art and the science of teaching. Institutionally, K-16, we reject the art, the sensual life of the teacher, which is why we're in the state we're in. In rejecting this side of the teacher's life, we reject her students, too. Thus we educate by rejection, oppression and punishment.  Where are we going?

To teach, as I've said above, is to show; to show is not to indoctrinate, rather it's to give information while also teaching methods by which to understand, analyze and question information. The aim of the teacher is to teach to think, to doubt, to ask questions. Don't judge students by their answers, answers are not the truth. Students -—and teachers—seek a truth that is relative. For this sensual classroom to blossom, the obstacles that currently exist that keep teachers from meaningful self-actualization have to be removed.
Impede the teacher, silence the students—and we have our world.

Is this really what we want?

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