Teaching ‘Heart-First’

Teacher Training is a Great  Opportunity for Personal Development

I have long been an advocate of including elements of emotional development in teacher training. Rather than pretending that teaching is one-way street and that teachers show up in classrooms fully emotionally developed and so able to deal with the slings and arrows of student’s disruptive behaviour, I believe we need to do two things.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that this is not always the case and that teaching is emotionally taxing. Part of the many hours teachers spend on the business of teaching is given to processing the nuanced emotional relationships they enter into with their students.

Like it or not, we all enter into relationships with our feelings. When we meet someone new we get a sense of them and then test that initial sense against our unfolding experience of them. In any long-term relationship, we develop a subtle system of interpersonal ‘language’. Very little of this language is expressed in words. Much of it predicated on responding to how the other person ‘seems’. And with our own children we can calibrate their mood without having to ask how they are. We are emotional creatures.

So, secondly, when we accept our that emotional exchanges are part of the way we get to know others, we need to introduce teachers to the idea that their teaching journey can also be an exciting journey of self-development and discovery. A place where they meet and get to know more of themselves.  There are few other professions that offer practitioners the opportunity to study, at close hand, the way they respond and interact emotionally with others.

Teacher Training: An exciting journey of self discovery

Teachers are called upon to use their emotions every day, why not give them the heads up about how they work. Properly supervised, aspects of mental health that are currently framed as ‘illness’ and seen as something to bear can be reimagined as a transformative and enlightening journey of self-discovery.

Rather than breed a cohort of naval gazers, this approach could produce a raft of teachers that are able to understand the fundamental relationship between themselves and their students. Such practitioners would be less entangled in their own internal processes. In the classroom, they would understand how they and their students function emotionally and they would, potentially be less inclined to get tripped up or become wearied by some of the more toxic exchanges that can take place in any learning environment. They would be able to rationalise and contextualise aspects of blame and guilt and separate harmful perceptions from manageable realities.

Teachers need clear heads.

We all know that when we have something troubling us, it can invade our thinking. It’s hard at times to think clearly. We can become distracted and sometimes end up in a cul-de-sac of ideas where it’s hard to turn around and see a way out. These distractions are worse when they are linked to personal or internal conflicts. Worse, we begin to imagine these thoughts and problem only exist for us alone.

We are not alone

When I worked in schools I often had the feeling that the problems I had with students were mine alone. I looked at other teachers and they seemed to be doing great. They didn’t seem to have the same problems as me. They didn’t seem to worry as much. I know now, from greater experience, extensive research and my coaching practice that this is not the case. Teacher recruitment and retention figures bear this out. But with nowhere to go with our internal struggles, with no one to tell, our distractions can tip into distress and obsessions and then into self-blaming and isolation.

Teachers bring themselves, their past experience, their aspirations and values along with their ability to create and sustain relationships.

Teachers need clear heads. They step into a classroom to take care of the pupils minds. They bring the plan, the subject matter but they also bring the rules, the routines, the practices and culture of learning to the room. They set the tone, work with the ‘atmosphere’, use their emotional radar to gauge how the learning is landing. They bring much more that he academic brain, they bring themselves, their past experience, their aspirations and values along with their ability to create and sustain relationships.

Schools are micro-climates, like small villages or cities. They are a matrix of intertwined relationships. Despite the fact that for the most part, all of the cultural regalia of schools is similar from institution to institution (timetables, division of subjects, closed classrooms, break time etc etc) no two schools are alike. For obvious reasons. Location, numbers, levels of funding differ.

Schools are a matrix of intertwined relationships.

One fundamental reason no two schools are alike is because they have different personalities working in and leading them. And in the same way a school is a matrix of relationships it is also a network of personalities. And like any institution or organisation, a school is merely a set of people behaving in a particular way in order to achieve a shared objective. And because humans are sensitive and emotional creatures, any organisation can be seen as a place where our emotional selves play a significant part.

We do not leave our emotional selves at home

When a person goes to work, they do not leave their emotional self at home. Likewise, teachers do not leave their emotional selves at the door of the classroom. The heart of the relationship between teacher and learner is essentially an emotional one. It needs to be. That’s how we roll!

Humans are sensitive beings, there is no getting away from it. A very small proportion of the way we communicate is anything to do with the words we speak. So much more is to do with body language and tone of voice. That’s before we begin to consider the receptive state of mind of the listener, their own listening agenda based on things like the subject matter, your gender, time of day, past experiences etc.

What is clear from psychology is that humans are sensitive because they are forever checking for changes in their immediate environment. Stephen Porges talks about ‘Neuroception’, the scanning that goes on in our background autonomic system, for potential threats. Canon, wrote about Fight Flight Freeze and John Bowlby said that it isn’t just major threats that we are concerned about but any detectable increase in the level of threat in our environment. Fear and anxiety can have a devastating effect on our ability to learn. If we are fearful, we are preparing to escape and we will do that by any means available. In a classroom, if we can’t get out of the room literally, we will escape in other ways; daydreaming, doodling, disrupting or, as we know from some children, we will get ourselves sent out of the room!

Driven to Connect and Share

Luckily, what social psychology also tells us is that we are social creatures and that we are also driven to connect, create relationships and share ourselves with one another. We co-create families, extended families, friendship groups, communities…and schools.

I know that many schools have psychologists or counsellors available for students and that some have the same facility for teachers. Yet, there is a stigma around seeing a psychologist or taking your troubles to a counsellor that places the seeker in a position of patient, less than, someone who is not coping. This is less than helpful. It’s harmful.

I wonder if we can reverse this idea.

Stepping towards greater understanding of ourselves and others

Can we see those who seek help as courageous people ready to take real personal risks in the service of self-development. The journey to a therapist or counsellor or psychologist could be reframed as a step towards greater understanding not only of the self but of the students, of the system, of the way we connect, collaborate and share. It can be an examination of how to keep moving forwards rather than get stuck in patterns from the past. It can free the mind to really think, without distraction, without self-judgement but with an agenda just to understand how to take the next step.

In the safety briefing on an aeroplane we are asked to take care of ourselves before we take care of the children. Even though schools are places where we say we want learning to take-off and for students to reach for the stars both socially and academically, we are still stuck on the ground when we think about emotions.

There will be no teaching if there are no teachers. There will be little emotional development unless we help develop teacher’s understanding of how emotions influence learning and how this shows up in their own emotional lives.

Next: Proposals for a courageous future.


Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Behaviour Management, Career development, Classroom Success, Mental Health, NQT, NQT's, Student behaviour, Teacher Development, Wellbeing

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