That time I cried

I cried with my students when one of their classmates died. I cried with my students after the 2016 election. I cried with a student when they found out their cousin had been shot. I cried with my student when they found out they were accepted into college. I cried with my student when they told me about their journey to the United States.

I remember the first time I cried in front of students. Actually I imagine I cried before this clear memory but this time I’m going to share, there were adult witnesses too.

It was years before I knew about UDL but I understood that different kids needed different things and I understood that all the differences should be available to everyone. So this 6th grade class was working on an assignment on identity. Some students were creating portraits, some were making comics, some were doing other things I cant remember. This class was small, in a significantly separate special ed program which had two instructional assistants who came with them to art. I worked hard to keep my own emotions in check with this group, my frustration hidden, my patience generous.

The students were struggling with parts of expressing their ideas. So that weekend I made a bunch of tools to help students – grids for their photographs, templates for faces, shape tracers for their comic books. In my head it was purely about the expression and those challenges. The next time we met I was quite pleased with what I made for the students. But I didn’t notice their emotions, their affect and one of the students was frustrated – whether it was because of their abilities or inabilities to express or because of something else that was happening in their lives, it didn’t matter, they were frustrated. They expressed this frustration with a string of profanity – none directed at me but I certainly felt the sting – and then they began to crumple up and rip up all the stuff I had made to help them with their expression. I asked them politely to stop and the profanity continued and so did the destruction. I was hurt. Hurt because I thought I thought I had done the right things, hurt because I had spent a lot of time and energy, and because I was hurt.. I started to tear up. I took a breath and the instructional assistants asked if I wanted to go to the hallway to get myself together. I paused for a minute and said no. I replied loud enough for all the students to hear me, “I think it’s important for me to feel freely inside the classroom. My feelings are hurt and I understand that _____ is having a tough day and they can also express their feelings.” And so I sat with the students and continued to support them in their work.

Often we are told to not express emotion of any sort with students. You’ve heard the sayings “don’t smile until November” “it’s easier to be strict and get nice than to be nice and get strict” “never let them see you cry” but as I hear these sayings shared so widely and so freely especially with new educators. I also hear David Rose’s quote “Teaching is emotional work.” We know it is emotional work. That’s why we meet up with other educators and share about our days; that’s why we either embrace or avoid the teachers lunchroom; that’s why we constantly are seeking other like-minded educators, because it is so emotional.

So then, why should we shield our students from these emotions?

My first year teaching in the high school my 5th period class was gigantic, had loads of personalities, and the course itself was kind of lame (or at least I really struggled to make it engaging to these learners). The students came in late, were disengaged and expressed their disengagement through swearing and insulting me, and overall it just wasn’t a fun time. I cried in front of this group as well, except I didn’t have an opportunity to take a walk in the hall nor was I able to consistently regulate my emotions at all. I was frustrated and felt so ineffective. (There’s a happy ending to this story that will be told another time.)

Emotions aren’t  inherently bad or good. Self regulation is a tool that helps our learning, our relationships, and our lives. If we never model emotions and self regulation with students, how will they know what it even looks like? How do we model that anger is an ok emotion when regulated using breathing techniques, asking questions, or moving to change things? Anger can lead to powerful movements and without the understanding of emotions within our lives, students may not find or see those connections.

Emotions unlock our ability to engage in anything. When we feel emotionally connected to something, say cats (I love cats!), we can and will persevere through difficult content or advanced vocabulary.  If we are having a rough day, our brains struggle to give more attention to things that we love, even cats! Zaretta Hammond talks about the chemicals in our brains that are involved with emotions and when we are stressed or angry cortisol fills our body and takes THREE HOURS to dissipate. It takes an hour and half to be able to start to engage in content. So we have to model that self regulation in order for students to be able to learn it and use it.

So as we move into the weeks of thanksgiving and towards the holidays which are always emotionally heavy, let’s really think about the ways we model emotion and self regulation with our students.

Here are some great tools that I use in my classroom and in my life:

  •  The Mood Meter – it’s an app or something you can print out and have students (or yourself!) identify where you are emotionally. 
  • Headspace or any meditation app
  • Emotional Faces 

How do you talk about or model emotions in your classroom? 

Links to David Rose’s article and Zaretta Hammond’s website and interview with her are linked above. Please look into both of them for more information.

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