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Last week I wrote a post on another blog about being disappointed in students, which is something I struggle with and want to eradicate. Yesterday I realized that I had misnamed the problem. It’s not disappointment I struggle with, it’s anger. Anger isn’t a professional emotion as a teacher, and it makes me feel distant and disconnected with my students. My mission in life is connecting with students, so why would I repeatedly entertain an emotion that hurts my chances at living my dreams? And I do mean that I entertain the emotion of anger. I tolerate it, nurture it, and feed it. And I don’t just do it as a teacher. I do it with my kids, getting angry when I could be connecting. I do it with my spouse and my family, getting angry when they need me.
I have been studying shame for some time now, particularly shame around mathematics, which typically means shame around math in a school setting. Shame and anger frequently occur together, often in a cycle, so I should have suspected that my problem was really anger. Here is how it works, and how it connects to shame for me.
I ask students to do certain work and I have certain expectations of them and the work they do. I can do this because of the power that I have in the classroom. This is the power that I have over their grades, and the power that I have because they have been raised in a school culture of compulsion and obedience. When they do not do the work, or they do not meet my expectations, I feel that as a threat to my social self. I feel disrespected and I feel a version of shame because, in my eyes, the has student decided that my expectation was not important to them, and thus that I was not worthwhile. The work I ask for and expectations that I have are the clearest evidence of my relationship with the students, so when that is threatened, my relationship is threatened.
I respond to that feeling of shame by getting angry. Shame is an extremely uncomfortable emotion, so people will usually seek to cover it with another emotion, and anger is a popular choice. When I am angry, I can focus on the student as the problem, rather than the hurt, disconnection, or shame that I feel as the leader of the class. Furthermore, I can blame my feelings entirely on the students. The compulsory nature of education means that they should be doing what I say, and if they don’t, it is the students that are in the wrong, not me, the helpful teacher. And even worse than that, once I am angry, I don’t just want to let the problem slide, I want the students to know that I am right and they are wrong, to punish them and to have them accept that punishment as their rightful due.
Honestly, its a gross thing to admit to, and is the opposite of everything I want to be. I suspect that we all have this kind of shadow side, working against our dreams in the background even while we strive toward them in the foreground. I’m a good and caring teacher with a mission to connect with students — why would I keep this anger and meanness around? It’s my defense against being too vulnerable. I don’t want to look at what it means when students don’t do assignments, stop participating in class, or give up. Yes, sometimes it means that the students have things going on that don’t have anything to do with me. However, it can also mean that I am failing to build my relationships with the students and failing to find genuine ways to help them build power with and through math. It can mean that I don’t have real relationships with the students at all, only a dance with the students in which they carefully display certain signals in order to get the maximum grade with the minimum of effort. I’m responsible for that dance at least as much as they are, if not a little more. Why should they not be doing this when I have to admit to often falling back on my default job as a teacher, which is to compel students to do a certain series of tasks, to assess them on those tasks, and to assign them a letter grade that they take with them as a credential or a black mark. It can mean that I’m actually hurting them through my participation in a particularly oppressive subject within an oppressive educational system.
I sure want all of your thoughts on this one, whether you are a student, a teacher, or anyone who gets in the way of their own dreams and connections!