Anger and Shame in my Teaching, a sort of anti-liberation-math

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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!

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10 thoughts on “Anger and Shame in my Teaching, a sort of anti-liberation-math

  1. jlmag says:

    Wow. This is such a brave and vulnerable post, exploring the “messy emotions” we prefer not to talk about or admit to as dedicated teachers. I find it fascinating that you see your anger as a form of (protection against) shame. I, too, find myself angry, especially when grading essays. I make my expectations for the essays so clear; I make myself a available to students at every stage of their essay process — and I STILL grade essays where I am sure I’ve spent more time grading than the student did writing. And I find myself angry that the student has not given me his/her best work. And I think my anger has to do with confusion and helplessness. WHY? Did the student submit this? Did he/she not believe me when I said that writing essays is HARD and time consuming? Did they not believe me when I set out my expectations and walked them through how to meet them? Are they too afraid to come and talk with me about a draft? Do they not care about their learning or grades? Did something happen that meant they whipped it off? If so, why not contact me for an extension? I am confused by substandard work; I HATE giving failing grades — and somehow, that combination makes me angry …

  2. clenora says:

    #libmath I find it wonderful that you were able to post an openly honest, yet painful assessment of your feelings on this student/teacher relationship. As a student, it is easy to forget that the highly educated and “all knowing” instructor is a person with feelings who is just as vulnerable as I am. I think that at the level that we are at in a college setting it is far more realistic to have a more open teacher/student relationship, and beable to be more honest with each other on what is expected by the student. I think that this openness can only help the learning process. I know that there has to be expectations and a degree of respect that goes both ways. But, lets be real, we are students in college and we need this class and should respect that. I have told my own daughter when she has complained that her teacher is being mean to her, “your teacher doesn’t get paid any more to be mean to you, so do the work”. I appreciate this post. J. Morin

  3. suevanhattum says:

    I have to repeat what’s already been said: Wow. So brave and honest. I think your analysis is right on.

    In my very small discrete math class (12-14 students), only 5 showed up on Wednesday. I found it depressing. It made me wonder what I was doing wrong. I don’t think it’s useful to say that in class, because the students are then likely to trust me less. (I have already been very open that it’s my first time teaching this course – and also that I love the topics in this course.) They have a test coming up this coming Wednesday. I’ll work hard to make it accessible, and I’m afraid they won’t put in enough effort and will do badly. I’m not looking forward to it. I feel helpless about their unwillingness to work at math.

  4. riled1 says:

    I definitely also experience anger, particularly when grading, and it also produces a similar set of questions in me about my own failures, etc. And yet I don’t think I can eradicate anger from teaching/learning relationships, nor do I think I should I seek to do so. What I do with my anger matters – I don’t want to distance myself from my students or punish them… but I want to find more creative and productive avenues for dealing with this anger. I think a lot about grades – my institution requires me to grade students, and I know it undermines my pedagogy in significant ways. I wonder if I could somehow eliminate grades where the anger would go. I think it would still be there, but I wonder if it would open up different ways of dealing with it?

  5. Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

    Thanks so much to all of you for the great comments! I like knowing that I have some company in the difficulty of all of these issues. The longer that I teach, the more I see teaching as just part of my overall “meta” struggles in life. I think this kind of anger is ubiquitous and probably comes from lots of sources.

    I love the thought about grades — I do get angry about having to grade students and judge them. I think its oppressive to the students, and then I become and instrument of that oppression which isn’t so nice for me or them. I wonder what would happen if we didn’t have to grade. I wrote some things about using alternative grading methods to help here: http://liberationmath.org/2013/01/13/reading-grading-student-writing-by-peter-elbow/ but no grades would be even better.

    It’s interesting that helplessness comes up so much — I think students feel another side of this same helplessness. It may be helplessness of not knowing what is going on with students, or how to impact them, or how to feel respected by them. How do we really navigate respect in this situation where there is such a disparity of power?

  6. Belinda says:

    Wow, I loved reading this. Thank you for writing. I am a home school teacher and parent and step parent, and was an esl teacher for years…..separating the connection – relationship from the outcome – behaviour is so hard. I enjoy the study of living math and am beginning a process of potentially building mentorship-type classes to rekindle love and erase shame around mathematics…..love this blog.

    • Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

      Yay! Thanks for the reply. Since all parents also teach, I think we’ve all experienced the anger that can flare up when we are actually trying to help. I hate it when I snap at my kids when I’m trying to help them learn something, but that doesn’t keep me from doing it! I think part of the solution for me at least has to be to see that it is happening, and start to get curious about why I would feel angry when my kid (or a student in my class) doesn’t understand something or doesn’t do what I wanted them to do.

      Love your idea of mentorship-style classes, so please keep my updated. I’d love to hear more!

  7. Linda says:

    Angela, I love your blog and don’t get to follow it as faithfully as I would like. It speaks to me both as an educator and as the parent of a child who has/and continues to struggle with math.

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