Sunday, June 5, 2016

Moving beyond emotions.

Emma was that 7th grade student that came into my class with a chip on her shoulder.  The twisted face and body posture was that of anger and repulsion.  She answered questions in short, one word bites. Emma seemed to thrive on her hatred of the world.  She was looking for a fight with someone or something and this made me uncomfortable on a couple of fronts.  First, I really wasn't looking forward to a fight in or around my class.  Second, I have encountered students like this before on many levels and they are not easy learners.  In fact, they tend to be the type of learner that power struggle with teachers to get out of work and make excuses for their lack of learning.

I liked Emma.  There was an obvious soft side to her and I knew there was a story behind her anger and hardened front that she portrayed.  To help her to be a success, and for me to be a success, I needed to break through the exterior to truly be her teacher. I knew it might mean that she would push me away at times, but I would be patient and wait for the right time to reach her readiness to learn.

I had a plan!

Instead of meeting her with a power struggle of my own, I would play with her anger a bit and when I saw my opportunity, I would sneak some teaching and learning in.

My approach:

I decided to meet Emma where she was each day.  I would walk by her and notice her mood and put a name to it.  For example, if she seemed angry, I would say, "having an angry day today."  If she seemed annoyed, I would say, "annoying day today." If for some reason she appeared happy, I would say, "wow, happy day today."

At first, all I would get was dirty looks.  Every time I spoke, Emma would give me a dirty look.  Eventually, as I approached her, she would give me a dirty look before I even said anything.  I think the break through happened when she would predict what I was going to say and she would beat me to my recognition of her mood.

Next, I started imitating her facial expressions without saying anything.  Emma didn't like this at first, but eventually, she would look at me and say, "stop!"  What I noticed is that when she would tell me to stop, Emma would always have a smile on her face as if she was caught and I was seeing through her mood.  It was at this point that I felt the door had opened for me to sit down and actually have a REAL conversation with Emma.

I sat down with her and asked if she was okay.  Emma seemed confused as to what I was talking about.  I reminded her about her facial expressions and body language.  Emma looked down and said that I was the first teacher to ever notice her.  I reminded her that she argues with all of her teachers so I was positive that her other teachers noticed her.  She went on to explain that she didn't feel important enough for anyone to take the time to care about her at school and at home.  Her entire life, according to Emma, had been about conflict.  As Emma explained her life at that moment, it was clear that she didn't know what to do with someone that noticed her and wanted her to be a success.

I then knew what I needed to do to move forward.  I needed to show Emma that she could be a success in small bites.  I found that little successes were easier for her to attain and much easier for her to handle as authentic.  I would recognize something that she did well each day and bring her attention to it.  I would write notes of encouragement on her assessments focusing on what she did correctly much more so that what she had incorrect. We worked like this from October until the end of the school year in May. She had gone from silent looks off arrows through my heart to small smiles and quiet conversations between classes.  Her grades went from straight Ds to straight Bs by the end of May.  On the last day of school, I even got a high five from Emma.

Unfortunately, the generalization of this intervention was minimal as Emma continued to get into arguments with other teachers, staff, and students.  She continued to get involved in Middle School Drama with other girls which caused her many consequences.  I had hoped that there might be some transfer to other areas of her school world, but at least she had one part of her day that she could look forward to and relax her tension.

As Emma starts 8th grade next school year, I am hopeful that she will mature using some of the positivity that we realized together and can ultimately transfer this to her new teachers.

Connection is so important to our students.  A student's mood has to be in a good place in order for them to think or to learn.  We cannot simply yell at a students and force them to learn.  Thought requires emotional space.  It is often our job to help the students to clear out the garbage so their is room for what we have to teach.


  1. I love this story. It is indicative of part of your special magic with students. A silly game like mirroring a student's facial expression or naming her emotions moves both of you toward honest connection between teacher and student as human beings. It breaks down the wall of indifference or angst that many students build to defend themselves from the censure of adults. You are a master bridge-builder. I would love to see more of the specific interaction (dialogue) between you and Emma! It would make this experience that much more exciting to read.

    1. I appreciate that feedback and helping me to grow with the recognition that dialog might make the post/writing more engaging. I love this idea and will work with it. Thanks JessWiz!

  2. I have known some Emmas in my time. I love that that you took the time to see beyond and through and that you didn't give up. The story is a powerful reminder to us of the success we can have with and for every child and that it is worth putting time into making connections that help them feel safe and successful especially in the smallest of tasks. Your recognition of those small success made all the difference for her during the year and I hope will make all the difference to me next year.

  3. From another teacher, with a different motivation, the naming of emotions or mimicking of facial expressions might have triggered an argument. It is clear that the same way you read students, you also emit signals for students to read that communicate your interest in their success. This is truly the ART of teaching--especially adolescents.