Monthly Archives: February 2015

Heading into Emotion

I was talking with a friend the other day about the emotional and relational complexity of schools. My friend is the head of a middle/high school that serves a diverse student body – diverse socioeconomically, racially, and academically. The school is a college prep school that has succeeded in supporting its students to achieve high test scores, but the social-emotional needs of the students – and the teachers, and the administrators – are pressing.

My friend herself was feeling the strain of many school-based relationships. As she pointed out, above and beyond the thick web of relationships in classrooms — social relationships among students and with teachers, of course, but also relationships with ideas and subject matter and skills like reading and writing — there are layers and inter-layers of relationships among teachers and administrators and with parents. The complexity of this vast network of connections is mind-boggling!

My friend and I marveled at that. But what we were most concerned about is the potential for misunderstanding, acting out, avoidance, and sheer emotional exhaustion and burnout that the complex emotional and relational reality of schools contains. Schools are like huge petri dishes in which dysfunction can grow and magnify! Of course, healthy relationships can also flourish in schools. But it’s the potential for the negative that my friend and I were talking about.

More specifically, we were wondering about the ways in which healthy relationships among the adults in schools could be supported and encouraged so that the entire organization could function as a “holding environment” within which all participants — students, teachers, administrators, and others — could develop in straight and true ways.

What, in other words, would need to happen for a school to become a petri dish that could grow a super-healthy organism, one in which robust relationships among people and with subject matter and academic skills flourished?

My friend and I didn’t know. We came up with some ideas, but, ultimately, we didn’t know for sure.

And here’s the earth-shattering realization we came to: That was OK. In fact, it was perfect. Admitting that we did not know what to do to turn any particular school into a healthy, well-functioning organism was the most honest and appropriate response to the messy reality of schools we could have. What if we embraced our not-knowing and figured out a way to allow the organism to tell us what it needed?

Embedding a Psychotherapist

Quick backstory: I am a psychotherapist. I have worked with children, adolescents, adults, and, most recently, with teachers and school administrators to help them recognize unhelpful relational patterns and try, slowly, to change them. I am also a teacher educator, have been for about three decades. These two passions of mine come together in my current work, which is to support educators in surviving and, importantly, utilizing the complex web of relationships that comprise teaching and learning, the emotional and relational reality of schools. My goal is to figure out how to “hold” the adults in schools so they, in turn, can “hold” their students effectively and sustainably while they grow and learn.

Given my particular interests and skills, my friend and I began to hatch a plan for implementation in a local school. Our idea was to embed me, with my emotional and relational orientation, into the school where I could both gather information about how well the school was functioning as a holding environment and, simultaneously, offer support to teachers and administrators as needed. The overarching idea would be to care for the caretakers so they could, in turn, care for – that is, teach – their students.

I thought this was a great idea. But, as time went on, I became increasingly uncomfortable with it. I mean, the plan required that I enter a school and dwell, day in and day out, in difficult emotions. I’d have to sit with teachers’ and administrators’ frustrations and conflicts with students, parents, and each other. This is something I do as a therapist; in fact, I relish it, as these emotions are incredibly accurate and useful data.

But in therapy there are only two people in the room. In a school, there are hundreds. How could anyone, therapist or no, manage, let alone survive, a whole school’s worth of emotion?

“Perfect” as it was for my friend and me to admit that we didn’t know how to transform schools, I found myself pretty quickly wanting to escape from the distressing fear of not knowing into some sort of certainty.

Defending Against Not Knowing

And there are so many ways to escape into certainty! (All these ways are called “defenses” in the psychoanalytic community.) One way is to take the stance of omnipotent control. When I’m feeling most helpless, why not pretend to be all-powerful? Why not take full control? In my case, I could convince myself that I am not just capable of doing the impossible but am, in fact, the best person for the job! (This is called “grandiosity” and usually leads to massive efforts to “fix” other people and their problems.) Related to this, I could easily decide that the problems lie (not with me but) with the teachers, who are to blame for whatever ails schools.

(If I were really powerful, I could exercise my omnipotence by firing the teachers who populate “failing” schools and replacing them with new teachers who, somehow, would be impervious to the messy emotional and relational reality of teaching and learning. Or so I could believe.)

Given my decision to blame teachers for my discomfort with the messy reality of education, I could activate the defense of intellectualization. I could design a program, complete with scripted curriculum and posters and manuals, that would invite teachers to talk about their school’s problems but (crucially) not to engage directly with any root causes (which probably involve emotions). The intellectualization would allow the school as a whole to abstract the problem, to pull it out of actual bodies and into the realm of words and ideas, so as to address it with a minimum of uncertainty and other difficult emotions.

And, chances are, once the talking was finished and my consultants returned home, the teachers would be left with the responsibility for the fact that, while the defense of intellectualization worked to temporarily manage the whole school’s anxiety, it ultimately did not change its reality.

Sitting With It

Of course, I did not do any of these things. What I did, instead, was to sit with my difficult emotions. I let them happen. And I wondered about what they meant, since, as I have mentioned, I am convinced that emotions offer some of the most accurate information about experience anyone can hope for.

What I came up with was this: It is scary to enter into the world of emotions and relationships. It is scary even for a psychotherapist like me, who is trained to notice and interpret emotions and who values the power of relationships to offer “corrective emotional experience,” or healing. It is scary to do it with one other person, let alone a group of people, let alone an entire institution like a school or an entire nation of schools. It is so scary that defenses like omnipotent control and intellectualization make all kinds of sense. And, not surprisingly, these and other defenses are utilized at all levels of our education system.

Make no mistake: psychological defenses do work. They help us escape from our terrible emotions. And thank goodness for them! Without defenses, most of us would be awash in anxiety and uncertainty virtually all the time.

But, if my friend and I are right about the emotional and relational reality of schools – that the complex web of relationships in schools comprises a petri dish for dysfunction and, therefore, ineffectual teaching and learning – then psychological defenses, ultimately, won’t transform any school into a super-healthy organism. Defenses will help us avoid anxiety temporarily, yes. But they won’t change anything.


OK, so what will work? My answer: Manage not knowing by taking stock of what we do know.

Here’s something I know for sure: Emotions are meaningful. There is always a good reason for every emotion. Because not everyone is able to read their emotions, the signals can appear to be in code, but that does not change the fact: understanding emotions can lead to (1) relief of suffering and (2) positive relational alignment. And positive relational alignment is another term for non-dysfunctional relationships.

Here’s something else I know: People fit together in ways that work for all parties. Even the most dysfunctional relationship is a fit. It works by providing a sense of familiarity (“This feels bad, but it feels right”), by activating a comfortable role (“I know how to do this even if it ultimately hurts me”), by fulfilling an expectation (“I knew this would happen to me”). These fits are generally unconscious, but they’re pretty much always at work and, like emotions, there is always a good reason for them.

I know that looking at how people are fitting together and wondering how those fits are working for everybody can bring remarkable order to messy reality. And I know that, when one person – a teacher, say – shifts the fit even slightly, especially if that shift is based on emotional and relational understanding, feelings and behaviors change and blocks to learning that used to appear insurmountable can suddenly dissolve.

And this: Sitting with emotions, looking at relational fits, and figuring out what it all might mean does not come naturally to many people. And it can be hard work. Yet it is work that teachers need to do for their own sake and for the sake of their students.

Because here’s the bottom line: Learning – moving from a state of not knowing to a different state, whether of knowing or being capable or seeing the world differently or simply feeling safe in a temporary equilibrium – is a risky enterprise. For many students, it involves difficult emotions and activates maladaptive behaviors that work for them but might not work so well for their teachers and peers. And, of course, teaching – balancing between the known and the not known, managing the emotions that students’ maladaptive behaviors (are meant to) bring up, juggling the stresses of working in a field that appears paralyzed by avoidance of the most basic truths about education – is risky, too.

And, while it is the job of students to act out on their anxiety – to test their teachers, to resist change, to oppose or cling or idealize or hate – it is the job of teachers to “hold” their students through all this, to provide a reliable container for learning and for fighting learning, and to survive the emotions that go with it.

Here’s one last thing I know: Teachers also need to be held. They need to be supported in feeling and surviving and, ultimately, understanding their emotions. They need help planning and executing the attitudinal and behavioral shifts that will lead to better attuned relationships and more effective learning. In short, caregivers need care, too, or else they will lose the desire and ability to care for others.

All this to say that my friend and I are going to have to figure out how to enter the life of a school with deep respect and tolerance for the difficult emotions that teachers and administrators can feel on a daily basis while also holding steady to what we know. Weirdly, this commitment is both the source of and solution to the dilemma of embracing the messy emotional and relational reality of schools. If we want to avoid the avoidance allowed by psychological defenses – and my friend and I do – then heading into emotion is what we’ve got to do.

This is easy enough to say: Let’s head into emotion in schools. But educators who do so need reliable support. What would an ideal “holding environment” look like for you? What kind of support do you need as you experience and survive your own and students’ emotions? What help do you need to make sense of those emotions and turn them into relational attunement with students and others?


Betsy Burris is author of the book The Feeling of Teaching: Using Emotions and Relationships to Transform the Classroom. She was chair of AEPL from 1998 to 2000 and conference organizer in 1999 and 2001. She will be giving a pre-conference workshop this June (6/18) at the AEPL Conference in Estes Park, CO, called “The Feeling of Teaching,” in which participants will practice turning negative emotions about teaching into positive learning experiences. Her website can be found at