Emotional Inclusion in Public Schools

Fighting the “I Am a Rock; I am an Island” Notion in Education

When teachers think of inclusion in school, their minds probably go to a certain type: special education. For the last fifteen to twenty years, this inclusion movement has introduced students with special needs into the mainstream classes, and that should be celebrated.

But it’s crazy not to imagine that this is the only aspect that needs to be included into the average public school classroom. Take a moment to think: What else needs to be included? What else is lacking?

These days — and admittedly, this may be due to the company I tend to keep in the educational world — one may say “technology”. This facet of school, however, is on the tip of everyone’s tongue as something to work on including. “Consistency” is another. “Rigor”, “PBL”, “standards-based grading”, and so on — all these terms are being thrown around as things to systematically include in one’s classroom.

I think we’re missing one important one, though: emotion.

Emotion is like your friend’s partner you’ve never met — they always sound so wonderful, but if they’re so great, how come we’ve never seen them? That’s how it is in the world of education. Teachers in training learn that attaching emotion to learning helps cement it in a student’s memory; they learn the usefulness of making students laugh, feel concerned, etc. But even now, the old adage of “don’t let them see you smile before Thanksgiving” is alive and well. Teachers are supposed to be like Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock”, but instead of books and poetry to protect them, it’s curriculum and pedagogy. Teachers are unflappable, unassailable, unnaturally unemotional.

Furthermore, it can be argued that the very things that are on the cutting edge of best practices — rigor, technology, standards-based grading, etc. — are inherently anti-emotion and therefore serve to edify the “I Am A Rock” teacher. Perhaps this is the subconscious motivation of the proponents of these practices; perhaps they are uncomfortable with the messiness of emotion in the classroom and come up with educational tools that, while perhaps having validity in some facet of schooling, undermine the emotional potential of a classroom. Best practices can be warped to isolate the teacher emotionally from the class or classmates from each other, thus solidifying the teacher being the “rock” or “island”. It is a comforting thought for some.

Emotion is messy. It is a breaking down of a fourth wall of sorts to see a teacher laugh, cry, fear, or express anything beyond happiness or disappointment in reaction to student’s activities. It introduces variables that lead to unpredictability in the classroom. No teacher knows just how a student, or class for that matter, is going to react to their showing of emotion.

Messy though it may be, it is effective. Seeing a teacher that is truly moved invites a student to empathize with the teacher, and through this empathy a community is fostered. And through this community, maximal learning is fostered. Emotional inclusion also helps develop proper emotional development in students, especially the ones that come from emotionally bereft families or families whose emotional footprints on a student are unhealthy. In modeling emotion, you are that much closer to teaching the whole child.

I propose a movement to consciously include emotion in one’s classroom. There are many ways teachers can allow emotion to percolate in, but if you need a rudder to guide you, try this:

Work towards a situation when you, as teacher, have to look a student in the eye and say “Thank you.” Not thanks for handing in homework or getting the stapler for you or the Dunkin’ Donuts gift card at the end of the year. Thanks for something bigger, that means something to you. The postulate is that the bigger the thing is for which you are thanking the student, the more you have included emotion in your classroom. The less like a “rock” or “island” you are, and the better your students (and you) are for it.