Emotionally-responsive teaching

When I was recently thinking about emotions and teaching about sustainability, I came across the term “emotionally-responsive teaching” that really spoke to me, even though I did not really know what it was. Trying to read more about it it turns out that maybe it isn’t as clear a concept as I had hoped, or maybe not capturing exactly what I was hoping for, either. But here are some thoughts, and a connection to teaching about sustainability.

From reading Williams & Koplow (2018) on (childhood) educator preparation, it seems that emotionally-responsive pedagogy historically builds on “progressive pedagogy”. The latter is build on the assumption that teaching is not free from power, privilege, and hierarchies and that it is therefore political, as the choices that teachers make on every aspect of instruction — content, materials, activities, assessments — are all influenced by, and express their, politics. Progressive pedagogy tries to create an alternative to traditional teaching approaches that lift white, hetero, middle-class students and perspectives, and discriminate against everybody else by not adequately representing or even limiting other voices and generally restricting student agency. This is connected to “embodied pedagogy”, which is all about combining body and mind. This is quite difficult, because we are not used to listening to our bodies, but rather to ignore them, especially when it comes to reflecting on aspects of size, gender, race, sickness, … Being confronted with it might scare people away so they shut down. Similarly, feelings are often not taken as a source of information, but rather interpreted as a distraction to be ignored. But the whole point of using emotionally-responsive teaching is to use emotions, not only when they can’t be ignored, but actually inviting them in. Only when we know about the emotions we and others feel, can we respond to them, and can remove them as obstacles to learning and maybe even convert them into drivers of learning.

In Williams & Koplow (2018), example conversations are given with explanations of which statements constitute which components of emotionally-responsive pedagogy. For example reflecting what the teacher understands the child said, clarifying / reassuring based based on teacher’s knowledge, inviting the child to say more, affirming the child’s reality, supporting symbolic solutions (in their case: offering more building blocks to build a play fort to protect the family from being deported). The “supporting symbolic solutions” part I’ve been thinking about a lot. Where is the boundary between placating someone in a condescending way (how I first perceived that example) and emotionally supporting them? Of course the teacher might not always (or even in most cases) be in a position to actually solve whatever problems their students are dealing with, and of course this is an example about a child, not a university student. And maybe it is more about showing that the student has been heard and that the teacher has the will to support them, than about actually doing something?

But then, how do we train teachers for this?

Donahue-Keegan et al. (2019) state that “most teacher education programs focus almost exclusively on instructional skills without much emphasis on teaching preservice teachers how to be aware of their emotions, how to interpret their emotions without judgment, and how to manage their emotions so they enhance rather than interfere with their teaching”, and report on their experience with doing it differently. They are combining social-emotional learning with culturally responsive teaching. This combination — social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching — seems to come up most often when searching for literature around emotionally-responsive teaching. And what I take away from Donahue-Keegan et al. (2019) and others is that that basically means — good teaching? “We need teachers who will understand the metaphor that when a plant is wilting, we focus on improving the soil, nutrients, water, and sun—not fixing the plant in isolation.” This means focusing on strength-based approaches and creating good learning environments by setting the right tone on the first day of class (or even before, see my post about the importance of syllabi as communication tools in an inclusive classroom here). Or to take the physical learning environment seriously and think about what the room is signalling about who belongs there (for example pin-up posters in the mechanical workshops where I did my undergrad studies, or science fiction posters in STEM classrooms), or even just what we perceive as a good space to learn. My new desk (picture above) has a lot of light, and plants, and my books close by, and a chair that is good for my posture, and I am so much more happy to sit there and work than at my old desk which was in a darker corner that other people might find a lot more cosy and conductive to thinking. How can we create spaces, meaning a diversity of spaces, where everybody can find a corner that is a good fit for their needs?

And in STEM higher education — how can we actually invite emotions in, and then deal with them constructively? Reflective journalling and generally time for reflection are being done more and more, as are suggestions to include all three (four?) of “head, hands, and heart” in education (e.g. Sipos, Battisti & Grimm (2008) or Öhman & Sund (2021)).

But now how do we deal with emotions when they are put forward? And to what extent can a teacher even deal with everything that might come up? There were some ideas in the Williams & Koplow (2018) article that I mention above, but in the context of children — what does that mean transferred to higher education? That’s what I want to find literature on next, I hope someone has figured it out! (If you have any recommended literature, please send it my way!)

Donahue-Keegan, D., Villegas-Reimers, E., & Cressey, J. M. (2019). Integrating social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching in teacher education preparation programs. Teacher Education Quarterly, 46(4), 150-168.

Williams, W. S., & Koplow, L. (2018). Becoming strong enough to hold their stories: Emotionally responsive educator preparation. The New Educator, 14(1), 59-73.

Leave a Reply