By LYNN FRANCIS, MA, MS
Inside Out is a powerful, animated movie about the effect of emotions on our behaviors and, in general, our lives. In the movie, we bear witness to the inner workings of a young girl, Riley, and her emotions of joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. Our emotional states also affect us as ESL educators in our everyday interactions with students and colleagues.
Have you ever had a student or colleague who triggers your anger, your impatience, disdain, joy, compassion? I know I have. All emotions are valid—the questions are how do we be with them and what do we do about them? What are they trying to tell us?
My personal growth as an ESL teacher has progressed and transformed from heavy projection and blaming of others to taking increasing responsibility for my own emotions/thoughts. I’ve struggled at times with feeling impatient with students who, in my interpretation, weren’t “getting it,” or came late all the time, or didn’t seem “serious” enough. Opposite points of view or personality types can also be triggers. As a more introverted person, I have been challenged by more extroverted people at times.
Through time, I realized that these were just my feelings, providing information for me to notice and perhaps to change—not them, but me. Perhaps if someone isn’t “getting it,” I can find other ways to help. If students come late and this bothers me, I actually have found ways to make that a win/win for students and me. I have increased my curiosity and understanding of the myriad of conditions, experiences, and challenges that people face that have them seem not so “serious.” I have become empowered to find creative solutions and choices that benefit us both.
Longtime ESL teacher, life coach, and marriage family therapist Lynn Francis is interested in the inner life of the teacher. She writes, “Because the tools of our trade—methods, techniques, theories, activities—are so well covered at workshops, in-services, and conferences, I felt there was a need to address other aspects of the teacher that are not covered.”
The first step is always to notice, to become aware of what is happening in my body, emotions, and thoughts, and consequently what behaviors I do or do not want to take based on a feeling. With this awareness I have choices. I can react and act on the feeling in unhealthy ways that separate rather than connect, or I can pause and look more deeply into what is really going on. The stronger the reaction, the more reason to believe it has less to do with now and more to do with past experiences that are getting retriggered. This is great! I have an opportunity to heal and grow through paying attention to my reactions and feelings.
The difficult part is that the feeling truly feels as if it is about “them.” We live in a society that projects and blames. It is in our language (you made me angry), in our court systems, in our families, and it ends up in our classrooms or offices. The people who trigger us thus become our best teachers as to what to pay attention to internally. What a relief to know that—to notice that!
Emotions provide information. They are trying to tell us something. When we were children and learned that we shouldn’t cry or shouldn’t get angry, emotions that were not discharged or processed or released have found a home in the body and will rear their heads when triggered. Eckhart Tolle calls it the pain body.
When emotions are expressed, people ask, “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” To experience and express emotions doesn’t necessarily mean that something is “wrong.” As Dacher Keltner, a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and consultant for the movie, said: “This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.” They are energy seeking expression. It depends on what you do with them, how you express them, and how not to take them out on other people.
Keltner further states: “Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. Emotions shape how we relate to other people. Emotions are meant to connect people together.” Well-being is about feeling all of the emotions and knowing how to be with them, learn from them, and grow with them. Emotions have the ability to strengthen relationships with students or colleagues or pull them apart. Just like Riley in Inside Out, I continually, awkwardly, fumblingly, uncomfortably, ineptly, I’m headed in the direction of the former …
Lynn Francis is a part-time instructor for San Diego Community College Continuing Education. She has been a teacher trainer for more than 30 years. She also has a private practice as a life coach and licensed marriage family therapist. She especially enjoys working with teachers and welcomes readers’ questions or ideas for topics for Inner News. Readers can reach her at lcfranci@sdccdedu.
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