Teaching Moments: Articulating Emotions

angry-kid-cartoonYesterday I sent a kid out of the classroom with whom I have a love-hate relationship.

He can be quite explosive, disruptive, and even violent at times, but I also have this genuine affection for him. And I think he likes me, too. Over the past 18 months, a real relationship has developed between us that goes beyond rules, tasks, and even disagreements.

When I told the kids to repeat after me, he yelled, “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH” over everyone else, so I told him to go outside. Usually I give three warnings, but this time I didn’t. He was disrupting class, so he needed to go.

He didn’t budge.

Not even when I counted down from five. When I towered over him, asking if I was going to have to drag him out (hoping I wouldn’t have to, because he is quite big), he finally got up, muttering that this was “overboard” in Korean.

I thought about it as I let him wait for me in the empty classroom next door and continued to teach the class about uncountable objects. Had I gone overboard? I hadn’t lost my temper, but I hadn’t given him the warnings that I usually do, so in that sense, it hadn’t been a fair punishment. Usually he gets angry when he perceives that something is unfair. This time, maybe he was in the right.

When I went into the empty classroom, he was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall.

I joined him. “Sorry I was impatient with you,” I said. I wasn’t sure if he would accept my apology or fully understand it. There was even the chance it would incite his anger. He might use my admission against me, declaring it proof that he had been in the right.

Instead, I was surprised to see him wiping some tears away. He was no stranger to being sent out of a room. Why the tears?

“I was trying to see,” he said in Korean.

Oh. Maybe the tears had had nothing to do with me. I realized he was referring to earlier in class when he had been goofing off and leaned over so far he had ended up lying on his chair like it was a bed. I had told him to sit up, counted down from 5, and then given him a “minus” on the board.

“You couldn’t see?” I clarified.

“Yeah. And then I couldn’t straighten in time, so you gave me a minus. I was angry about that.”

It was a slightly ridiculous explanation, but I decided to accept it. “Ah,” I said. “That makes sense. I understand now.”

“Okay.”

Inwardly, I was in shock.

He wasn’t angry? Wasn’t blaming me? When had he gotten so good at identifying and articulating his emotions?

Sometimes I feel like there are so many communication barriers between me and my students: language, culture, assumptions, defensiveness. But after two minutes of talking, we had reached mutual understanding. Wow. I guess I don’t have to start over every day. Building trust is a real thing.

A few minutes later, buoyed by this success, I took another kid outside for a chat.

smiley-emoticons-face-vector-surprisedI would say that he’s a likable kid, but for some reason, I don’t really like him. There is something about him that bugs me. For one thing, his facial expressions tick me off.

When I rebuke him, his face immediately glazes over. “Yes teacher,” he says with a blank face, sometimes even a blatant eye roll. He won’t look at me. Something in him shuts down. I can’t even tell if he’s listening to what I’m saying.

It drives me crazy. So I usually rebuke him more. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.

The thing is, he’s not the only kid who does that. And the rational part of me knows I shouldn’t take it personally. It’s part of the whole Korean culture of avoiding confrontation and being passive-aggressive. You’re just supposed to say yes to whatever the authority figure says. It doesn’t matter what you really think or how you really feel. You don’t ask questions. You don’t explain yourself. You just say yes.

But that’s not what I want; I want a real conversation! I’d rather have him yell at me (like the other kid often does) than give me lip service.

So I took him outside and confronted him.

“I didn’t like your facial expression,” I said. “Why do you look at me like that?” I was careful to not sound accusing, but I calmly asked him a genuine question. Why? I want to understand.

He wouldn’t answer. Of course.

I could see pain seeping through his face, but he was trying his best to keep his mask on. He wouldn’t look at me. I felt like Toto, pulling back a curtain I wasn’t supposed to strip away. He didn’t know what to do except commit himself even more fully to the role, but as I persisted, cracks were widening in his facade.

“Do you feel angry?” I asked.

“No.”

“Do you feel frustrated?”

“No.” He smiled at the ground as if that was a ridiculous suggestion.

“You can tell me, I won’t get mad.”

No response.

Clearly, he didn’t trust me.

He didn’t feel safe. Perhaps he thought I would use his vulnerability against him. As I stared at him, I found myself wondering what experiences he had had to be reacting this way. Parents and teachers yelling at him? Rebuking him? Hurting him? Telling him to just say yes and smile?

Finally, he muttered to himself, “This is so frustrating,” rolling his eyes, still trying to force a hollow form of a smile on his face.

I could tell he was reaching a breaking point, and I wasn’t sure breaking him was my goal. The normal Korean thing to do at this point would be to bring him back to the classroom and pretend like nothing had happened. Cover it all over. He hadn’t done anything “wrong,” so there was no “problem.” Or, conversely, I could just leave him in the classroom, punishing him more for not answering my question. Either way, I would be leaving him alone.

Instead, I pointed at him and blurted, “See! You’re frustrated!”

He avoided my eyes. He still wouldn’t admit it. He was treading unknown ground.

So I decided to take the first step in opening up.

“So.. you’re smart. You know that, right? You have charisma. You know ‘charisma’?” (It’s one of the English words that have been incorporated into the Korean language, so I thought he might know it.) “A lot of people like you. The other kids follow you.” He nodded at the wall. I wasn’t sure what the nod meant, but at least it was better than the blank stare he had been giving me earlier.

“But sometimes, you’re not nice. That’s why I want you to be nice, because the other kids follow you.”

Despite his efforts, tears were falling out of his eyes. Breakthrough?

“I like you, Daniel.” I patted his arm.

He avoided my eyes, wiping his face. “Teacher, bathroom?”

Usually I give a strong no to that question, but I said he could go. I knew he needed to compose himself. At that point, I decided to let him save face. Finally.

This week and next week are crunch time for me. I have a lot of material to cover and not enough time to cover it. So it was illogical for me to have long one-on-one chats with students during our precious class time. But it was worth it. I want my students to know that obedience and giving the right answers is not the only thing that matters. What they are thinking and feeling matters, too.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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