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Talking to Students about feelings and the future


As a teacher, you can go years without really feeling like you’ve made a difference, and then you receive an email like this one. 

This may be weird but I feel your the only person I can ask about this.. I am well really lost about what to do for college.  I feel so unready . My mom is constantly pushing engineering which is something I love but I feel so unready to think about jobs and which kinds make the most most money etc… I dont want to look at college as a opportunity to get the best job. This may be my philosophical side budding in here but I dont feel the need to pursue a career just yet nor do I think that that career should be directed to the pursuit of money and not happiness. I may love engineering but right now I feel like I need to just learn some more before I decide. So I guess Im asking for some advice or suggestions?

And you realize that you made an impact, and now you’re ready and fueled to teach for another 10 years.

As a high school teacher, I have this discussion with students quiet often. They’re trying to decide…

  • should they go to college
  • what college should they go to, does it really even matter?
  • what should their major be?
  • should they pick the major that will make them a lot of money or the one that will make them happy?
  • should they do what their parents want them to do, or what they want to do.

As a teacher, this can be a delicate subject and line to walk, as there are no clear right or wrong answers, and you’re also not wanting to overstep your role as the teacher and push into parent territory. This conversation tends to happen even more when the student is interested in the arts. The parents often want to support their interest of their child, but at the same time, want their child to be able to make money. ( this I take as a challenge to us, to do a better job of informing what career options students have in the arts, but that’s a conversation for a different day). Today we’re going to focus on how to navigate this challenging and delicate topic.

Start by asking students to select 3 words that describe how they want to feel on a day to day basis. For example, I want to feel, creative, abundant, and free. It can be helpful to have a list of words near by, and ask students to get as specific as possible. Try to push them farther than happy, it’s such an overused term, that feels rather generic. 

Next, students should think about, what makes them feel the way that they want to feel, and continue to make decisions that lead them towards that feeling.

So why focus on feelings? Because focusing on money can be misleading. We want money because of what it can give us, because of how we think that it can make us feel, but often, once we get the money, we realize that we don’t how we want to feel. So we go in search of more money. It also helps students to get a clearly vision of what they want.

Here’s a sample conversation. 

How do you want to feel when you come to school?
How do you want to feel when you’re working on a project?
How do you want to feel when you wake up in the morning?
When you walk down the hallway?

How do you want your life to feel?

It quickly became obvious that no one ever asked them how they wanted to feel, as they stared at me, and repeated, how do we want to feel?

Student: What do you mean how do I want to feel when I come to school?

Me: Do you want to feel excited, free, or energized when you come to school, what do you wish each day would feel like?

Student: Mrs. Kane, why does it matter, I hate school.

Me: It matters for two reasons. 1. If you’re clear on how you want to feel, you can start making small adjustments each day towards that goal, and 2. I want to better understand how you want to feel, as I work to shape the classroom.

Student: Oh… this is hard.

It’s hard because in school students aren’t used to being given an opinion, and they aren’t aware of how much control they have over their emotions.

Since I know that these questions are hard, sometimes I rephrase and ask what makes you feel happy, excited, energized. The first time I did this was near the beginning of the semester, I had the students write their answer on a sheet of paper and give it to me as they headed out the door.

As I read the answers, I wanted to cry.

Student: I feel happy when I get to see my mom, she gets out of jail today.
Student: I would feel happy if I could move back to South Carolina, I don’t have any friends here.
Student: I’m happy when I remember what it was like before my parents got divorced.

Then I asked, what makes you feel afraid:

Student: I’m afraid of failing.
Student: I’m afraid that no one will like me.
Student: I’m afraid that I won’t understand.

Focusing on feelings and desires with students allows them to feel more in control, and asking them pointed questions about their feelings gives them the space that they’ve been searching for to share.

With all of the pressure to pass the test, go to college, and get a job, our students, our children, are feeling lost, unheard, and helpless. Let’s  give them a voice and vision of hope.