The Second Level: Underneath the Surface in a 1st Grade New York City Classroom


Prior to my group relations experience and training, my way of giving feedback to teachers usually went as follows:

Me: So, how do you think your lesson went?
Teacher: (Nervously recounts what went well and what didn’t…)
Me: Okay, so here’s how it really went (Insert diatribe about the good, the bad, the ugly). Next time, do the following (8 pages of notes) and oh here are some resources that can help you (8 more pages of notes). Anything else I can do?

Teacher: *Blank stare*

Needless to say, sometimes hostility and tears followed these exchanges. I wasn’t always able to guide the teachers to see my perspective and show them I understood theirs. I just wanted better instruction, and I gave elaborate – and very good feedback – about the small and large changes that needed to happen. I considered coaching as a type of measured response – input, output, input, output. Except it didn’t really work that way in reality. So, many times I worked alongside teachers, and gave in the moment feedback or modeled technique for them. This worked but I knew it could have worked better. I was successful but only moderately successful, I didn’t reach every teacher the way I wanted to (and as a result every student).

Recently, I coached a new, first year teacher after she gave a lesson. The exchange we had made me see how the group relations experience and training had really helped me on a number of levels, from the subtle to the extreme. After I observed her lesson, we sat down and I asked her what went well during her lesson. It was our first meeting of this kind and she presented a very defensive disposition. She said she felt her directions were very clear, I agreed and complimented her on her meticulous planning and effective materials. But she said she didn’t know what went wrong, something didn’t go quite right but what? How could she improve?

I reaffirmed again the positive, in particular that she spoke clearly to her students in giving directions and presenting material, the lesson was engaging and well planned. I explained that those are the more technical and somewhat superficial (though no less important) components of instruction. I asked her if she knew what I meant by the second level of things, the “underneath the surface,” to which she replied she wasn’t sure. I then asked her if she ever gave meticulously clear directions to students who just stared up at her blankly, batting their eyelashes – as if she had said nothing (if you’ve ever been in front of a group, particularly in a classroom setting, then you’ve definitely had this experience). She nodded, of course it has happened to her many times. Together we probed the question of why this happens, what’s really going on? I pointed out that in many cases it’s not what you say or how well planned it is, or even your tone. The second level has to do with the felt experience, the dynamic interactions, the space that sits in between students and the student-teacher relationship.

In the lesson, the teacher explained the task to 1st grade gifted and talented students: write a letter giving someone advice about a problem they’re facing. This was in preparation for an upcoming performance assessment. At one point during the lesson, the teacher made a mistake. Redness filled her cheeks and she looked directly at me and said “Oh no, I messed that up.” Meanwhile, her students were looking up at her and started to get more squirmy and antsy. She continued with the lesson despite this, even when a group of boys began to fidget in their seats and erupted into a conflict. She reprimanded them for not following along, and then continued moving forward with the lesson asking the students what advice they would give to someone who didn’t do well in school. A female student replied,

If someone is having a problem with homework then they should study harder, very hard, study extra because in case they don’t know how to spell a word they should look at the dictionary and spend more time studying because what if you don’t know how to spell something?

Clearly, her study habits are much better than mine. At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked students if they had any questions to which one boy asked,

But what if we don’t know what advice to give, then what do we say?

During my debrief meeting with the teacher, I suggested that there may be a connection between the comments of both of these students and the mistake she made in front of the class. Through using this example, I showed her how to discover what may have been happening under the surface that led to her dissatisfaction and less engaged student performance. To begin, I offered her the strategy of asking herself 3 questions anytime a student makes a comment or question

1. What does this say about the student?
2. What does this say about the task?
3. What does this say about me or my teaching practice?

Using this strategy as a guide, we probed under the surface. I helped her see that both students were expressing a fear in the room of “not knowing” or not having the answer and as a gifted and talented cohort this is likely particularly anxiety provoking – especially in a test prep situation. The teacher, who did not model how to make a mistake openly and correct it without shame, inadvertently reinforced the anxiety and pressure around performance many students were already feeling even at their young age. I have never heard 6 year olds talk so articulately about study habits. I didn’t even know what one was when I was that age.

By helping her see the connections between the behavioral problems she encountered and the comments made by both students she could see the result of her inability to manage the anxiety of the students and model making mistakes. We discussed some of the more technical aspects of feedback that could have helped her smooth over the mistake she made and I also encouraged her to make mistakes on purpose, showing resilience and problem solving with the students. I suggested that if she makes a mistake inadvertently again, which will and should happen, that she should exaggerate it not try to pretend it didn’t happen but instead laugh, make light of it and ask the students to help her.

What she said next is one of the most important things I’ve ever heard a teacher say, and something I wish more teachers were able to cultivate and pay attention to. She said she had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right when she made that mistake in class, and kept going anyways. She explained how it felt in her body and that it was a feeling of some kind of fear. Unsure what to do with the feeling and what to make of it, of course she kept going. Again, we probed under the surface and I offered another strategy to help us probe. As a strategy I suggested she ask herself the following 3 questions the next time she finds herself in that situation,

1. What does this feeling have to do with me/how I’m feeling?
2. What does this have to do with how some of my students might be feeling?
3. What does this have to do with my class as a whole right now?

She shared her thoughts with me and I asked her if her graduate training program had included any study of infant behavior, particularly how infants communicate. She shared with me that it hadn’t been part of her coursework or training so I explained a little about the emotional development of infants. Through a combination of unconscious communication, transference, countertransference and intuition between caretaker and child, care-taking adults may be filled up with feelings infants are having but cannot express. This enables the mother or caretaker to intuit or feel what the baby is experiencing so s/he can respond accordingly.

I recounted my first few years of teaching, the many times when I was filled with anger and rage and I had no idea why. I taught mostly teenage boys, who were filled with an anger and aggression they didn’t know how to express. Sometimes this came out in violent ways, other times through other passive transgressions but we were communicating in this way even though they were adolescents. I explained to the teacher that this happens particularly with young children and infants but can continue into adolescence, particularly among children who have limited social and emotional skills. I kept saying “I know this is strange, but this does happen” because I was unsure of how she might perceive my approach as she is not familiar with group psychodynamics.

She got it, she not only understood but was relieved to have a much more in depth perspective to take back to her classroom. Her students who were unable to express how anxious they were feeling had filled her up with it when she made a mistake. I watched as her defensiveness softened into a curiosity and an open desire for mastery and partnership, and I readily reciprocated the sentiment.




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