The Teaching Cure

What teachers can learn from therapists


One of the most important moments in my teaching career came about 25 years ago when I contemplated leaving it. I had just finished writing my first academic book, which applied family systems theory to 19th-century literature. My thesis was that ideas associated with family therapy could be brought to bear on domestic novels—revealing how the heroines reflected behavior patterns of daughters in 19th-century middle-class English families and how the novels themselves mirrored and reinforced cultural tendencies.

The book got me thinking about families to the point where I considered trading academia for family therapy. My interest in family systems and in literary heroines spoke to a need I felt to understand my interactions with my family and to help others understand theirs.

I applied to a University of Pennsylvania externship that allowed me to sit in on family therapy sessions and consider whether I wanted to pursue the field. I went to a clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, walking distance from my office at Drexel University. I was placed with a group of about eight students, all of them trained clinical social workers or psychologists. We spent one or two afternoons a week sitting behind a one-way mirror watching one of the students engage in therapy with a family.

The sessions gave me a glimpse of how poverty exacerbates family problems. And the technique they employed made an equally lasting impression. Whenever those of us watching behind the one-way mirror had a suggestion, we could call into the room and speak to the therapist. If the therapist was stumped about what to do next, they could call in to us for advice. I remember thinking how helpful this approach might be for a beginning teacher, if only it were feasible.

For a variety of reasons, I chose not to train as a family therapist, but I began to apply to my own family and to my classes some of the lessons I’d learned. Perhaps the most important of these was not to overly personalize my interactions with students. I had been the sort of teacher who got nervous and hurt when a student looked at her watch. A small indication of boredom or disinterest would break my rhythm and throw me off my line of thought. I came to see that much of what my students did—and my children, too, for that matter—had little to do with me. A student looking at her watch might be bored, but she also might have a doctor’s appointment in a half hour or a date with her boyfriend after class. Even if she were bored, would that be so bad? Her boredom might have to do with me, but then, it might not.

A few years after my externship, I started individual therapy. My mother was sick with an eventually fatal neurological illness that would last eight years, and it brought to my attention problems I could not deal with. Here, the experience was not positive. Where family therapy had affirmed and enlightened me, individual therapy individual therapy felt oppressive. Possibly, this was because in the former case I focused not on myself but on lifting ideas and techniques for my own use. But now, with my own life under scrutiny, I felt put on the spot and anxious.

I stopped going. Years later, I entered therapy again with a much better outcome. Some of the same problems that had precipitated my anxiety 25 years ago were still present, but this time, the therapist bridged awkward silences and gave advice that soothed me. Again, the therapy helped me as a mother, wife, and daughter, but just as much as a teacher. It used to be that I felt either loved or disdained by students—but talking it over, I discovered that neither was realistic. Yes, there would be students on occasion who would like me a lot and students who wouldn’t. But the turbulent ups and downs in my mood as a teacher leveled off. I still have that exhilaratingly good class, and I still have classes that don’t click—but a more general sense of well-being tempers the quasi-hysteria that used to accompany those feelings.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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