Focus on the Negative: How the concept of reparenting has made me a better professor

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin preschoolers, Dylan and Escher.

 

The other day, my four-year-old son asked me how many years he would be in school. I calculated that the answer was anywhere from thirteen to twenty-one. Taken aback, he asked when I was finally allowed to stop going to school. For me, and many of us who are professors, the answer is, of course, never (or until retirement). “Why would you never leave?” he asked. “Because I love it,” I replied, and I do. Simply put, the positives of the teaching and learning experience far outweigh the negatives. The classroom is a productive and joyful space for me. This is true for many of my students as well. But classrooms in many students’ pasts have been spaces where learning was at best minimal and at worst traumatic.

I’ve had many students express to me that their teachers were just trying to manage behavioral issues or they were good kids who were passed along from grade to grade without having achieved the learning outcomes. Students have shared that they were forced to read aloud in class despite having a learning disability, or they had a bladder disorder and were only allowed to go to the bathroom once a day; their friends bullied them and a teacher didn’t care; a teacher belittled them because of their race. The list goes on. Yet, I’ve spent much of my career pretty focused on the positive. The past is the past. What can I do now? What strengths do students have? What do they already bring to the table? How can I create community and connection right now?

One day I decided to consider what would happen if I took a moment to focus on the negative. Let me explain: In a therapy session, I learned about Eric Berne's concept of reparenting. Rooted in Transactional Analysis, this approach is a psychological framework aimed at helping a client change unhealthy internal scripts formed in relation to their parents or caregivers. The therapist can help a client by “reparenting” them, and ultimately give them the tools needed to be a positive and strong parent to themselves. I wondered if it would be possible to see my job as a professor not just as a teacher, but one who reteachers. Rather than brushing over all of the negatives that occurred in students’ pasts and starting the class as a blank slate, I reminded myself of the challenging and traumatic experiences students shared with me and wrote them down in a notebook. Refocusing on these stories made me shift my perspective from “what am I doing for students?” to “what am I undoing for them?” and later “what am I helping them undo for themselves?” Calling to mind the bad experiences, it turns out, has allowed me to do more good. More than anything, it has opened up my lesson plans to give more space to student story and voice.

I ask students about their negative educational encounters on their contact forms, and we now talk about their best and worst classroom experiences while setting our classroom community. When a student describes an example of the latter during this activity, I often use the word “deserve.” For example, if a student was in a class where their learning goals were not being met, I say “you deserved to have your needs met; how might that inform what we do here?” and then “how might that inform what you do here?” It’s not about blaming the bad experiences, but about validating the needs of the individual perceiving them that way. The second question reminds student that they have more power over their experience in the classroom than they might have felt they did in the past.

Metacognitive activities also work well for reteachering. After an activity, students can reflect on how they feel it helped them to grow, or what might have been better about the activity or their engagement with it. These can be questions at the end of a quiz or questions to talk to their peers about.

Thinking about being a professor from the lens of reteachering doesn’t mean categorically labeling some things good and others bad. After all, one student’s unfortunate classroom experience can be the next student’s positive one. It is simply about creating space to hear about the past since the past is often creating a script for the present, and that script may not be a script anyone wants to follow.

Using this lens has created a subtle shift in my pedagogy, at times affirming what I already do and at times leading me to larger changes in my teaching; it has truly has helped me to become a more caring and compassionate teacher. I hope for my students (and my son) that anything less than joy in the classroom is given space to transform into story and then into inner strength. I truly believe that it is inner strength that opens the door for the greatest amount of compassion and growth within in our communities.