Confronting Uncomfortable Conversations in the Classroom: The Pedagogy of Emotion

On October 12, 2017, Jude Walker, assistant professor of Adult Learning and Education, and Shayna Hornstein, a body-focused psychotherapist, registered physical therapist, and recent graduate in Adult Learning and Education, facilitated a Classroom Climate workshop on “Confronting Uncomfortable Conversations in the Classroom: The Pedagogy of Emotion.”

In this session, Jude and Shayna led participants to engage with the role emotions play in the classroom and how emotions have an impact on teaching and learning.

The session invited participants to reflect on the mind, body, and heart when faced with uncomfortable conversations and situations as instructors in the classroom. Participants shared their experience and fears as instructors, while developing strategies when engaging in difficult topics or situations in the classroom. Jude and Shayna led an active discussion on ways to become more aware and attentive to our bodies and minds in moments of discomfort; the facilitators also shared tools to “catch yourself and regroup” during emotional moments in the classroom.

According to the facilitators, “catching yourself” during a moment of high emotion involves a practice of awareness and attunement to our own body’s reaction to the situation. This practice, as Shayna states, is about “keeping one part of our brain watching, without judgement, to attend to the early signals that something inside, maybe our neck or stomach, is tensing up. It’s cultivating a practice, cultivating the observer.” By directing our mind’s attention towards observing the body’s reactions, recognizing the physical signs of emotion being stirred up, and utilizing practices that bring our bodies calmly back to the present moment, our minds become better equipped to respond to the emotional and intellectual needs of the learning moment. In turn, by modelling this “catching ourselves,” we share that practice with our learners.

We had the opportunity to ask Jude [JW] and Shayna [SH] a few questions about how they became interested with the topic on pedagogy of emotion in the classroom.

Facilitators Shayna Hornstein and Jude Walker with Oct 12 workshop participants.

1. How did you become interested in this topic on the Pedagogy of Emotion? What interests you?

[JW] It was during my experience co-developing and teaching a course on social movement learning about five years ago. Some of the readings and topics in the course touched on the importance of emotions both in being part of a social movement and how the emotional tone of the movement could influence people’s receptiveness to different ideas. At the same time, we noticed in teaching the course the discomfort experienced by the students in tackling difficult topics which sometimes resulted in them going deeper, becoming more engaged, or, at times, putting up resistance, expressing despair, and withdrawing. This is something I had also experienced teaching other ‘social issues’ courses in the past, but this time somehow my curiosity was sparked further to better understand the role of emotions in learning, which took me to the psychological literature (which left me feeling rather dissatisfied, as it tends to bifurcate emotions into good and bad for learning) and then to other writings in education that tended to engage a sociological perspective and explored the productive role of discomfort, in particular. More recently, I began thinking about my own discomfort as an educator in the face of perceived student discomfort or difficult conversations. Through Shayna, I have come to realise that a fundamental piece of working with emotions as an educator involves enhancing somatic awareness, using our bodies as our guides.

[SH] Ah, this is a big topic! It’s actually the body and its instincts, our innate knowing, that fascinates me. And, since emotion is stored in the body, by proxy, I come to a pedagogy of emotion through embodiment. Having returned to UBC for graduate studies in education and then studying with Jude, I was drawn to the burgeoning education literature on embodiment and emotions in the classroom. I was delighted to find the growing acknowledgement in the educational literature that emotions provide a “rudder to guide judgement and action” (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007, p. 3). Learners need to experience their emotions if classroom learning is to transfer to the real world (ibid). Jude’s work with Carolina Palacios (Walker & Palacios, 2016) brings the importance of engaging emotions in a thoughtful and critical way to classrooms that tackle issues of social inequity and justice, issues of keen interest to me. Jude and Carolina explored optimal levels of discomfort to engage learning that transforms us and alternatively how excessive emotional discomfort shuts off our ability to take in challenging information and ideas.

Perhaps it is the sudden and overwhelming rush of emotions (in students, in ourselves) that keeps our curiosity of emotions in education at arms-length and conversely what drew participants to this CTLT workshop. Curiously, the word ‘emotion’ is often code for “intense” or “negative.” When someone is described as being emotional, the implication is not typically favourable! As a somatic therapist and educator, I am fascinated by how the body’s signals are a window into our emotions and our thoughts. With guidance from an educator or therapist, it is exciting to learn how attention to the body engages our instincts and helps us make good decisions. Similarly, I have also learned how attention to the body and subtle physical techniques or ‘moves’ can help us mitigate those uncomfortable times when our emotions feel too much, or side-swipe us.

I believe that as educators who need to ensure that learning transfers to the world outside the classroom, we must find fruitful ways to engage with emotions if we are going to equip learners for real world situations and our current societal dilemmas.

2. What came up for you as a facilitator in the session? Did anything stand out for you?

[JW] This was my first time facilitating a workshop with Shayna and on this topic. I noticed the synergy between us as we were trying to engage both the mind and body, the cognitive and emotional, in exploring topics of discomfort. I could sense a growing presence of the people in the room as they began to pay more attention to what was going on for them in their minds, bodies, and souls.

[SH] First of all, I was struck and delighted by the variety of staff, faculty, and grad students from diverse disciplines who responded to the call to delve into this topic! I was moved by the engagement and the wealth of experience in the room and people’s desire to connect with one another on this issue. I saw a collective readiness and apparent comfort in exploring zones of discomfort. What stands out for me is how important and large this topic is, and how this short session barely scratched the surface. I hope that this will spark ongoing explorations in this arena, and I salute and thank Indigenous Initiatives at CTLT for jumping in and taking this on. On a more personal level, I so enjoyed and learned from Jude as we prepared and then taught our first session together. It was also fun to experience the participants’ uptake of the subtle somatic activities we offered and to think of other ways we might move this work forward as other opportunities arise.

3. If you could use one word to encourage instructors when confronting uncomfortable conversations in the classroom, what would it be?

[JW] Courage

[SH] Self-compassion


Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10.

Walker, J & Palacios, C. (2016) A pedagogy of emotion in teaching about social movement learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(2), 175-190.

Additional Resources:

Jude and Shayna have kindly shared with us their powerpoint slides from the workshop. Please contact us if you would like a copy.