Category Archives: Evolve Self as Teacher

Anger

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“Emotions are the primary gatekeeper to learning. Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning. Positive emotions encourage, for instance, long-term recall while negative emotions disrupt the learning process in the brain – at times leaving the student with little or no recall after the event.” http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

 

How often is there laughter in your classroom? If there is, is it laughter at the expense of someone or does it act like a delicious communal treat for everyone?

How often are students worried or scared in your classroom? Is this an easier question to answer than the one about laughter?

Now that the debate about the connection between emotion and learning is over, what does a 21st century teacher need to be able to do to ensure that her classroom is an emotionally safe space? A place where there is lots more laughter than there are angry outbursts?

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Understand what anger is.
  2. Notice how you do anger. What triggers you? Under what circumstances?
  3. Notice how your body signals that an angry outburst is about to occur.
  4. Channel anger in ways that do not damage, do not destroy relationships.
  5. Apologize when step 4 above fails..

Here’s a primer on anger.  Some of it is a summary of what I learned doing this course at a personal and professional development institute , The Haven.

Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions through our human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws.  One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works far more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that weighs and measures and considers, our pre-frontal cortex.

Ever done something in anger you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the pre-frontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of these other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss.  Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us vulnerable, so we are not likely to do that as easily as we are to allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a nice comfy blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

Now here is something about anger you’re going to hate knowing. When someone first told me about this, I refused to accept that it was even remotely possibly true for about 3 weeks. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know it to be true. But it is. Are you ready?

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.

So, no, that student did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But, there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or two.  When you are first learning how to do this, it helps to walk away, out of the room for a bit.

It helps too if you have a regular meditation and exercise routine. You are less likely to be easily triggered if you do.

It also helps if you regularly release the energy that fuels your anger in healthy ways. I learned a few ways to do this at  The Haven.

Even though you  may learn all about anger, and what to do about it, changing the way you have been angry in the past is quite difficult to do.  For a while, you’ll forget what to do far more frequently than you’ll remember.

But you need to keep practicing because the only way out is through. You have to go through the learning curve. The golden prize at the other end is that, when you know how to control your own anger, you will be able to help your students do that too.

You will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem.

When you learn about your own anger, you will know just how really scared or worried or upset that student is underneath their anger. You will feel empathy.

And when you model empathy in your classroom, you will be well on your way to creating a learning environment that is emotionally safe for your students.

19th century classrooms were ruled by fear and coercion. Students in a 21st century learning environment feel safe to express and experience a range of emotions because their teacher is attuned to students’ emotions and knows, both cognitively and experientially,  how to respond accordingly.

Be the Change

Like Water

You’ve watched Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra and all the other education revolutionaries on TED talks. You’ve attended numerous professional development workshops on the “new” way to teach. You know something has to change but when you enter your room each morning, you are overwhelmed by the demands made on you by the students and the system. You don’t know where to start.

Start here.

Realize that this change, this transformation will not happen overnight. It will also not be easy. It will not unfold in simple, linearity from point A to point Z. It will be messy. You will be frequently frustrated. You will want to give up.

Don’t.

Your students need you to not give up. They are desperately waiting for something more than they’re getting. Some of them have given up waiting and have dropped out. Their numbers keep growing. The ones who are still in classrooms are hoping that this year, something will be different.

Take baby steps.

First change the things you can easily change. Notice how you feel when you make those changes. Notice what happens in the classroom when you introduce the changes. Be like a scientist observing an experiment.

Try titration.

Add something to the way you collect data about the students.

Add something to the way students interact with each other.

Add something to the way time is used in your classroom.

Add something to the way you see yourself as teacher.

Then watch what happens.

Make adjustments.

Evolution is a slow process.

Be patient.

There are many of us out here, working like water flowing over rock, changing the system from within.

Soon all our little molecules of change will coalesce into a stream and then into a river and the system will have been transformed, not by political decree but by the work of teachers like you and me.

Learning Environments

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The latest buzzword in educational reform is “learning environments”.  These are, according to the OECD, places where constructive, self-regulated learning, that is  sensitive to context, is fostered. Critical to the success of learning in these spaces is that “learning professionals [should be] highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement” and that they should also “encourage well-organized co-operative learning.”

This all sounds really wonderful and very 21st century but as someone who has spent almost 3 decades creating learning environments that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, I can assure you that teachers are going to need much more than a text and a workshop to successfully role- shift from being primarily deliverers of content and dispensers of discipline to being “attuned to learners’ motivations” while they structure learning environments in which learners are at the centre.

It will take much more  than just a cognitive decision to change a way of being in the classroom.

If teachers do not spend time getting to know themselves, truly, and if they’re not willing to look deep into the shadows of why they do the things they do, they will be incapable of  creating for students an emotionally safe space in which miscommunication and conflict that arises amongst students and between students and the teacher is managed in a way that preserves relationships.

When a classroom becomes de-centred, when a teacher is not in complete control of all interactions,  all kinds of wonderful things can and do happen but these can be easily overshadowed if the not-so-wonderful dimensions of relationships within the learning environment are not constructively managed.

Relationships are strengthened when they can withstand, and be strengthened by the fires of conflict.  But how is a teacher to know how to deal with conflict when in her traditional role of dispenser of discipline, punishment or banishment was the norm?

Central to the success of learning environments is that teachers should ‘care’ about students’ emotional well-being but caring is not always rainbows or fuzzy Care Bears  and Hallmark cards. Caring takes courage and honesty and trust and those are not deliverable by a point and click or an announcement of a policy change.

It is not enough to be an educated adult, motivated to create a caring classroom community/learning environment.

Nothing in my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology or my post-graduate studies in Curriculum and Instruction prepared me to know how to meaningfully manage the dynamics and dimensions of classroom relationships between students and teachers and amongst students.

I am still not aware of any teacher-education programme that directly and specifically teaches teachers, in ways beyond reading and discussing a text,  how to develop and maintain and support relationships in the classroom.  Please let me know if you do!

In the absence of such a formal program, I have learned, mostly through direct experience,  how to create a learning environment in my classroom that supports and encourages relationships between students. It is these relationships that are critical and crucial to the health of a learning environment. They are the lifeblood, the ground, of the learning environment.  Just as any biological ecosystem depends on healthy relationships between all components of the ecosystem, social learning environments cannot succeed without healthy relationships among all human beings in that environment.

It is because of this that I structure my classroom/learning environment so that it is socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually challenging.

Teacher as Philosopher?

Greek philosophers

The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that schoolteachers think that they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils. Sophie’s World , by Jostein Gaarder, page 70

I wonder if, 2413 years after Socrates, whether the world is yet ready for the philosopher-teacher, a pedagogue whose task is not so much to lead a pupil to a place of knowledge that has been mapped and visited before but instead to help the pupil to prepare for the journey of inquiry and reflection and questioning of all that is accepted as knowledge, and all that is yet unknown.

With oceans of information and knowledge readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection in even the remotest parts of the planet, the role of teacher as “content deliverer” has become defunct. It’s now time that role is replaced with a new role of teacher as co-pilot, as navigator, as logistician, one who anticipates what might be needed on the journey, and travels part of the learning journey with the student.

A teacher-philosopher/co-pilot would not participate in what Ken Robinson calls the greatest suppression of creativity in human history that occurs in our schools when teachers do what incenses Sophie so much. Instead, teachers would be as curious as her students, wanting to learn and to discover what is not yet known.

But for this paradigm shift in the role of schools and teachers to occur, there would need to be a huge shift in our  current socio-cultural  “centre of gravity”.

A modern philosopher,  Ken Wilber suggests that each society has a centre of gravity around which its morals, ethics and worldviews coalesce. This COG acts like a magnet: if you rise above, the centre of gravity pulls you down, if you are below the centre of gravity, it will pull you up.

A very simple example of this is the widely accepted practice of recycling beverage containers in our society. If you don’t recycle aluminium cans and plastic bottles, you will be “pulled up” to this practice by being admonished and persuaded to change your habits through personal encounters, public service ads and incentives such as being paid to return cans to recycling depots.   But if you point out that the manufacture of these bottles and cans is a problem in itself, far greater than recycling can solve, you will be “pulled down”, seen as being “intense” or “extreme”.   You  would be on the outside of society’s centre of gravity around the idea of recycling.

Socrates was on the outside of the centre of gravity in Athens in 399 B.C.E.  By questioning the “wisdom” of the city’s elite, he was undermining the status quo. In order for it to retain its power, he needed to be “pulled down” to the Athenian centre of gravity and its views on “education of the young”, a centre of gravity that held the view that the young should not be taught to question authority or to look too deeply into what was considered “truth”.

Education of the young has long been the site of these gravity tensions since it is seen as the most powerful lever for societal change. But the nature of this change is always contested.

As long as education is performing the function of preparing students to take their place within the status quo, and to accept the current wisdom, then all is well. But should a teacher get the notion that education should be about more than that, there is tension and the COG will “pull down” those attempts in ways both personal and political.

This process of “pulling down” can be like my experience of being accused of “breeding rebels” by colleagues in South Africa during the Apartheid era when I taught my students to ask questions about their learning experiences.  Over the past 18 years of teaching in Canada, I have continued to cause “trouble” in my teaching practice when I allow students to nap, when I invite them to dance, when I encourage them to question, to negotiate,  and especially when I suggest that they look at textbooks as not holding the “gospel” truth about any subject.

Another example of this “pulling down” process is the recent experiences of the teachers of Ethnic Studies in Arizona state schools where  legislation was passed in 2010 to stop them from teaching about the historical and literary contributions made by African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American people. The centre of gravity of the United States public is not yet ready to accept or to acknowledge the injustices of the past and accuses these teachers of inciting racial hatred. Or perhaps they mean,  that those teachers are “corrupting the youth” when they teach them how to reveal the truth.

In the 21st century, teachers who behave like “gadflies” on the horse of the corporate-state may not share the same fate as Socrates if they are lucky enough to live in judicially strong countries and if they are lucky enough to belong to a strong labour union. However, world history of the recent past is woven with numerous stories of teachers risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) in states where there is no access to a functioning justice system. In some respects we have not moved much further than Athens in 399 B.C.

I hope 21st century teachers do not have to be prepared to risk their lives before we see a shift in modern western culture’s centre of gravity with regard to the role of teachers in our age of information, a shift that would provide students like Sophie with philosopher-pilots instead of human  force-feeding tubes.