Looking for ways to build your school community and engage students? Some schools are experimenting with announcements over their PA system, to kick off their day and move students between classes. From inspirational sayings to general reminders, schools want students to feel like we are all in this together, and approaching things from the same side. Check out this great list from Connections Academy:
Recent podcasts on Teacher Isolation from BAM Radio and another from NPR’s OnPoint about Teacher Retention has me wondering if we’re asking the wrong questions, potentially missing the point all together.
Maybe it’s not about how teachers are feeling or why they’re leaving the profession, maybe it has to do with teacher efficacy and feeling like “Does what I do really matter?
Teacher efficacy, simply put, is what a teacher thinks of his or her abilities to bring about positive outcomes of student engagement and learning. That point when you feel like they are never going to get it, is the entry point to the rabbit hole of “Why bother”.
According to a 2015 teacher efficacy study, teacher efficacy is a key factor behind successful teaching and we need to consciously and deliberately build teacher efficacy, because it is constantly changing.
One of the big things that can influence teacher efficacy is understanding how the brain learns, in particular the role emotions play and the concept of plasticity.
Emotions and Learning
Mariale Hardiman, former teacher and principal, now interim dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and author of The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools, says, “Reducing stress and establishing a positive emotional classroom climate is an essential part of teaching.”
A key part of creating an emotionally safe learning environment is taking the time to connect with students.
Casey, a junior, featured in the documentary Grey Matters: Teaching The Way The Brain Learns says, “When I know a teacher knows me and cares about me, I care more about that class. If a student is stressed, they are not focused on learning.
Teachers often ask, especially in large classrooms, how to connect with each and every student. Maybe it’s inquiring about a sport, or acknowledging a loss by asking how they’re doing today/right now, or just a genuine hello. Do it in a way that feels authentic to you, even if students don’t always respond.
Jeremy Mettler, a teacher at Batavia High School (featured in www.greymattersdocumentary.com) tends to always have snacks, water, pens, pencils, paper, etc., “I want to remove any barriers the kids have to learning. If a kid’s worried about paper or pencils or whatever, they’re not paying attention to what I’m saying. So I just keep that stuff on hand, no questions asked.”
And when it’s you that stressed? If a teacher is stressed, they are not focused on connecting with students.
Understand the source of your stress. Is it student progress? Content time? Intervention challenges? Behavior issues? All of the above?
First off, you’re not alone. Every teacher feels some degree of stress on a daily basis. There are so many factors that impact on your students’ learning, that are beyond your control. And there are so many factors that impact on your teaching, also beyond your control.
Vicky Davis, over at Cool Cat Teacher, did a great 10 minute podcast on managing teacher stress.
For the teachers featured in the film, knowing how the brain learns, helped them to fine tune their teaching practice, which in turn lowered their stress.
Vicky Krug, an adjunct professor at Westmoreland County Community College, constantly reminds her students that they can change their brains, “I even give them foam brains at the beginning of every year to help them remember. The rainbow coloured brains are always a hit”
Krug would know. She survived an accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury and compromised brain function. When Krug says, “You can train your brain,” she’s speaking from experience.
Neuroscientist turned teacher, Judy Willis, explains plasticity as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brains. Simply put, what fires together, wires together, or practice makes perfect.
What does this look like in the classroom? Repeated exposure, in different ways, helps with retention and recall of concepts. Connecting it to what students already know and highlighting the relevancy, aids with mastery and moves students along the path of critical and creative thinking. Referencing concepts across the subject silos aids with relevancy and big picture thinking.
Understanding how the brain learns helps teachers fine tune their teaching practice, engage your students, and positively influence academic outcomes, ultimately fostering both collective and self teacher efficacy. It’s a win for teachers and students.
Next up: How the physical characteristics and features of your learning space influences learning
Ideally, classrooms are busy, active, and stimulating places. There might be out loud reading, collaboration and brainstorming, a teacher guiding conversation and dialogue, and a number of other activities that keep the volume level high.
And on any given day, there might be a student who needs to take a moment to disconnect and regroup. The student who needs a moment is usually easy to spot - sometimes disruptive to their group or completely disengaged from the surrounding activity; body language is also a good indicator.
We’ve all had those moments and we’ve all had those students in our classrooms.
Consider having a space, in class, for students, (or teachers) to take a moment.
And no, this isn’t a new take on standing in the corner; it’s a space where a student can step back, by choice, without fear of judgement or punishment, and freely observe/acknowledge how they are feeling, use a calming down tool from the “I need a moment space” and decide after two minutes, if they need further discussion with a teacher or they can handle it on their own.
You can ask for students’ input on what they would like to have in the space or you can start it on your own.
Here are some suggestions for your “I need a moment” space:
- Make the space inviting and warm, a little piece of “home” in class. A small rug, pillows, maybe a meditation or a bean bag chair.
- Provide a journal for students to share how they are feeling or use this feeling chart (or something similar). Consider modifying to add a column where the student can check off if they’d like to talk with their teacher or another professional.
- Colouring books (and pencils) are a great, physical way to help a child temporarily disconnect and take control of their emotions.
- Stock your space with healthy snacks. Consider nut-free energy bars, trail mix, crackers, bottles of water. Jeremy Mettler, one of the teachers featured in the film, always has snacks on hand because, “If a kid is hungry, they’re not paying attention to my class.”
- Remind your students most emotions pass in 90 seconds.
- Most of all, model the behavior so students know that it’s really ok to utilize the space when needed.
Photo credit: http://at-riskyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/23148-90seconds.png
Words can break a student or build a student. What words are are you using in your classroom? Are they building words like “You’re getting better at this” or “I like your persistence” or are they breaking words like “Seriously” or “I can’t believe you don’t remember this”.
We’ve all had those moments where we mentally wonder if our students are ever going to get it. What feels like the millionth time we’ve explained a concept or helped them to sound a word out for the correct spelling; maybe it’s remembering their multiplication tables. And, without meaning to, you might say something like, “Are you kidding me?”
Now maybe you caught yourself and rephrased, in an attempt to not show just how frustrated you are.
Or maybe you didn’t even notice.
But your student did.
That singular moment for the teacher, one of a million in their average day, is now embedded in that student’s mind.
And it’ll stay there.
Nagging at them.
Feeding their insecurity.
And making them doubt their ability.
Well past their school days, they’ll most likely, recall that one moment with that one teacher, who said “Are you kidding me?”
Words are like spells. What spell are you casting in your classroom?
Setting the emotional tone of your classroom is the most important thing a teacher does.” (Dr.Mariale Hardiman, founder of the Brain Targeted Teaching Model)
Grey Matters was recently included in a teacher training on social emotional learning, in particular, how to work with stressed children.
Stress is a funny beast. It’s kind of like chocolate - small amounts are fine, but it’s the larger quantities that can do you in. Here’s what we know about stress - large and consistent exposure to stress shrinks the hippocampus, the region of your brain involved in memory, and neurons in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of your brain responsible for problem-solving. Read the research here.
So what does this mean for your classroom?
It’s simple - stressed brains aren’t learning.
If a kid shows up to your classroom, having started their day with stress or encountered stress along the way, they are going to be sitting in that stress. A simple “shake it off” or “slip into a learning mindset” or “let’s leave our baggage at the door” isn’t going to shift their brain from the “protective fight or flight mode” into the “thinking thoughtful mode”.
Social-Emotional Learning offers teachers a basic understanding of emotions and the brain and equips teachers with tools and strategies to help students move out of the stress and their emotions, and into the learning day.
In the film Grey Matters, we see the Peace Path used by Justin Holbrook in his Grade 4 classroom, offers students and teachers, a way acknowledge their emotions, communicate calmly and make a resolution for future behaviours. Holbrook designated a space in the rear of his classroom for his Peace Path which offered students a way to vocalize what was troubling them. Maybe someone had called them a mean name, or grabbed something from them. “My kids know that they can go to the Peace Path at anytime, even if I’m teaching. I’ve had kids ask me to go the Peace Path and I’ve asked kids to go to the Peace Path,” Holbrook explains.
One of the biggest things teachers talk about is how to handle external situations that result in stressed students. From home life to peer relationships - there are a lot of things that teachers can’t control. Yet, those outside the classroom situations, often spill over to the classroom.
Do you deal with it? Or ignore it, in hopes it’ll sort it self out?
Turns out neither of those.
A 2007 research study suggests acknowledging the emotion and redirecting the student (barring a life-threatening issue) may be the most effective approach. In action, that could look like, “Did you want to chat after class or do you want to have lunch with me?”, effectively creating some distance between the student and the emotion.
But what if you can’t tell when a student is upset?
Here’s what one teacher did and this piece is excerpted from “The Brain Targeted Teaching Model for the 21st Century School” by Dr. Hardiman, “She designed a simple emotional temperature form with a row of emotions and corresponding adjectives (e.g. good, bad). Students circled how they felt that day and wrote a word or sentence or drew a picture to express his or her emotion. They would take the form, complete it, and return it to a basket, before beginning their work Two things came out of this approach - kids had the opportunity to acknowledge the emotion which helped them to detach. And the teacher was able to quickly spot where further follow-up or intervention might be needed.
Yours in learning and filmmaking.