In early October, we convened a Teaching Presence Course in Lafayette, CO with a wonderful group of educators and leaders. Throughout the weekend, we returned to one of the central components of the “teaching presence”* work—the domain of the “self-scientist.” The self-scientist is a term we use to name the aspect of ourselves that has the capacity to reflect and witness our own behaviors, responses, approaches, beliefs, reactions and “triggers” in the classroom and with colleagues. Developing our self-scientist calls us to cultivate our skills of self-observation, to foster our capacity to pause in the midst of heated exchanges or emotionally or intellectually charged situations, and to acknowledge we have a choice in how we respond to every situation that shows up. Our self-scientist assists us to intervene in situations where we could potentially be ‘emotionally hijacked’ and end up reacting habitually or in ways we later regret.
“Emotional Hijacking**”: The Amygdala Response in the Brain
The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the front part of the temporal lobe of the brain that is part of the limbic system and is involved in the processing and expression of emotions, especially anger and fear . Emotional hijacking, a term coined by Daniel Goleman, refers to the “amygdala response” in the brain. The amygdala serves as our brain’s security alarm system. When the amygdala registers a strong emotion signaling potential danger, it triggers a physical response in the body before we have the chance to “think” about the situation. The amygdala then sends urgent messages to every other major part of the brain, triggering the secretion of the body’s fight-or-flight response hormones, mobilizing the brain center for movement and activating the cardiovascular system.
As Goleman says of these experiences, “Such emotional explosions are neural hijackings. At those moments, evidence suggests, a center in the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda. The hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering this reaction before the neocortex, the thinking brain, has had a chance to glimpse fully what is happening, let alone decide if it is a good idea.” And as we likely know from our own personal experience, “….the more intense the feeling, the more dominant the emotional mind becomes – and the more ineffectual the rational” [Goleman – 1995].” When we are hijacked in this way, we literally cannot think or consciously choose a response. As Neuroscientist J.E. LeDeux notes, “Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex. Some emotional reactions and emotional memories can be formed without any conscious cognitive participation at all.”
Awareness, Response-Ability and Inquiry
If we can recognize the signs that our body is moving into a high-intensity emotion fight-or-flight response, we can begin to develop the capacity to interrupt this “hijacking” cycle before it takes over. As we develop our awareness of our “triggers” in the present moment, we can begin to recognize these same kinds of triggers in other situations in life and become familiar with our own patterns and tendencies. When we are able to establish a strong relationship with our “observer self”, we can then more adeptly explore the range of options and choices we have in any situation.
Our self-scientist can assist us to meet the roughest of times with curiosity, openness, and self-inquiry. In a heated or emotional situation, we might pause and ask ourselves: What is going on right now in this situation? What other situations does this remind me of? What am I reacting to? What emotions am I feeling? What am I feeling in my body? How might I reframe the situation? How do I want to choose to respond? This simple line of questioning can bring us into greater dialogue with our own hearts and minds and assist us to re-pattern our responses.
How does this relate to teaching?
Brain research and learning theory confirm that relationships are central to creating a positive classroom environment conducive to learning. When we have little awareness of where our own behaviors and biases come from, we develop relationships unconsciously and our own perceptions and reactions may interfere with our students’ learning. Perhaps we have a radically different worldview from a student and whenever that student speaks we don’t want to listen. Or perhaps a student continually sabotages our class and we develop feelings of resentment and cut off the possibility of a positive relationship with that student. Perhaps a highly “successful” colleague brings up our own insecurities and so we avoid contact with that colleague. Or perhaps we get angry whenever a colleague speaks in a faculty meeting, because that colleague reminds us of a family member we have consistent conflict with. These are highly instructive observations that can give us essential information about how we impact our classroom, our student’s capacity to learn, and the culture of our school.
Developing awareness about our selves as teachers can also increase our own “resilience.” As we feel more empowered to choose our responses, create the kind of teaching environment we long for, observe ourselves compassionately, and learn from our successes and challenges, we may find that our passion for the art of science and teaching grows.
Self-Scientist Practice #1 Meeting Emotionally Charged Situations
- Breathe. Stop the conversation and take a deep breath.
- Receive the emotion you are feeling without judgment – welcome the emotions without judging them as good or bad.
- Be willing to ask for a break and step out of the charged situation.
- Inquire about the thoughts behind the emotion. What belief or thought initiated this emotion?
- Choose your action based on the potential consequences and desired outcome.
Adopting the disposition of the Self-scientist creates the possibility of CHOICE.
Self-Scientist Practice #2 Knowing our own Hearts
In our courses, we ask participants to consider a series of questions. In your classroom and with colleagues, what tends to open your heart and what tends to close your heart? And when your heart is closed, what do you know about how it opens again? This simple line of questioning can lead to profound discoveries that directly impact our teaching practice and support us to build the kind of rich relationships with our students and colleagues that we most long for.
Please tell us about your self-scientist practices and what you have discovered about opening and closing your heart in the classroom.
*Teaching Presence refers to the aspect of our teaching practice that go beyond curriculum, technique and strategy. The four dimensions of Teaching Presence are teaching with an open heart and recognizing what closes our hearts; exploring obstacles and opportunities for becoming present in the classroom; holding respectful discipline — setting boundaries with compassion; and developing emotional range—growing comfort with a full range of emotions in ourselves and our students: joy, grief, anger, exuberance, fear, love, and vulnerability.
** Coined in the book Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman
***The American Heritage Science Dictionary 2002, Houghton Mifflin