by Laura Weaver
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
1.Breathe. Stop the conversation and take a deep breath.
2.Receive the emotion you are feeling without judgment – welcome the emotions without judging them as good or bad.
3.Be willing to ask for a break and step out of the charged situation.
4. Inquire about the thoughts behind the emotion. What belief or thought initiated this emotion?
5. 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
by Ari Gerzon-Kessler
Honoring students’ voices and deepening the student-teacher bond can be effectively accomplished through meaningful academic activities. A few years ago, I implemented one practice in particular that enabled me to know my third-grade students on a much deeper level than any previous group. Students completed a “you and me diary” three times a week, in which they wrote to me about anything (their home lives, goals, the best or worst parts of school, academic or personal questions they had for me, etc.) and, on the bottom half of the sheet, I responded.
It was writing for authentic purposes at its best – Emilio writing about why he loves the zoo, Cristal describing her desire to learn to swim, Juanita reporting to me on the death of her hamster, and Marcos asking me question after question about when we would learn more about mammals or planets. As they developed their writing skills, they were also sharing with me their inner lives and what made them unique. Although writing was their least favorite subject at the beginning of the year, they embraced the two-way diary with vigor and would even take it home to complete when they were sick.
Through this process of self-discovery, reflection, and confiding in me, they felt heard and respected. As author Sam Keen notes, “We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.” While these diary entries were confidential, they provided me with a deeper understanding of my students that I could draw upon in the classroom. For example, when I noticed that Luis wrote about going fishing following each weekend, I brought this up in front of the class during writing class as an example of picking topics that interest you. Luis, my most hyperactive student, listened intently as he smiled at me from across the room.
As a child myself, I remember feeling that most adults were too busy to recognize or take interest in my thoughts and experiences. The teachers, coaches, and mentors that truly listened became my confidants and even heroes. My trust and admiration for them propelled me to do my very best. Remembering the small stuff like a child’s favorite hobby can make a profound impact. As American education becomes more grounded in relationship-centered classrooms, we will undoubtedly see students arriving each morning more eager to learn.
Ari Gerzon-Kessler is the vice principal at Glacier Peak and PrairienHills, two elementary schools in Thornton, Colorado. As a bilingual teacher for seven years, Ari drew upon social/emotional learning principles and academic best practices to foster high levels of student growth and achievement. Ari received his MA in Instruction and Curriculum from the University of Colorado and has published articles in a variety of education magazines.
By Laura Weaver
A great teacher can literally change the course of a student’s life. They light a lifelong curiosity, a desire to participate in democracy, and instill a thirst for knowledge. It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student academic growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom—not socioeconomic status, not family background, but the quality of the teacher at the head of the class.-Arne Duncan, Speech at Columbia University Teachers College, October 2009
“Teacher Quality” has become a powerful movement in education over the last years, emphasizing the critical role of the teacher in achieving student learning outcomes. With this new emphasis comes a whole host of questions, such as: what is teacher quality and how do we measure it? Is it innate or can it be cultivated? What will teacher quality be tied to? If teachers don’t “measure up,” what will be the consequence? And if teacher quality is tied exclusively to students’ test scores, will this initiative become “no teacher left behind?”
The Current Landscape of Teaching
After working with educators in the field for years now, I have seen the wreckage created by reform fatigue, funding crises, low morale, changing leadership, job insecurity, turnstile educational policies and the pressure of high stakes testing. Teachers are also experiencing a kind of “whiplash”—for years, the emphasis in education was on the creation of a kind of ”teacher proof curriculum.” Now, teachers are being named as the sole factor in making or breaking a student’s success—particularly in regard to test scores.
Statistics gathered in the Quality Teacher’s Initiative paper during the Bush Administration illustrate the challenges teacher’s face.
- “Many new teachers do not feel ready for the challenges of today’s classrooms. Fewer than 36 percent feel ‘very well prepared’ to implement curriculum and performance standards, and less than 20 percent feel prepared to meet the needs of diverse students or those with limited English proficiency. (pg. 3)
- “22 percent of new public school teachers leave the profession in their first three years.” (pg. 3)
- “Fewer than 20 percent of public school teachers report that they are “very satisfied” with the level of esteem society accords them. Teachers also report that they have problems maintaining order in the classroom and face the threat of being sued when they enforce reasonable standards of discipline. Additionally, low pay and the burden of student loans and other expenses related to teaching can contribute to teachers feeling dissatisfied with their work environment. (pg. 3)
This is all evidence that systems are not in place that prepare, assess and support teachers to thrive and express their passion for teaching. In order to create an environment conducive to hiring, developing, and retaining quality teachers, we must develop multi-faceted strategies for systems change. This necessarily involves effective and ongoing professional development, the inclusion of teacher voice and viewpoint in policy decisions, pay schedules that reward continuing education, a variety of approaches to data collection, collaboration with parents, and a shift in teacher preparation programs to include not only skills, content and curriculum, but also developmental psychology, brain research and skills related to cultivating safe, vibrant classroom communities.
Teaching Presence: A Critical Aspect of Teacher Quality
At the 2009 Mind and Life Conference: Educating 21st Century Citizens, Dr. Lee Schulman President Emeritus at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching spoke of the challenging nature of the teaching profession. He noted that after working extensively with doctors, teachers, and engineers, he was convinced that teachers have the most challenging job because they are required to attend to the diverse and conflicting needs of thirty people all at once.
In an effort to improve academic outcomes and standardize teaching methodologies, educational policy has, at times, sought to look through the teachers and create programs and curriculum that are “teacher-proof”—able to withstand the “worst” of teachers. The mechanical approach represented by “teacher-proofing” falls short because it encourages dry, rigid, joyless teaching that diminishes the unique spirit and capacities of each individual teacher. We all know stories of students struggling through a favorite subject, not because the teacher doesn’t know the content, but because the teacher lacks presence and passion. Conversely, we know that students can learn to love or excel in a “hated” subject precisely because of the presence and passion of the teacher.
In 2000, Rachael Kessler published an article entitled “Teaching Presence”, which identified three dimensions of “teaching presence.”
1. Our capacity to teach with an open heart and to know what closes our heart and what assists us to open it again
2. Our willingness and ability to hold respectful discipline
3. Our ability to be emotionally and intellectually present, responsive to the needs of the moment
Kessler has since added another dimension:
1. Emotional Range: our capacity to know, understand and feel comfortable with the full range of human emotions in ourselves and others
As Emerson says, “who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say you are.” Perhaps this is what teacher quality is—the unique combination of our skills, knowledge and tools as teachers and deliverers of curriculum, along with our “teaching presence”—our capacity to invite students, through our own example, to find authenticity, meaning and purpose in the classroom. This definition of teacher quality includes both strong content competency AND the capacity to meet our students, build relationships, and find ways to “unlock” their ability to learn and develop as human beings.
Diagnosing the Crisis in Education: A Systems Approach
Arne Duncan’s last speeches have focused on the importance of teacher quality and the failure of teacher preparation programs to adequately prepare teachers for the classroom.
This focus on the teacher as essential to learning and safety outcomes is long overdue. And yet this crisis in education cannot be resolved with a single focus. Education is a system embedded in a unique culture and context. Finding a solution must also involve a systemic approach that engages the problems from many sides— we need a fundamental shift in the way we all relate to education—parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, students. It is time to move beyond finger-pointing and isolated, discrete reform movements and to engage in partnerships, collaborations and true dialogue. Meeting the clarion call of our youth in crisis will require a different kind of activism—one that spends time deeply listening to the system it attempts to “fix” (and not only through quantitative and test scores), involves all the stakeholders including students, and focuses on the development of the minds and hearts of the educators who walk into the classroom with young people every day.
So let’s acknowledge the keystone role of the teacher. Let’s invest in the retooling of our teacher preparation programs and support school communities to value teacher voice and to create clear, multi-dimensional accountability measures. Let’s create communities of educators who value each other’s feedback, who trust one another, who welcome classroom observation and discussion on best practice. Let’s be absolutely honest about the challenge of teaching at this time—with the erosion of community and family structures, with students who experience intense poverty and daily trauma, with a world that is changing radically fast. And let’s clearly define what Teacher Quality means. Let’s offer teachers the finest of curriculum and professional development and compensate them fairly. And let’s also support them to develop essential capacities of open heart, respectful discipline, being present and emotional range—qualities in a teacher that allow classrooms to come alive and engage students in the magic of learning and human development.
by Mark Wilding
“21st Century skills” is the latest buzz in education. Is this the newest fad in slogan-based reform or is the call for 21st century skills provoking an important conversation about 21st century education? It has certainly re-kindled a long-standing debate about content vs. skills.
“‘We are stuck,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, head of the President’s Education Policy Working Group, “We’ve been having this curriculum war for years.’” - from “Backers of ’21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak” (See also “Critical thinking? You need knowledge” by Diane Ravitch)
Getting Beyond False Dichotomies
Our culture has an insatiable desire for simple solutions, which usually involve false dichotomies such as skills vs. content. Yes, we all would prefer unambiguous simple solutions to complex problems, however integrating skills and content are part of any effective educational approach. In the words of Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and one of the foremost researchers on the brain and education, ”Emotions drive attention which drives learning, memory and just about everything else.”
As author and cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham commented in his blog: “Clarion calls for more attention to 21st-century skills brings to mind a familiar pattern in the history of education: pendulum swings between an emphasis on process (analysis, critical thinking, cooperative learning) which fosters concern that students lack knowledge and generates a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes content, which fosters concern that student are merely parroting facts with no idea of how to use their knowledge, and so on. In calmer moments, everyone agrees that students must have both content knowledge and practice in using it, but one or the other tends to get lost as the emphasis sweeps to the other extreme.”
Discipline vs. Open Heart
Another false dichotomy exists in the apparent dilemma over teacher approaches in the classroom. Should teachers focus on relationship building and express genuine care for their students? Or should they establish clear boundaries in order to maintain discipline. Of course boundaries are important, and educational research tells us that teachers that care for students and demand their best are the most effective. (from Listening to Urban Kids by Wilson and Corbett) Rachael Kessler describes this need for holding both respectful discipline and open heart in “The Teaching Presence.”
Practicing What We Preach
Many have pointed out that 21st century citizens need to have the capacity for complex thinking, which includes being able to hold two seemingly opposing points of view. As educators, maybe we could ‘practice what we preach’ and embrace the 21st century skills that we strive to cultivate in our students. These include: discerning bias; demonstrating intellectual curiosity; generating and implementing novel approaches; interacting effectively with different individuals, groups, and cultures; recognizing the interdependent nature of our world; working effectively with others; and cooperating for a common purpose.
One of the most powerful ways that young people learn is by example. Is it possible that leaders in the field of education could collaborate with folks that think differently than they do? I know this will generate less entertaining blog posts, but it might help us create an education system that our grandchildren will thank us for.
Individuals and organizations who advocate either for the importance of content or for 21st century citizen skills should be partners in this conversation about innovation. This is not just because cognitive and human development are both important, but because an integrated approach is synergistic — supporting improved academic performance, 21st century skill development, individual student resilience, and school safety.
End vs. Means
This brings up another cosmic education question. Are so-called learning and life skills ‘ends’ in themselves or are they a means to an academic end? There is mounting evidence that social and emotional skills are fundamental competencies for 21st century citizens and they are also essential for academic performance. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states it this way, “Developing these competencies fosters academic achievement, a sense of belonging, engagement, and positive behavior, and equips children with the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century.”
“The drive to promote life and career competencies – often called “soft” or “applied” skills – has been part of American school policy debate for years. The SCANS report of 1991, for instance, listed interpersonal skills, effective management of resources, and personal qualities such as responsibility, self-management, and integrity as essential to successful job performance. Lauren Resnick, a member of the original SCANS panel and current director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research Development Center says, ‘What really needs to happen is to bring these [two agendas] back together. They never should have been separated in the first place.’” From the Partnership for 21st Century Skills
An Emerging Coalition
Over the last few months, our institute has been participating in an emerging coalition of organizations in Colorado that partner with schools to offer programs for social and emotional learning, character development, and service learning. The coalition is dedicated to developing effective schools through the integration of learning and life skills and academic content knowledge, and we support the inclusion of 21st century skills standards in addition to content standards to achieve both academic excellence and mastery of the learning and life skills. The collaboration is new, and there is a lot of work to do, but the time is ripe for organizations to come together around our common goal of supporting schools and teachers with this integrated approach. Coalition members: Foundation for Character Development, Abraham Lincoln Center for Character Development, Front Range Earth Force, PassageWorks Institute, Peace Jam, Rachel’s Challenge.
I believe that if educators invest the time in listening to each other about what kind of schools we want, that there would be much more agreement than we think, and that this common ground could be the foundation for collaborating on a more complete and integrated approach to educating young people. I want my two grandchildren (and one ‘on the way’) to attend schools that are safe and intellectually challenging environments — so that they have the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills to be successful and ethical citizens in the 21st century.
Mark Wilding is the Executive Director of PassageWorks Institute. Mark is the former Director of the Marpa Center for Business and Economics at Naropa University. He helped launch a graduate degree program at Naropa in 1995 and continues to teach graduate courses in authentic leadership and systems thinking. Mark has held leadership roles in government, business, non-profit, and academic organizations. Mark helped found a public computer software company in 1985 and served on the board and in several roles until he left as President in 1993. He has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. in Environmental Leadership.