With former chancellor Michelle Rhee’s announcement of StudentsFirst.org and its initiative, teachers may feel discouraged about the stability of their profession. There is a movement in education, supported by a swelling of parents, to let bad teachers go. What I hope can be the focus of such a movement is a thoughtful and productive examination of what makes teachers great. There are plenty of fantastic teachers working today. This I know because of the privilege I have had over the last 19 years to work with them. What makes teachers great is not just what you would think from a common sense point of view. Recent neuroscience makes clear how teachers can be most effective no matter how difficult the challenge.

From my previous blogs, we know that teachers taking care of themselves first is key. Once we are in our own “optimum zone of arousal” or “window of tolerance” we have what it takes to respond thoughtfully, make excellent decisions, get it right the first time, and “stick to our guns.” When we are balanced and healthy, we are capable of creating the conditions within which student achievement is possible. And remember, this is not a “specific program.” The neuroscience supports no one program. Rather, the brain functions optimally when several “little” inputs are in place that trigger in the body a greater sense of calm, safety, and fluidity. Three more of the most important steps an educator can take to prime the brain for learning and adaptive behavior include:

1. Talking less. Does this sound impossible in the word-driven world of education? I hope not. Because the neuroscience is clear that fewer words calm the nervous system so the brain can take in information more efficiently. Slowing it all down is important. It’s not just important to use fewer words, but to decrease the pace of our speech, to calm the pitch and take down the volume of our voice, to be cognizant of our facial expressions so they communicate a greater sense of safety and calm. Especially when working with angry, shut down, and more volatile students. When they are upset, allow for silence until they are calm and thereby more receptive. This usually take a good 20 minutes. If you don’t think you can afford the time to wait, I am here to tell you, you cannot afford NOT to take the time. In the long run, you will save not only time, but an enormous amount of energy by speaking only to a person who can receive what it is you are trying to say BRIEFLY.

2. Replacing shame with compassion. Our angry and/or shut down students are overloaded with shame already. That is why they are angry and/or shut down! Please find Dr. Bruce Perry’s thoughts on the myth of Oppositional Defiant Disorder to learn more. To pile more shame onto these students only makes our job to teach them harder. We need them in their “zone of optimum arousal” to learn and behave adaptively. Shaming them through punishment or any other form of humiliation is not going to get them there. But our compassion will. Give consequences, certainly! They need the safety that is created by our setting limits and having boundaries, but give them with compassion because you too know what it’s like to make the same mistake over and over again. Give them a chance to repair the damage they’ve done because you know how important it is to have the opportunity to set something wrong right.

3. Allowing “marination in mastery.” Give your students the time they need to master something and to “marinade” in that mastery. A student that gets a chance to sit in the feeling of something getting easier, to enjoy the sense that they are getting better at something, is as essential to the brain and nervous system as food and water. Yet we don’t see this happening in education today. We are too busy moving on to the next item that will be on the test. This is a huge disservice to our students who feel as little time and space as we do. Is any of us happy? Are we thriving or just surviving? Our students are barely surviving and we are the ones who can do something about it. Please do.

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