The currency of teaching

Last year, I moved to countries from Malaysia back to my tūrangawaewae, New Zealand. I started teaching halfway through the academic year, which meant the students I was now teaching had already been taught  by other teachers over the 6 months previously. In fact, one class had already had 5 teachers that year! Being a boys school, this added an extra challenge as boys tend to learn through relational learning. At its core, relational learning relies on strong relationships between teachers and their students. This is in contrast to setting up a classroom environment based on power. While teachers in more traditional settings, like the school I had just arrived from, can certainly act in this way and can absolutely form deep connections with students, truly relational learning makes mutual respect between the teacher and student central to the classroom.

In a relational learning environment, a teacher needs to simultaneously assist in a student’s personal growth and also maintain the trajectory of the learning. This requires teachers to monitor the quality of their relationships with students, and make adjustments that affirm students’ needs, interests, and position within the classroom. This might mean bonding with a student over their passion for a particular problem applying science or encouraging them to design a project around a topic they have an interest in. By meeting students where they are, teachers can provide them social, academic, and personal support, simultaneouslyStudents’ brains are hard at work every moment of the day, learning skills and connecting new information with old, assessing it and either incorporating or rejecting that new information into their mental framework. Those same brains are also constantly processing information when it comes to their relationship with you, their teacher, if they do not connect with you as the teacher, they will struggle to incorporate the new information and change their schema (to learn).

So, having arrived halfway through the year, creating a relational learning environment proved a big challenge. This was especially the case in junior science classes, wherein my previous teaching position was very content-heavy and not based primarily on the nature of science. This meant that lessons were focusing on getting through facts and concepts, without considering student experiences and prior knowledge. For one particular class, this led to a lack of engagement with a number of students and a breakdown in class management. This was a blessing in disguise as made me sit down and reflect on how I was teaching and if it was effective for both myself and my students. I was forgetting about the importance of relationships.

Positive student relationships are fundamental to success in any classroom. When students feel supported, they’re more likely to engage in learning and succeed. Additionally, when students have positive interactions with teachers, they have fewer behavioral problems. These relationships are more important — and more challenging — when starting to teach at a new school in Term 3.

As a science teacher, I looked at neuroscience to help me understand what’s happening in students’ brains when they were misbehaving and ways to turn that around. So why positive teacher-student relationships are important? How can I build those relationships?

1. Positive relationships build motivation.

What the science says: Positive relationships are built on positive interactions. Each of these interactions has a powerful effect on the brain. When you authentically praise a student or have a positive interaction, the student’s brain releases dopamine. One thing, I was not aware of was that I tended not to praise much in my classrooms. The release of dopamine creates a cycle. You provide positive feedback. The student’s brain releases dopamine. The student feels good and is motivated to feel that way again. With this increased motivation, students spend more time and attention working on a skill. They build those skills. You give more praise — sparking the release of more dopamine. And the cycle starts all over again. Looking at my teaching practice before the breakdown of in-class behavior, students didn’t receive much positive feedback, so they were less likely to enter the positive cycle of motivation and learning.

What I changed: To build positive relationships, I needed to have more positive interactions than negative ones. So I increased the positive interactions including greeting students by name as they arrived, giving praise for putting effort into learning tasks, or asking about a student’s interests (mostly hunting deer it seems).

I also considered the neurodiversity in the classroom and the students who often have more negative interactions than positive ones at school. For example, I had a number of students with dyslexia that receive constant reminders from teachers to write clearer answers. This did not mean that I should not provide these students with corrective feedback. But I needed to make sure the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. As I took more time with these students, I got to know them, the more I recognized when they needed praise or encouragement, and when they were open to constructive feedback. In particular, I changed the way I assessed some students from written responses to video responses on Flipgrid, creating podcasts, or even just sitting down and having a conversation on a particular concept

2. Positive relationships create safe spaces for learning.

What the science says: Social activities like talking and laughing cause the body to release the hormone oxytocin. This helps us to bond with others. Those bonds create a feeling that’s often called “psychological safety.” When students feel psychologically safe, they’re more likely to participate in class discussions, ask questions, try to do an assignment even when it’s hard, or talk in a tone of voice that’s appropriate for the situation

My experience in the classroom has taught me that building psychological safety is harder with some students than others. Ask a simple question like how was your weekend? Some students became defensive, overreacted, and became aggressive. This behavior may result from stress in the student’s life, which can be outside the classroom. This caused them to feel threatened in situations that other students found harmless. The brain learns that the environment is not safe and remains on alert to potential danger.

For these students, when something was perceived as a threat, a region of the brain called the amygdala set off an alarm. The amygdala is known for its role in detecting threats in the environment. Its job is to keep us safe and alive. 

The amygdala was triggering the release of cortisol and adrenaline. This sent extra energy throughout the body. The muscles of these students tensed up and the heartbeat quickened, preparing them for a fight or a flight. When the threat detection system in the brain was highly activated, learning was not happening. This is the opposite of psychological safety. So this needed to be addressed.

I was seeing these behaviors in my students, in a range of ways:

  • Avoiding learning tasks
  • Putting their head down
  • Yelling or making negative comments (roasting other boys)
  • Walking out of the classroom 
  • Acting out aggressively

While building psychological safety was even more difficult with these students, it was especially important for them. That’s because oxytocin also helps keep the amygdala’s threat detection system quiet. Over time, when students are surrounded by people they trust, their threat detection system is less likely to activate, and they’re better able to learn.

What I changed: I began praising the effort rather than the outcome. I also began to reassure students that certain skills are really difficult. I let them know that failure is part of learning. I did this by modeling how I responded to my own failures in lessons (an important aspect of science is that experiments don't always give the results you expect!).

By reflecting on my practice and going back to basics, the behaviour of students in the particular classroom improved immensely, they became more engaged and more of a pleasure to teach, the one on one conversations showed me they were eager to learn and that they were learning and I no longer dreaded teaching that particular class. So I thank that bunch of lovable (eventually) rogues for helping me improve my practice. 

Ta te tamariki tana mahi wawahi tahā

It is the job of the children to smash the calabash


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