We have all seen it: teachers on a power trip or on a rampage or just completely disconnected from children. In teacher preparation courses on behavior management, preservice teachers are warned to avoid the power struggle yet, these same teachers are also taught to always be in control of their students. I have felt it myself, when a situation starts to feel out of control I have lost that feeling of empathy for my students, sliding into the rigid lock of a need for power.
One of the roles of the teacher in the early childhood classroom is to be empathetic with the feelings and intentions of young children. It is one of the keys to a functioning classroom and, in my experience, often makes children feel safe. When children feel safe, they are able to learn.
A recent study (PDF) by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, highlights why these two charges of the the early childhood teacher may actually be in opposition to each other. His study suggests that feelings of power dampen the “mirror response” system in our brains that enables empathy. This same mirror response is how we imagine the experiences of others and in a sense, see another’s perspective.
Dan Willingham and others have cautioned teachers to be careful of adjusting practices based on the latest neuroscientific study. I agree: a single study may not be enough to justify an adjustment in teaching practice. However, if we take a grain of salt into our thinking about our practices, this study confirms a number of intuitive perceptions I have had about my teaching.
I have long felt that effective teaching depended on the imagination. This study seems to confirm this intuitive position. In teaching my imagination is what helps me to understand what my students are experiencing while I am teaching. It provides a lens for understanding student perspective. It also takes me a step away from the power relationship discussed in behavior management literature. Teaching with the imagination actually led me to change my teaching practices when I realized that my students, when mimicking the physical movements I made in drawing letters in the air, were actually drawing the letters backwards. When I realized this, I re-trained myself to trace letters in the air backwards so that, to the student, they would learn to make the hand motions correctly.
Empathy and imagination also frame my approach to talking with angry or upset children. If I present myself to them with an engaging and calming facial expression, they will sometimes mirror my face and step out of a distraught frame of mind so that they can come to terms with strong emotions. This type of distancing is a skill learned while pursuing my National Board Certification. I saw myself on video and realized what I was doing.
Over time, practicing stepping out of the role of power has helped me to become a more responsive educator. I have almost developed the ability to sense when I have closed off those receptors. I can feel my vision narrow, my hearing dull, my sensitivity to the look in a child’s eyes fog. It is an almost imperceptible change. Being aware of it is definitely a matter of practice… and some days I fail.
But, more days than not, I am able to imagine and connect. What do you do if you feel a “power trip” coming on?