“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
Students learn so much from the way a respected teacher goes about their life as an educator. Of course, we need to keep our eyes open for any signs that a student might need overt support. But in living well, in role-modelling wellbeing, we help define and create a culture that illuminates a pathway forward for our students.
Their wellbeing is directly affected by our wellbeing. There will be cloudy and foggy days when we’re not quite as bright, but it is our obligation to shine.
“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”
Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
In classrooms around the world, students are learning, from their teachers’ wisdom, about: science and mathematics and language and the humanities. They’re learning about asking questions and solving problems and creativity and teamwork.
And they are also learning, from the way their teachers are, about: compassion, forgiveness, professionalism, power, caring, integrity, trust, love, and hope.
The way we are in a classroom is at least as important as what we teach.
One of the key factors that has enabled our success as a species is the human ability to synchronise emotional states with others around us. Within our ancient tribe, if you are experiencing fear, there’s probably something highly dangerous in our environment so I had better be on high alert too. Fear has the capacity to spread unconsciously from person to person within milliseconds. Similarly, amusement, joy, serenity, hope and other positive emotions are also rapidly transmitted to other people.
And it’s not only emotions that are contagious. Studies dating as far back as Charles Darwin’s in the 1870s have found that people naturally have a tendency to mirror a conversation-partner’s speech patterns, body language, and facial expressions. We have a special region of cells in our brain, called mirror neurons, that are responsible for this mimicking process. This synchrony system not only helps create a sense of connectedness but allows us to literally feel what the other person is feeling – the foundation of compassion and empathy.
Unfortunately, because this system is so deeply engrained in our humanity, we can easily forget to harness it as an educational lever. And it is quite a big lever. We know our students’ emotions significantly affect their classroom experience and learning. And we know that emotions of a known and trusted individual, such as a teacher, can have a particularly large contagion effect.
Of all the technology and tools available to us as teachers, the way we influence and modulate our students’ psychological state via our modelling of behaviour and emotion is certainly one of the most subtle and most powerful. And this is why we need to be so mindful of our own state both during a lesson and in the final moments before we enter the classroom.