Class Act

I remember a time when the message to young teachers about how to establish authority in the class boiled down to some simple instructions about remaining distant and aloof. Many of us will recall the doctrine of ‘no smiling before Easter’. While most new to the profession these days will be encouraged to develop more positive connections with students before Easter there is still some of this authoritarian hangover lurking for teachers who’s own default settings remain in the reactive negative affect range of basic emotional responses. In spite of having fully developed frontal lobes, yelling, humiliating, mocking and shaming young people is still a preferred tactic for some.

And I can speak from experience. When I started teaching I was still understanding my own reactive limbic system defaults and wish my teacher education had spent more time to help me work through how to become more aware of how my behaviour impacted on the learning and well-being of young people. I was a bit reckless at times – and had social media been around I’d probably have had a few hash tags of the not so salubrious kind.

Given as a nation we don’t have such great statistics with violence and abuse toward children it seems highly undesirable to have our learning institutions endorsing abuse tactics with so much understanding these days about the effects on developing brains. Yet as adults we tend to hide behind our privileged position as the ‘older species’ assuming this chronological difference entitles us to respect regardless of our own behaviour. Sometimes I wonder who really needs to grow up?

The artificial structures of respect and authority in 21st century schools that linger from post industrial revolution ideologies and practices taint modern learning environments. In a postmodern landscape with technology blurring the accessibility of personal boundaries growing, the very idea of calling teachers Mr or Miss is crazy if teachers profiles can be seen online.

Perhaps the best litmus test for a readiness to change is the openness to restorative practices as these really do challenge assumptions about power, authority and how to do respect. The most confronting aspect however is not so much in the kinds of conversations that are had but the need to acknowledge the recognition that we are all human beings in process. Developing empathy and caring is not done by the time you are 18. Every conversation changes a person therefore the quality of those conversations and interactions matter.

For those still unsure about the power of restorative practice watch Daniel Reisels TED talk. Emotions are there to connect with understanding and I think there is more to empathy than what happens in the brain. Genuine learning engages uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. We need to ditch the idea of negating or ‘managing’ these emotions or seeing them as primitive and a mark of weakness. Thinking and being reason-able is over rated sometimes or at the very least over emphasised as a mark of maturity.

I hope we can start creating modern learning environments that expect smiling on the first day and compulsory facials by Easter due to face ache.



I’ve been at a conference over the last couple of days and listened to a key note (hmmm key note – not to be confused with any election reference…more like ‘off-key’ note in that case) from Dr Michael Merzenich a very learned man with a passion for this stuff that was almost contagious. I tend to inoculate myself with a natural dose of non-attachment to any definitive theory of anything.

Brain plasticity is a not a new idea, but there have been some assumptions about when that plasticity ends and hardened or engrained neural pathways become set. From this point on we get the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. No-one of course ever bothers to wonder if the dog is actually just giving the human equivalent of the middle finger rather than perform on command. It seems some theories might need a bit of plasticity as new research reveals the brain is indeed plastic at all ages and stages of life. Of course this has huge implications for healing trauma, learning, quality of life, memory and recall.
We saw lots of high quality data to support this, many graphs, diagrams, stats, none of which I can remember – but probably could if signed up for the programme Dr Merzenich has designed (and has shares in he so openly declared) and I trained myself to. And here is the dilemma. Whilst I appreciate the revelation I’m hoping it doesn’t start a wave of relentless pursing of ‘upping learning capacity’ or creating a new wave of extra training to add to an already growing obsession with training in general.

Plasticity however is a great concept in general. If we can apply the idea of plasticity to rigid beliefs and values and generate new pathways of social connection, understanding and respect that isn’t fixed in fear and ignorance, that will be far more valuable than recalling 200 random objects at will. My guess is the events that lead to the initial chaos and damage requiring repair would probably not be so prevalent. I’d rather have a share in that.

Really – it’s a no brainer.