A Mirrored Journey

A Mirrored Journey

Nearing the end of the 2013 fall semester, my graduate classes of second year teachers, were asked to conclude their course composing a mirror paper. This request of introspection was to address “their interior worlds,” and how these past three semesters in some of our city’s most challenging schools have intimately affected their views and beliefs about themselves, their students, and their educational journey. We know modeling is a critical teaching tool for long term learning and we also know expressed reflection of one’s self and the content, is to relearn, consolidate and integrate past experiences and the emotional social and cognitive impact and connections from these understandings. Research reports that “mirror neurons” in our brain have recently been discovered and associated with the capacity to empathize along with the mimicry of shared feelings, actions and experiences.
I too joined my students in this assignment of a mirrored journey…

A Pliable Lens = Malleable Perspective=Cognitive Flexibility
Lenses cloud over, crack, are wiped clean and are replaced. We need clear and pliable lenses if we are to change up the personal view (perspective) of our worlds in order to closely connect to those we work, teach and live beside. The fifth grade students learned this semester that they see with their brains, not with their eyes! They confidently explained this concept while verbally describing a beautiful or favorite image with their eyes closed, while relaxing into the moment of their creative imagery! Literally, their angst, frustrations and perspectives shifted for a minute as they realized that they had the power to control their thoughts, images, feelings, observing perspectives broaden by the visual quieting experience. They were creating new neural pathways in the brain that led to the release of those neurotransmitters that begin to create feelings of well-being.
To say I learned from students this semester would be a gross understatement. I did learn, but I also thought deeply about how my thoughts and feelings were triggered, questioned, celebrated and deeply explored when students were leaning into one another whispering when I was explaining the most important lesson of the presentation. I was learning and triggered when I felt my heart literally crack open when an undergraduate student during his final presentation shared his recent challenge with drug addiction and how life had felt so damn lonely and impossible! All I could conjure up after this intimate moment of shared challenges was “Thank you, thank you for being so courageous and sharing with us!”
In late October, I remember a night class when the lack of attention and respect felt by me from my graduate students was so tangible; I desired nothing more than to call them out, to kick them out of class, actually expressing my frustration in very punitive ways. Driving home that evening, I remembered once again about the power of perspective! Here I had been lecturing to them about the “unknown baggage” the unseen pain their students trudge into their classrooms day after day and how these pain- based behaviors were being exposed in front of their eyes, yet I had forgotten about my own students’ discomforts, feelings of hopelessness and despair. At every stop light, I shifted the view with a few of my own questions. What could I have done differently? How could I have affected better engagement? Was I listening? Was I noticing body language? What was distracting my students this evening? I slowly began repairing that worn out lens, choosing another outlook sitting at the congested corner of 38th and Binford Boulevard.
Walking through the kitchen door I ran up the stairs and into my office, rapidly writing a letter to my graduate students about my thought processes from beginning to end during the drive home. I shared my frustration and the reasons I had felt so exasperated. “Perspective” was alive, reshaping the distorted and negative thoughts I had held so tightly to a few hours ago. We proceeded the following week with much more honesty and equity inside our dialogues and discussions. I realized just like my students and just like their students, perspective is cognitive flexibility. It is an executive function in our brains that is a gift of human survival and more important, human thriving! It drives all we do and are in our classrooms and in life!

Last week, 15 minutes before my time ended with the fifth grade students at Crooked Creek Elementary, the teachers and students and I gathered in a circle as the children shared their thoughts and feelings about “learning with the brain in mind.” I do not remember feeling so touched and “felt” (since my own classroom so long ago.) Eleven- year- old Danya shared, “Dr. Lori I see the fiery passion for teaching behind your blue eyes!” Jamerson, a new student to this class, who last year spent most of his time in the school office, raised his hand. With tears in his eyes, he whispered, “Mrs. Nibarger, you have changed my life because you understand how my brain learns and you are the best best teacher in the whole world!” I didn’t know nor understand the depth and the capacity of the feelings these students embraced. I could not find an adequate word(s) to respond to these beating hearts and strong pliable minds. My perspective was shifting…
Mirrors are reflections and reflections assist us in broadening the view. I remembered and relearned a few notions during this past year.
1. We have the neural wiring and capacity to not only form connections but to reshape, rethink, and create the response, outcome that will redirect us as we build trust relationships and an understanding that will be mirrored and modeled by our students!
2. Emotions are highly contagious and because of our “mirror neurons” we can choose to react or respond knowing it is a choice and one that take practice, practice and more practice!
3. Check-in and notice! Notice body language, the unspoken words, and what is triggering you! What can you learn? How can you change the ending of this story? We all have a choice thanks to the neuro-plasticity of our complex and beautifully pliable brains.

What do you do when she shuts down, defies all rules, gets up out of her seat and challenges and distracts everyone within earshot, refusing to work? There is no doubt that we have to begin addressing these emotional needs that intersect each and every time with learning goals, but this year, it begins with me and my interior world because I am always teaching who I am.

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