Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Self-Reflections Separate Good Teaching from Superior Teaching

Research reports when educators integrate self-reflection into their instructional practices, expanded, empathetic, and enriched teaching and learning processes occur. I am so excited to share a personal reflection from Ms Toya Downs a second year educator with Teach for America and Marian University. She was asked to listen to radio podcast with author Paul Tough and ecomonmist James Heckman from This American Life and the book “How Children Succeed.” Her insights, notions, personal jouney and feelings are beautifully expressed in this brief reflective paper. Please enjoy!

Toya Downs
Teach for America
Marian University

American Life: A Discussion of a New Perspective on Non-Cognitive Skills
Reflecting upon this broadcast, I could not help but recall December 2010, a meditative moment, anxious about being accepted into Teach For America. I had a divine, internal conversation with my Creator about potentially being a revolutionist within education. I had not a clue about the life of a teacher: expectations, lifestyle, professional development, mindsets, etc. I was only equipped with knowledge I’d been blessed to learn through a series of most unfortunate events. What I knew, and still know, is that the world around me was suffering from a great deal of many hardships, injustices, imbalances, misguidance, poor health, failing human relationships, and shortages of philanthropic movements. What I’d also been led to discover was the terrible position adults’ decisions, choices, and fears had landed children in.
During my undergraduate Quantitative Research class, I decided to tackle the topic of ADHD/ADD. Initially, I was prompted to delve into this matter as a result of my own daughter’s seeming challenges with attention and even a full night’s rest with no interruption. The more I read, the more I realized that, while there were legitimate ADHD/ADD diagnoses, many children were mislabeled, and further stood a greater chance of overcoming their deficits through such things as stringent routines, love, and balanced attention. This discovery guided me into increased inquisitiveness about our present-day education system.
My personal affinity towards metaphysics underscores much of my thinking and influences my perceptions; however, I must admit that I have little more than precursory knowledge. Even so, the field offers much with regard to the biochemical relationship between emotions and brain functioning. I continued to learn that ADHD/ADD is attributable to chemical imbalances of the brain that may play out as anxiousness, irritability, anger, or restlessness. Unbalanced chemicals have a deleterious effect on the proper functioning of the skills necessary for application and practical use of knowledge. Further, these chemicals, if released enough, become addictive to the unsuspecting person and can lead to habitual, self-seeking situations that fulfill that chemical need. The manifestation: students who have, during early childhood development, experienced traumatic situations and continue to do so, being obedient to their brain’s need for emotional fulfillment, behave in ways that allow their brain’s addiction to be fed, and act in ways that teachers label insubordinate, unruly, disrespectful, misaligned, and inappropriate. Perhaps, this explains what Quwonna Learma [spelling] was truly experiencing when she “blacked out.”
In light of learning this information, it became painfully obvious that the symptoms of the “achievement gap” point to a lack of focus on brain nurturing, love, understanding, and patience. Additionally, all classroom teachers, in my opinion, should be required to understand brain functioning beyond an intermediate level for knowledge of such is the key to closing the persistent achievement gap. The effects of increasing teacher’s understanding of the brain have far-reaching benefits that extend well beyond the classroom; it is the solution to war, poverty, injustices, and hatred.
To me, James Heckman’s exposure on “non-cognitive” skills addresses this lack. His suggestion that we teach students “soft skills”, “social skills” and focus on “personality traits” is intended as a response to the fact that GED earners garnered the same level of academically-based knowledge as traditional graduates, but significantly differed in the quality of life experiences citing that GED recipients had greater instances of divorce, failed jobs, and failed military experiences. To this, he attributed the fact that while these students had developed cognitively, school systems failed at providing equal numbers of opportunities for emotional development. I would further add that while discussions of this nature tend to focus on lower-socio economic classes, there is much to be said about a whole other segment of the population of students who are emotionally unsuccessful as a result of school’s failure to approach education holistically—with brain functioning serving as the centerpiece of learning/teaching. Unfortunately, these students fall under the radar because they don’t “look” like the proverbial victim—they aren’t poor, they come from two-parent homes, attend church, and are actively engaged in the community. However, when met with such things as rejection or failure, they are not properly equipped to maneuver through these difficult situations. These ignored cases sometimes manifest as suicide, bullying, cruelty to animals, or other uncharacteristic behaviors.
Ultimately, the school of thought that prioritizes academic attainment over character building has generated systemic social failures of which even I am a product of—we all are! This radio broadcast confirms what I long suspected: that those traditional measures used to identify students and human beings are not effective tools. Other intelligences such as emotional maturity have been neglected and traditional tools measure the wrong thing. Transforming schools, classrooms, and education programs into ones that seek to help students develop on all levels, prepare students for emotional challenges, and anticipate resistance will better prepare our future generation of students for academic success. Most importantly, children will experience both the joy of promotion and the benefit of self-control and focus. The later offers otherwise failing students the opportunity to witness what it feels like to be a part of the majority, both inside and outside of the classroom.

2 Responses to “Self-Reflections Separate Good Teaching from Superior Teaching

  • Thank you Amy for these fabulous thoughts… please e-mail me anytime!!

  • ” Additionally, all classroom teachers, in my opinion, should be required to understand brain functioning beyond an intermediate level for knowledge of such is the key to closing the persistent achievement gap. The effects of increasing teacher’s understanding of the brain have far-reaching benefits that extend well beyond the classroom; it is the solution to war, poverty, injustices, and hatred.”

    I have been trying to put this into words through different posts in my blog for the last year or so since delving into solving the mystery of my son’s difficulties at school. I am a teacher turned SAHM and am now working to get back in the classroom, because I believe that our children need teachers who understand them as whole people with varying sets of skills including social/ executive functioning skills, not just the traditional reading/writing/arithmetic.

    I am surprised how one dimensional the classrooms are that I am seeing this year, as a paraproffessional. I am surprised and a bit saddened by the lack of understanding of these kids (the typical at risk and as you mentioned the ones under the radar) and how to help them. There is definitely a difference between good teaching and superior teaching. Thank you for writing this. It is so great to know others are thinking this way.

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