Warning: Neuroscience Nerdout

Warning: this blog is in the learning zone. If what I say is inaccurate, please help me learn. This is a rough draft. I love this information and am working to make sense of it in my own context, so rather than creating judgement – help me learn.

I am over-the-moon excited!! I have found the neuroscience to back up the work I have been doing with Sustainable Teaching and feel like it is the thing that will fully legitimize our work. Please forgive me while I completely geek out in this moment.

In schools we live out and we teach our students the classic western ideal that we gained from Jean Paul Sartre: I think, therefore I am.

Sustainable Teaching and PolyVagal Theory teaches us that is only part of the story; in fact, we need to revise it to: I feel it in my body, therefore I am. It is not enough for teacher to continue to live from the neck up, to primarily and only cognate. This process of ignoring and pushing aside what we feel in our bodies is what is causing our teachers to burn out, and it is creating dis-connection and dis-ease in our schools.

Working in schools, we are often conditioned to believe that everything is a crisis. Students need immediate feedback on their performance. Parents need immediate phone call returns. Parents need immediate email returns. Struggling students need our immediate attention. Behaviors must be mitigated. Academic struggle must be mitigated. And don’t even get me started about the four boys in the front of the room who must tell me the play-by-play in their video game last night – for I know if I don’t feign interest, I’ll lose their attention. IT IS ALL SO IMPORTANT!

But if everything is a crisis, if everything is important than nothing is truly important. If I am working from a state of crisis, if my sympathetic nervous system is continuously switch on and I have nothing to bring it down, I will get sick. It works like this: when we go into a sympathetic state (fight, flightier, or appease), our bodies flush hormones into our organs to allow us to mobilize. If we don’t find a way to physically work these hormones out of our organs, we will become physically sick. The more we have this response, the more we must work to flush our systems.

If we can work to bring ourselves into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) more often we can train our bodies to react in less detrimental ways. This is where Vagal Tone and our Vagus Nerve come into play (yes, I have a massive crush on the Vagus nerve, it is true).

When we have a high Vagal Tone, we create what is called Vagal Flexibility – the ability to balance ourselves appropriately between sympathetic and parasympathetic responses to situations.

And how do we create this balance?

It’s actually quite simple when you understand the mechanics. The Vagus Nerve is fibrous – think of fiber optic cables – and pulls from different parts of the brain into the brain stem and down the torso and then tendrils out into different organs. So when you are in a situation and “feel it in your gut” it is the Vagus Nerve doing it’s work to warn you, or to mobilize you towards excitement. When mama says to trust your intuition it is the Vagus Nerve at work creating what is called neuroception – the idea that we know in our bodies about something, we haven’t put words to it, but we feel it. Once we put words to it, we have integrated perception – the cognition behind neuroception.

The problem is that when we live from the neck up, like we tend to do in schools, we lose our ability to trust this neuroception – we’ve ignored it for so long, pushed it under, etc that it has lost it’s power. So we must work to recover it, to cultivate it so that we can create stronger flexibility between sympathetic and parasympathetic states so that we are not overreacting when the four boys in the front row of our classroom who want to share all about their video games.

Breath is power.

The fastest and easiest way to cultivate Vagal Flexibility is through the breath. Activating the Vagus Nerve is as simple as taking some low and slow breaths focusing on the exhale – this act alone works to bring your parasympathetic system online. This act creates space between yourself and the incident you are working with. It brings your prefrontal cortex back online in stressful situations. Essentially, it allows you to create appropriate responses to stressors.

Stephen Porges

When They Go Low…

Yesterday I had an incredible opportunity to speak with and to educators I deeply admire. It was one of those moments of disbelief that I was put in the same room with so many people I admire and hold in deep reverence and respect.

I spoke at an event our Office of Human Resources put on at our local Barnes and Noble called “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” that was one part recruitment and one part hope-building for those of us committed to doing equity work. There was some net working, some powerful conversation, and lots of hugging. To have so many educators I admire in the same was a reminder of the power of community.

I spoke on a panel called “Dear White Colleague” where a couple of us white teachers shared pieces of our racial autobiographies, and why we stay committed to equity work. We talked about protective factors and how we must find those people in our lives and our buildings to buffer the storms that will come with this work. An audience member, a teacher/facilitator/coach I have deep respect for asked the question, “What’s the price you’ve paid to stay in the work?” My colleague answered, and as she did I thought to myself about how much I have gained by staying committed. So I turned the question around and said that I actually think that my price has become more expensive, I have more fulfilling and richer friendships and relationships than I did before, that I don’t have time for people who are not committed to examining our systems and structures of racism.

Then a white man from the crowd asked me something like, “So if people aren’t doing the work, you’re just going to turn them away/cut them off?” Which in the scheme of things is not a bad question to ask…but then he went on – “Let me explain, I don’t see color. I have a wife who is black. So you mean to tell me that you’re going to ignore people who don’t buy into your thinking…”

I answered his question in the best way I know. I talked about how friendship is a spider web and that those people closest to me in the center earn that right to be there. Sometimes people move themselves out from the center, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them, it just means I need them further from center to protect my heart.

While I answered the question is when the most hopeful thing that I have seen in a long long time happened. First, my colleagues in the audience stiffened and made looks like, “Oh no, we’re not doing this. Not here. Not now.” Then some of the African American men in the audience began to surround this heckler, and some of the people from our top administration moved in close to contain the situation. Eventually they got the man to leave, but it showed me in real time a very important lesson.

To see those men move to action from the place I was sitting on that panel was to witness protective factors in action. Black men I have never met came to my aid to buffer me from a person who wanted to humiliate me and berate me for being vulnerable in a public space about the work I do. It was an immediate reminder of how protective factors work. That people on the periphery buffer for one another in a give and take. We work to protect each other. This community is so important in the work we do.

We must develop and cultivate kinship in order to protect one another, to grow our understanding and our work together. I hear Cornelius Minor’s voice in my head from a presentation he gave in Denver earlier this year, “No expert will come and do this for you. No one’s going to extend the right to liberate you.” So yes, we must liberate ourselves together. We must develop and cultivate kinship in order to protect one another.

When Life Happens

I have not been writing every day like I intended. It’s true – I created a goal that was not doable. Shocker, I know. In a moment of vulnerability I want to call this out for myself…in public…to you. Because this is how life is, right? We set a goal with high expectations, and then we must reassess and actually make it doable for ourselves.

We must look at ourselves with compassion.

In any given day we do the best we can with what we have in that moment. And if this is true, we can offer ourselves a permission slip to do what’s good enough in the moment.

So here I am – I clearly have not blogged every day like I originally intended. My life happened in the background. It’s true.

And it’s okay. It doesn’t mean I won’t become a stronger writer. It doesn’t mean I won’t make my writing goals. It definitely doesn’t mean that I need to get all judgey with myself. All it means is that I need to reassess my goal and do the best I can.

The 5 A's: Qualities we Seek to Thrive

I am currently reading the book You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of your Life written by Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Dr. Rebecca Gladding. I am not a fan of the title, but I am a fan of the book.

The authors use the latest neuroscience research to discuss how our brains physically form habits (good and bad) and use this research to develop a plan for change. I feel this plan could be used in many different contexts: sports, education, breaking bad habits, creating new goals, etc.

The book has informed my work with Sustainable Teaching to make me think about our needs as teachers. Akin to Jerry Collona’s book Reboot, the authors of this book discuss the qualities and gifts we seek from important people in our lives. And much like Collona, these authors push forward the idea that what our experiences were in childhood will greatly influence how our brains are firing around each of the qualities we need to thrive. It is also important to point out that they discuss that although we may not receive these qualities from other people, we must strive to provide them for ourselves. Yah, me too – mind blown.

So what are the qualities we humans seek to thrive?

  • Attention
  • Acceptance
  • Affection
  • Appreciation
  • Allowing

My questions for your, dear readers are reflective in nature:

  • Where do you receive these qualities we all seek?
  • Are there places in your life you might be seeking these qualities where they are simply unavailable to you?
  • How do you respond when you do not receive these qualities?
  • And perhaps most importantly, how to do you cultivate these qualities within yourself?

We Depend on Each Other

This week I had the question that appears at the beginning of this blog presented before me at a meeting I have the great fortune to attend where where Tara Brown, The Connection Coach, spoke.

I speak to MANY educators about the what-ifs of school. What if teachers could be less negative? What if my colleagues smiled more? What if my teams could work better together? What if my colleagues trusted one another? What if we acted like we’re all on the same team?

I also speak to many educators about the if-only’s they feel in their lives. If only my students read. If only my colleagues helped more. If only I could teach in the way I believe is right for my students. If only I could feel confident that I will be backed up by colleagues when things go haywire. If only I felt supported in my work. If only I had a team I could really on.

But here’s the thing, if we’re all saying it’s difficult to work with adults in our building, what are we doing about it? When we acknowledge the part we play in our school culture, it means that we must hold ourselves accountable as participants in creating the culture.

This also means that we must hold ourselves accountable each and every day for the ways we treat the people with whom we work. A tool I like to use is the acronym THINK: Is what I say Truthful? Is it Helpful to the situation or the person? Is it Inspiring? Is what I say Necessary? Is it Kind?

Am I always perfect at this? Not even close. But what this acronym does is it allows me to reflect on my days and the ways I participate in creating a culture I want to be a part of at my school. We have control over the interactions we have. We have control over the places we choose to participate. And most importantly, we have control over the ways we speak and react to our colleagues.

What are some tools you use to create cultures of connection? How do you hold yourself accountable for creating the place you want to work?

Foundations

Her first night home from college, we took my daughter to eat real Mexican Food since she does not have access to it in England where she attends school. Her jet-lagged banter included all the things that make British schooling different than her experience in the US.

The thing that is resonating for me is the notion we hold in the US – that from being excellent a person will form community that will lead to further success. Maya’s take after one semester away is that the British ethos is that one builds a strong community and from that community one holds the ability to be excellent and have the encouragement towards further success.

And here’s what she said that really haunts me, “Mom, I really think that’s why our suicide rate is so high – that even when we are excellent, there’s no place to hold it.”

Let THAT sink in for a moment – even when our kids reach a pinnacle of excellence, there’s not a foundation of community to celebrate such accomplishments. Such accomplishments then feel empty and our children move to the next goal, the next box to check off.

It is in this light I think about community moving into the New Year, this year of focus. It is my goal to find ways to help build communities in my spaces – places where we can support one another and lift each other up.

If this is a struggle for students, it means that we adults are not modeling it very well, right? When I think about many of the conversations I have had with educators in the last year, what comes to light is the judgement we place on ourselves and also upon one another. If we, the people guiding our children, stand in judgement, what does this teach our kids?

Can we find a way to support one another in this profession? To move out of judgement into a place of community acknowledging that we all want the same things? What do your schools do to build community? To lift one another? To buoy each other to create a foundation of support?

Focus

2020: social media is characterizing this as the year of focus, the year we hone in on our fully realized purpose. This will propel me to begin writing consistently again, no matter what. The idea that everything I put into the world needs to be fully curated is the very idea that has kept me from writing consistently.

So in this moment I will stand in my power around simply writing – as often as I can and as authentically as I can.

In this dawn of a new year, dear readers, I will write about the work I have been doing with Sustainable Teaching. It is something I feel so incredibly passionate about, and I would like to begin writing about it in order to fully understand this movement for teachers to fully take care of one another.

My goal is to write every day, but we all know how that plays out for many of us. So while this is a goal, I will not allow myself to go beyond one week without writing something, even if it’s only a couple of sentences. Writing offers me a time to reflect, to simply be within my thoughts to let them flow – it is a kind of meditation standing firmly to make sense of my own thoughts and then allow them to go.

Blue Tooth

If we acknowledge that students learn best when they are relaxed. And if we agree that humans mirror the energy and behaviors of the people they are in contact with. And if we subscribe to the research that states that we hone in and mirror the most developed frontal lobe in the room.

We must make sure our teachers are not constantly working in a “crisis mode.”

In the school where I work, almost every need is immediate. The need to call the frustrated parent. The need to work with a student who is misbehaving. The need to connect with a colleague. The need to finish writing goals. The need to examine data. The need to grade that stack of essays. ALL OF IT is immediate…all of it puts teachers into a crisis mode. All of it activates our sympathetic nervous systems and puts teachers in a fight, flight, freeze, or appease mode.

I don’t know about you – but I want my child to be with adults who are relaxed. Adults who have a grounding that emanates to my daughter in the form of calmness and groundedness.

So…what are we willing to do to create more calm for our teachers? What are we willing to take off their plates so they can be calm and focused when they are with our children?

Cultivation of Connection

Today I met with one of my colleagues to plan for a mini conference we are putting together. In our presentation we want to make the point to our district administration the power that connection holds on educators. When we feel connected to one another, we want to do better by those people we are connected to.

This work of feeling connected is REALLY difficult in school spaces. As educators we have been trained to make judgements, to create challenges for students based on where we judge them to be, to find the areas of possibility for our students…AND this means that it is hard for us to turn it off with our colleagues and with ourselves.

It takes work and PRACTICE to cultivate spaces of openness towards one another, places where we can be honest about our struggles, and to say the things out loud that are hard to say.

My question for you, dear reader, is what and where are the spaces where you cultivate a practice of connection in your teaching life?

Springtime’s the Right Time

Spring is a really difficult time for teachers, that time just before Spring Break – that time when the behaviors of adults and students have simply become too much to bear. Things that could slide off in the fall, not longer hold their charm – this time of year they simply make us angry.

Despite doing the work with the inciting offenders, this time of year they continue to…well…offend.

This year I am handling my general malaise differently. Rather than getting dragging in and dragged under, I choose to show unending love towards the people who are positive influences in my life. This might be a soft note to a co-worker. Or an ice cream cone with my daughter. Or dinner with my brother. Or simply running through my day with my husband while I cook dinner.

After all, the meaning of life – the happiness we all deserve – is in the seemingly small moments. So my challenge to all of you sweet teachers out there is this: take a moment today to show those you love a little ray of sunshine.

Peace.