Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Power of a Great Teacher

Recently one of our Caine Learning Associates told us about an experience that carries a message.

In high school she had been part of a well-known choir. The director of the choir had been responsible for her lifelong interest in music. “He made Beethoven’s 9th symphony come alive for me.” “ He made me feel the music in such a powerful way that it changed me and my relationship to music forever.”

She was recalling this because she had recently been at a reunion. The current director of the same choir had called together all choir members and former directors from the last 35 years. As the current director looked over all the people gathered in a huge auditorium, he asked how many past members now have children or grandchildren who were there today ”The sheer numbers were astounding!”

Later, as she was talking to her son, she realized that she was passing on her passion for music the same way her teacher had instilled it in her. Her understanding and love for music had been passed on to her son. It had deeply influenced his knowledge and love of music.

Her story made us aware once more of the power held by a great teacher to impact not only their students but later generations. And there is now some science behind this.

Many neuroscientists are currently fascinated by what they call “mirror neurons”. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire in response to a person being observed when they are doing or saying something, especially if we admire that person or are close to them. The experiment we often refer to is one where a wife tells her husband that she has a pain in her shoulder and neuroscientists pinpoint which area of her brain lights up as she feels the pain. The scientists observe the husband’s brain lighting up in the same brain area, even though he does not actually feel the pain itself. He was literally “feeling her pain.” (This same research is demonstrating that we may be hard wired for empathy!)

One of the conclusions drawn from this research is that people are very sensitive to what others do and how they act, often much more so than to what they say. As one author put it, “If you yell at your children not to run down the stairs, they don’t learn to slow down nearly as much as they learn how to yell.” How you actually act in their presence has a big impact.

As the US narrows the goal of learning in school to student results on standardized tests, largely consisting of multiple-choice questions and essays scored by strangers hired by test publishing companies, I am often frustrated and angry by the simplistic view of learning that this represents.

Wouldn’t our money be better spent on creating teachers who love their subjects and are masters at sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with their students? And who are at liberty to teach for understanding and genuinely higher standards?

And there is even a bigger message. You and I are teachers every time we interact with our children and with each other. They tend to become what we are!

By the way, the Caine Learning Center is beginning to have some functions open and free to the public (though a donation of any amount would be appreciated). On Saturday, February 12, we will be showing a fantastic film about the impact of stress associated with a sense of helplessness and fatigue. It will begin at 4 p.m.. After that, we will talk together about how this understanding is relevant to our lives, community, and what is happening in schools.

See you there.

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