To Reach Students, Start by Educating Teachers on Their Own Brains

To Reach Students, Start by Educating Teachers on Their Own Brains

Elizabeth Benskin, Director of Teaching and Learning, The Baltimore Museum of Art
In today’s educational landscape, the social-emotional health of K-12 students is widely acknowledged as central to effective learning: when students struggle emotionally, they are unable to learn. Yet, the role of social-emotional health has barely entered the conversation on effective teaching. In fact, a tool often deployed to improve teachers’ skills—professional development—is frequently viewed by educators as being actively harmful to their emotional health. These trainings are described as pointless, boring, dehumanizing, and demeaning to them as professionals, and often foster adversarial relationships between the facilitator and participants. Why is this? And what can be done to fundamentally shift the quality of these experiences?

One thing is clear. If according to neuroscience, being seen and heard is a biological imperative, teachers are being subjected to training experiences that, in their view, erase their agency, identity, and voices, leading to them feeling disengaged, resistant, and even hostile. The challenge, then, is to explore what it would mean to take an “inside-out” approach to professional development—centering educators’ social-emotional needs before any discussion of applications to student learning. 

An Institute participant presents her drawing of a tree as a visual metaphor for the experiences and challenges in her life. Photo credit: Nicole Miller.

In the summer of 2019, The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) partnered with Beyond Conflict to empower eight teachers and nonprofit leaders with substantial information on the brain to apply to their own lives and practices as educators. The Art, Mindfulness, and Peacebuilding Teacher Institute was a five-day-long experience that included neuroscience, yoga, meditation, art history, studio art, and storytelling, all framed around questions of peace and conflict.

The results of the Institute exceeded all expectations. The neuroscience component—led by Tim Phillips and Dr. Bill Casebeer—comprised the first two of the five-day Institute and proved to be one of the most valuable elements of the experience for the teachers. Remarkably, already on the second day, educators shared that they had engaged in new ways of thinking and new behaviors as a result of the neuroscience instruction. Participants were starved for information on brain function and its relationship to emotional states and behavior and expressed that a foundation in neuroscience was critical for any educators or teachers in training. They shared frustration and disappointment that they never had the opportunity to learn about the brain in-depth in their initial training or continuing professional development. 

Outcomes from the Institute were measured through a formal evaluation, participant conversations, facilitator observations, and unprompted social media posts by participants on Facebook and Twitter containing informal reflections throughout the experience. The participating educators were so enthusiastic that they created a closed Facebook group and requested additional meeting days during the school year. They remain committed to participating in a follow-up Institute in the summer of 2020. 

In the formal evaluation, a participating principal shared the following:

I fully expected to receive handouts about this program and how to replicate it elsewhere. I was ridiculously impressed with how un-PD this was! I learned not only a new and innovative way of looking at supporting the needs of my kids AND staff (BRAIN INFO), I learned how it all applies to my own self-care.

-Traci Mathena, Principal, Creative City Public Charter School, Baltimore, Maryland

Upon returning to her school, the principal quoted above completely revised the professional development training program for her entire staff based on what she gleaned in the Institute. She has also made hiring decisions influenced by whether a candidate would be able to support and advance the culture of social-emotional growth she is working to establish at her school site. 

Among the many outcomes of the Institute, two in particular have important implications for the future of K-12 teacher professional development. The first is that centering teachers’ social-emotional lives in professional development may significantly increase educators’ engagement and commitment to learning experiences. The second is that learning about the brain was the most revelatory of the experiences, suggesting that high-quality instruction in neuroscience can have a notable impact on K-12 teachers’ social-emotional and professional growth. If we want to ensure that teachers are engaged, avoid burnout, stay in the field longer than a few years, and mature as professionals, considering the “inside-out” approach to professional development may be one piece of a critical puzzle.

The Art, Mindfulness, and Peacebuilding Teacher Institute was made possible with the generous support of the Sternberger Foundation. 

Tweets by Laquisha Hall, English Teacher, Carver Vocational-Technical High School, Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore City Public Schools 2018 Teacher of the Year

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