This is not a teacher bashing article—not just because I spent 10 of the last 12 years as a classroom teacher (after 15 years of practicing neurology) but because I now am a “neuroeducator” teaching teachers how to connect the neuroscience research with teaching strategies. My request is for you to share your “worst teacher” experience to help current and future teachers avoid making those same mistakes with children in the future.
My motivation is not “bad teachers”. On the contrary, most teachers are caring and dedicated educators who continually strive to be better. The teachers I meet at my presentations and workshops are highly interested in learning from colleagues about mistakes they have made and what they did differently after they saw the consequences of their mistakes.
The Brain Gets Smarter from Mistakes—Even Other People’s Mistakes
The brain has a powerful survival-adaptation system that learns from mistakes. Even reading or hearing about the mistakes of others can have powerful neural network changing effects. Hearing about bad things, watching movies, or reading fiction where bad things are done by people to others, impacts our brain’s emotional response system in ways quite similar to our response when we are the victims. Part of this response is attributed to our mirror neurons and other limbic system networks. These are some of the same networks that, when underdeveloped, are associated with autism spectrum disorders.
Our brains make decisions, choices, predictions based on stored memories of previous similar experiences. A fox would be at a survival disadvantage compared to the other foxes if he chased every rabbit he saw running up hills. Many such rabbits are uncatchable because they are too far away, moving too fast, or running up a very steep hills. If the fox didn’t learn from these mistakes in judgment and incorrect predictins, he could starve because not only would he not get the nourishment of the prey, but he would also deplete his energy stores from the fruitless exertions.
The system that lets the fox learn from his mistakes is the same powerful system by which our brains change and learn from mistakes we make or hear about. Dopamine is a neurochemical that when increased in the brain is associated with pleasure. When dopamine levels drop below normal the brain experiences negative emotions. A little sac containing dopamine, the nucleus accumbens, always sends a steady stream of dopamine to the “thinking” brain where choices and decisions are consciously made. The fox’s brain and our own learn from mistakes because a poor choice is “punished” by a witholding of dopamine release from this little sac. The negative emotions set up a neural reaction to prevent the behavior that caused the dopamine drop. The memory circuits used to make the decision about chasing that rabbit undergo remodeling. The new information about what didn’t work replace the wiring that made the incorrect prediction and advise future decisions about which bunnies to chase.
Deadly Mistakes in Medicine Made by Others Keep Me from Repeating Them
When I heard about the bodily injury caused by mistakes early in the history of MRI scanning, my emotional response was so intense I still never forget to ask a patient about metal in their bodies when I order an MRI scan. As you probably know, MRI scans involve powerful magnets. Routine x-rays primariy show bones and teeth, because of of their density, but x-rays don’t show “soft tissue.” MRI scans, in contrast, scans are computer representations of the shifts in cellular electrons in response to strong electromagnetic forces. All tissues contain electrons so MRI scans show all types of tissues and organs.
When early MRI scanned patients didn’t recall or report bits of magnetic metal in their bodies or heads such as clips on brain aneurysms, skull plates, dental work, pacemakers, bone screws, etc., there were terrible consequences as these magnetized bits of metal were pulled out through skull and skin the instant the magnets were turned on. Even though I never even saw photographs of these patients, I have powerful “memories” of what my brain visualized when I was told about these patients.
We learn the most from our mistakes and the mistakes of others when we receive information (corrective feedback) to prevent our making the mistake in the future. This is part of the brain’s neuroplastic ability to change itself in response to thought and experience.
From stories of metal pulled through body tissue by a forceful magnet to hearing about a teacher who scolded a child in front of her classmates for not writing a Mother’s Day (because the teacher did not know that her mother did not have custody or visiting rights due to serious child abuses), hearing about these mistakes will make strong memories in readers and prevent similar mistakes in the future.
Children Need to Feel Safe at School
The brain gives extra durability to memories made in association with strong emotions, even when the emotions are not caused by things happening directly to the individual. An example is the “flashbulb” memory phenomenon by which people recall many extranious details that came in through the senses when they first heard about a catastrophic event—such as what they were wearing, who they were with, and what they were doing when they heard about the 9/11 events.
When children have high-stress experiences at school, they develop these powerful “flashbulb” memories. To children, episodes of teacher-related embarassment, can be highly emotional.
The greatest school fear reported by students is being reprimanded for a mistake or poor performance of any kind in front of classmates. Embarassing errors or negative attention reduce students’ learning potentials because their brains learn to avoid participation to reduce the risk of potential mistakes. Children also have reduced learning abilities when they are embarassed or upset because the brain has significantly reduced working memory, problem solving abilities, and emotional self-control when under stress.
Children need to feel safe and be protected from strongly negative emotional experiences while at school. Young brains are especially prone to remembering strongly negative experiences because they have not yet built up the executive functions in their prefrontal cortex that will later allow them to view these experiences with more perspective and realize the guilt they feel as the result of negative reactions from others may not be their fault.
Share Your Teacher Stories
When sharing stories about what mistakes you feel teachers made that strongly influenced you at the time and even into the future, you’ll help others learn from these mistakes. If you’re reflected on these instances and have advice about alternative things your teacher should have, pass them along.
Teachers want to help children and will benefit from reading about the mistakes made by your teachers, so go ahead and write about a negative experiences you or your children had as a result of a teacher’s actions or inaction—especially the experiences that still make you mad, frustrated, or rekindle the humiliation they evoked at the time.
When it comes to striving to be ever better at what we do, teachers devoted to caring for the academic, social, and emotional growth of their students are among the most dedicated and motivated learners.