By Kirke Olson
The work we all do as educators is challenging, rewarding, and sparks our emotions whether we are in adult settings, schools or in early childhood education. Using the best practices in our jobs is obviously important, but it is easy to miss the emotional aspects of the hard heart-work of education. Sometimes the reminders of the emotional parts of our jobs come in the middle of the night when the memory of an exchange with a student rises unbidden. This happened to me after I returned home. I would like to share the incident with you because it captures what and learned during our Australian visit.
My first meeting with Calvin did not begin well. As I remember the force of my anger I still cringe. At over and probably , Calvin is an intimidating presence. I had seen him other days as he arrived at school dressed in dirty clothes with his characteristic swaggering walk. Today the swagger had a target: the small bespectacled Josh approaching him from the opposite direction. Josh was carrying his usual burden of books and papers. A quick, almost imperceptible, shoulder bump was all that was needed to knock Josh off balance and send his burden flying. Josh’s cry of surprise was met with a deep-throated giggle from Calvin. I reacted without any thought, but with a good deal of anger.
‘Calvin what the hell! Get over here and help pick up this mess!’
Calvin sneered, grunted and walked on.
I contained my anger as best I could while I helped Josh gather his things. I don’t remember my words of comfort because of Josh’s mumbled, ‘I’m OK. I’m used to it. I’m a geek and Calvin hates geeks.’
After I stammered a few more inadequate words to Josh, he went on his way to class. I hunted down Calvin and corralled him into my office.
Once there I angrily asked, ‘What were you doing in the hall?’
Calvin sneered back, ‘Walking.’
I could feel my anger peak, but luckily I’ve found, after much practice, that I can gain control of my emotional reactions by remembering to use a simple mindfulness practice. I focus my attention on the soles of my feet and feel the pressure of the floor beneath them. While doing that I inhale and silently count to about four, then slowly exhale to a count of about eight. There is nothing special about the numbers except to make sure my exhale is about twice as long as my inhale. When I need it, like now with Calvin, I repeat the cycle a few times. It’s simple and effective but the problem is actually remembering to do it when I’m angry or anxious, which is why I practise this and other short mindfulness exercises when I’m calm. I practise when I’m just walking through the halls, down the street and sometimes when I’m trying to get to sleep after a disturbing day at the school. You can think of the practice like the repetitive drills first responders such as police, fire, and medical staff go through when things are calm so they can act ‘without thought’ during times of crisis (Siegel 2011).
Neurologically we all have a vagus nerve that helps regulate our reactions, be they calm social engagement, the fight-flight response or, in extreme circumstances, collapse. Much of the time the ventral vagal or front part of the nerve is at work keeping us calm, alert and socially engaged. It does this by unconsciously regulating the muscles around our eyes, the muscles in our throat that control voice tone, our heart rate, our breathing and many other things. When the ventral vagus is online we are open and ready to connect with others. Their nervous systems nonconsciously pick this up and they respond in kind (Porges 2011, Dana 2018).
Before I saw Calvin knock Josh, my ventral vagus was clicking along just fine. Seeing a larger kid pick on a smaller one triggered my vagus nerve to quickly turn down my social engagement circuit and ramp up my fight-flight system. My anger showed it certainly was more fight than flight. My nervous system is probably hypersensitive to this sort of behaviour because of my own memories. As an average sized kid with glasses, a love of learning, and a lousy athletic ability I was sometimes a target. Using my explicit memories of those long-ago events I could describe them to you now, but the more important point has to do with my implicit memory of them. Implicit memories are nonconscious emotional and body memories; for me they are feelings of impotent anger. The emotions from those past events were turned on instantly when I saw big Calvin slam little Josh. As in everybody’s brain, all of this happened about half second faster than my ability to logically assess the situation, which caused my instant sharp reaction to Calvin, and indirectly Calvin’s reaction to me. A half second is a very long time inside the brain and is plenty of time for us to say or do things we will regret later our cortex can fully assess the situation (Siegel 2012).
Back in my office with Calvin, the mindfulness exercise helped me calm my fight reaction and turn back on the social engagement system enough to remember what I knew of Calvin’s life from his file and other teachers.
I remembered that he lives with his parents in his grandparents’ house. His father has been on disability for years after an awful accident at the mill just before it shut down. His grandfather also worked at the mill his whole life but lost his job before he could retire when the mill closed suddenly. Calvin’s mother worked briefly, but stopped when Calvin was born. They probably all struggled in school because none of them graduated from high school and were suspicious of people who had any education. They often spoke negatively about the school and specific teachers. For his whole childhood Calvin heard these stories repeated.
My ventral vagus nerve must have been functioning well enough for me to say in a concerned tone of voice: ‘Calvin, What’s wrong? Why did you slam Josh? You’re better than that.’
‘He’s such a snob. He thinks he’s better than me. I hate school. Why do I even have to go? This is all crap.’
My interest in the brain made me speculate about the cause of Calvin’s negative attitude toward school and the studious looking Josh. Donald Hebb back in the late 1940s discovered that whenever a network of brain cells fires inside the brain it ‘wants’ to fire in the same pattern again. At the neurological level all the experiences we have are a complex network of firing brain cells. So repeated experiences, such as hearing negative stories about school and educated people, cause the same pattern of brain cells to fire and ‘wire in’ his negative beliefs. Calvin probably had a ‘wired in’ negative belief about school before he even attended first grade. Through his years at school the same network would be strengthened by any negative school event and any observation of ‘smart snobby kids’ doing better than he. Josh certainly was the epitome of a ‘smart snobby kid’ in both his appearance and his reality. Calvin’s complex neural network originally started by his family’s stories and strengthened by negative experiences with school and studious peers, turned into action against Josh. I was curious to know why.
Calvin’s eyes filled with tears as I repeated more quietly: ‘What’s wrong? Something is not right. You don’t do something like this.’
He suddenly turned away. ‘Shut up! Stop!’ Then barely audible said, ‘Gramps had a heart attack last night – he’s in the hospital and not doing well – been up all night.’
The crying started. I’ll admit to being stunned by this huge boy/man crying in my office. I barely knew him.
‘My Gramps is such a good guy. Yeah he drinks too much, but a good guy. We walk out by the river and fish. He tells me about the mill. He says he did fine when he dropped out of school and so did my dad. Why the hell do I need to go. I hate it. It is so hard. All those guys like Josh. The teachers too – think I’m a nothing. What the f***! I’m leaving!’
I could tell my mirror neurons were causing me to feel the echo of Calvin’s pain, because tears began to fill my eyes.
Mirror neurons were first discovered in an Italian lab that was studying the motor neurons that control muscles. Experimenting on monkeys, the scientists installed an electrode thinner than a human hair into a motor neuron they hoped controlled the muscles in the monkey’s arm. When the monkey reached for a cup the motor neuron fired, which was what they had hoped for. But when the researcher reached for the cup, the same neuron fired in the monkey. This was a surprise, because the monkey was not moving its arm, it was just sitting there watching the researcher. It made no sense. Thinking it was a problem with the equipment they checked it, but each time the monkey was just sitting there and focused on someone who then did something intentional with their arm, like picking up a cup, the motor neuron that controlled the monkey’s arm muscles fired. His motor neuron mirrored the action of the person’s motor neuron, even though the monkey’s muscle did not actually move. This experiment has led to a lot of research on mirror neurons, neurons that fire in one person’s brain as a sort of echo of another person’s actions and emotions. There is a lot of research underway and more to go, but maybe mirror neurons are part of the neurology of empathy (Cozolino 2017, Iacoboni 2009).
So my ‘emotional pain neuron network’ was firing in a kind of echo of Calvin’s pain. I felt Calvin’s emotions, but to a lesser degree than he did, as my eyes filled with tears.
I believe anyone who works hard to help others, no matter their field, has felt the effect of mirror neurons. Empathy, maybe the result of our mirror neurons, is part of what makes a good provider excellent. The caution for all of us is to distinguish between the firing of our mirror neurons echoing someone else’s emotions and our own emotions. Resonating with someone’s emotions is part of being a human and an excellent provider, but it is something to be cautious of because not understanding the source of the emotions can lead to difficulties such as exhaustion at the end of the day and even to burn-out.
Back to Calvin: Quietly I said, ‘I hope you stay. You can just hang out here in my office. Can I tell your teachers about your Gramps so they understand and can help you get through this?’ After a long pause he agreed, and told me that Miss Ackers knows him, because she taught his dad.
Connections like Miss Ackers’ with a student’s father are not unusual in a small community, for better or worse. Remembering that Miss Ackers often used the metaphor of ‘apples not falling far from the tree’ when she spoke of Calvin’s struggles in school, I wondered what kind of reception I might get when I spoke with her.
I should not have been concerned. She understood and even added that she knew how much Calvin’s grandfather meant to him because of a story she had helped him write for her class. She added that his family had multigenerational problems with school.
Miss Ackers helped my reconsider Calvin when she said, ‘It’s no wonder Calvin hates school, but he still shows up. It’s amazing he is even here today.’
It was something I had not thought of, probably because of my anger. Calvin’s attendance at school after the crisis during the night hinted that there may be something positive about school for him, in spite of his actions toward Josh.
As the day came to an end, I saw Calvin and he appeared to be doing well enough, he even gave me a quick head nod, which I interpreted as ‘Thank you.’
The incident with Calvin and others like it are certainly not all that unusual for many of us in education. Calvin could be a primary school child, a teenager, or an adult. The point is that at the neurological level all of our brains work the same. This simple fact can lead all of us to a deeper understanding of our clients and offer new choices for our own actions. When you have said or done things that you regret later your brain was working the same way as Calvin’s and mine, so there is no need to criticise yourself. But, knowing about that half-second lag time and using this bit of knowledge to create a pause for ourselves by using a simple mindfulness technique like counting breaths can help give us time for our cortexes to analyse the situation and make better decisions. It can be helpful to know your mirror neurons can cause you to feel others’ emotions and vice-versa. Likewise if you are feeling angry, another person’s nervous system will nonconsciously read that and they will feel an echo of your anger. Calming yourself before your voice tone and face reveals your feeling will help you to have a better exchange with the student, as it did with Calvin and me.
Cozolino, L (2017). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain (Third Edition) New York: WW Norton & Co. Inc.
Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. New York: WW Norton & Co., Inc.
Iacoboni, M. (2009) Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and how we connect with others. New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Porges, S. W. (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication Self-Regulation. New York: WW Norton & Co. Inc.
Siegel, D. (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape who we are. Second Edition. New York, WW Norton & Co., Inc.
Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation New York, Random House.