Why teachers’ brains tend to dwell on the “disruptive” students rather than on the “attentive” students after class. And what we can do about it.
I can have a class composed of 14 engaged students and two or three inattentive ones and guess whose faces I’ll see when I go to bed at night. Right, the “slackers.”
I was interested to discover that I’m not the only teacher who has this happen to them. This led me to try to understand the reason and investigate what to do about (in order to get a good night’s sleep.)
Why we tend to dwell on the troublesome ones and what to do about it.
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” What’s interesting is the reason for this. Hansen explains that our brains have evolved over millions of years, trying to avoid dangers and looking for rewards. However, for early humans, on a day to day basis, it was more vital that they avoid dangers than find a reward. Thus, our brains have a built in “negativity bias.”
Early humans who failed to get the reward one day, for example, finding a delicious antelope to eat, could try again the next day. But, the ones who were unable to avoid dangerous incidents, like being eaten by a lion, came to a sudden end and weren’t able to pass on more of their genes.
As science writer Michael Shermer explains in The Believing Brain, our brains are programmed to notice patterns. For example, our earliest ancestors walking along the savanna hear a rustling noise in the bushes. They know from previous experiences that that rustling could be caused by something non-threatening like the wind or a mouse, or it could be caused by a dangerous snake or lion. Those early humans who had the negativity bias would become alert and cautious and move away from the bush. Others who hadn’t developed this bias might continue toward the bush believing that the noise was caused by something harmless. The humans with the negative bias could always be wrong in their assumption that there was danger in the bush, but they would continue to survive. On the other hand, the ones without the negative bias only needed to be wrong once, in which case, they would no longer be “a member of the human gene pool.”
How this is connected to trying sleep after a “bad” class.
In my case, I think that I developed a negativity bias as a result of my earliest teaching experience as a substitute teacher in public schools in Peoria, Ill. One of my first assignments was in a junior high school class. At the start of the class, as I was briefly explaining who I was and why I was there, three students near the back were partially looking at me but mostly chatting with each other. Then I gave the students the handout that the regular teacher had made, and they were supposed to work individually on it for the hour. The three students continue having their animated conversation. I walked over to them to ask them if they needed help; they stopped talking for a bit, but then continued. Soon some other students started chatting, including one calling out to someone across the room. As a brand new teacher, I didn’t have a clue about what to do. Eventually, the room turned into bedlame.
That experience, I believe, imprinted in my mind that I need to aware of the two or three “dangerous” students (i.e., the ones chatting or not paying attention) rather than the 10 or 15 or 20 “serious students.” When I would drive home after class or when I went to bed that night, those 2 or 3 students’ images stuck in my brain like Velcro but the image of the other good ones slipped away like Teflon.
A mentor to the rescue
An older and experienced colleague shared with me what he does when his mind is stuck on the “inattentive” students after class: he directs his mental attention to the “good” ones, or in some case, the good one, or the relatively good one. As he’s driving home, he pictures in his mind one or several of those engaged students. He does the same thing when he is trying to sleep and as he prepares to go to class. For me that works amazingly well too.
In his book, Buddha’s Brain, psychologist Rick Hanson explains why this seems to work: “Imagery activates the right hemisphere of the brain and quiets internal verbal chatter that could be stressful” (p. 155). He gives two recommendations:
- When you have positive experiences today, help it sink in to old pains.
- When negative material arises, bring to mind the positive emotions and perspectives that will be its antidote. (p. 135).
For more suggestions on how to deal with inattentive students, see
Onward and upward!