Love what you do? It’s that old ‘classroom chemistry’

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Meet the teacher turned Harvard academic who has researched the beating heart of the profession

Truly good teaching, Vanessa Rodriguez believes, is like love at first sight: it relies on getting the chemistry right.

“We asked teachers how they know a lesson is going really well,” the Harvard academic tells TES. “They started to talk about how you can feel this connection with your students.

“Some described it like, ‘We danced together; we moved together’. That feeling when you meet someone and you say it was love at first sight – there was a chemistry between us.

“You may say, ‘It’s just a feeling,’ but we all know that feeling. We wanted to measure it.”

Ms Rodriguez was a teacher herself. But she left the classroom and moved into academia so that she could quantify what it is that makes good teaching. She has published her findings as a popular-science book, The Teaching Brain.

Despite working full-time on her research, Ms Rodriguez still sees herself as a teacher, so she was keen that her research should replicate classroom conditions wherever possible.

She selected teachers from a range of state and private schools. All had a master’s degree and at least 10 years’ classroom experience. They had also been described as committed teachers by their schools’ senior leaders.

First, she interviewed her subjects and their pupils in detail. Then she wired them up to monitors measuring their body movements, heart rate, breathing and sweat levels. Afterwards, she returned them to “their natural teaching and learning environment”, she says.

The aim was to see whether, at moments when teachers’ heart rates sped up and their breathing and sweat levels increased, pupils were similarly excited and engaged. What she found was that, while some teachers immediately shared the same physical reactions as their pupils, others did not. This second group, however, was able to generate that reaction over the course of the lesson.

Ms Rodriguez says: “These expert teachers can recognise that they’re missing a connection and they’re able to do something about it.”

Teaching is selfish

Ms Rodriguez went into research because, after 10 years as a middle-school teacher in New York City, she found she was struggling to learn anything about the process of teaching – even professional development courses that she attended were focused mainly on learning.

“If you go for a walk in the park or forest, you’re learning,” she says. “It’s automatic. But teaching is an act between two human beings. It requires social intelligence.”

But, she says, while teaching is distinct from learning, it is as much a natural part of human development: toddlers, for example, will often teach one another how to play. They’re not teaching to a test “or out of the goodness of their hearts”, says Ms Rodriguez.

“We think of teaching as a selfless act. But, actually, teaching is selfish. This person doesn’t know how to play what I want to play, so I’m going to teach them. It’s the joining together of multiple minds, so we can be stronger and more intelligent. It’s part of our natural human behaviour. Teaching makes us into a society.”

There is, of course, a difference between a toddler telling a friend what to do and a teacher giving instruction to a class. “Yes, anybody can teach – the way that anybody can learn,” Ms Rodriguez says. “But that doesn’t mean that anybody can be in a classroom. Once it’s chosen as a profession, you need to start studying it, so you can become an expert.”

In The Teaching Brain, she lists five awarenesses (see box, above) that she believes determine the quality of interaction – the classroom chemistry – that takes place between teacher and pupils. Some of these awarenesses may come more naturally than others. One teacher might, for example, have a particularly strong sense of self-awareness. “But would they naturally be strong in all five?” Ms Rodriguez says. “I think that’s very unlikely.”

The expert teachers – those who are able to manufacture a classroom connection where none exists – have the ability to identify the awarenesses that they need to acquire or strengthen. “Expert teachers have a high level of social intelligence,” she says. “They’re looking at the human interaction that is happening in the room.”

This, Ms Rodriguez says, alters the terms in which people discuss teachers: suddenly, there are no more good or bad teachers. “When a child walks into a class, we don’t say, ‘That’s a good student or a bad student’,” she says. “We say, ‘Where do they need to be developmentally? How do I set goals to get them there?’

“We need to do the same about teachers.”


The 5 teaching awarenesses

1 Awareness of teaching practice. Content knowledge, lesson plans, routines, time management, behaviour management and subject knowledge.

2 Awareness of the learner. How pupils learn and knowledge of child development.

3 Awareness of context. What is your school’s philosophy? What is the culture of the community in which you teach?

4 Awareness of interaction. There are different types of interactions in teaching: a) reciprocity – “I’m interacting with you, expecting that you will somehow shift. I’ll wait for that shift to happen before I decide what to do next” b) emotional connection – forming a relationship with the pupil, so that you’re interested in doing the best for one another c) between pupil and pupil – recognising that the teacher is not always the best person to deal with every classroom issue.

5 Awareness of self. Knowing who you are – recognising that you are a product of your gender, your culture and the way that you were raised. Also who your pupils are – you can never truly know another human being, so you will always be teaching your own theory of who the learner is, and it will be a theory that is influenced by your own background and experiences.

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