You may have seen something on the news about the March for Science held this past Saturday. Demonstrators across the country gathered to draw attention to and criticize lawmakers for ignoring scientific research when making policy. As an educator in America, I wonder what took them so long.
There may be no more thankless job than education researcher. They’re kind of like my ten-year-old daughter’s teeth. She knows her teeth exist and that they do some important stuff, but she really doesn’t pay much attention to them unless someone (her mom) forces her to.
To be an education researcher is to work for years in obscurity, conducting studies, publishing papers, going to conferences, writing books, and lecturing (I guess. I don’t know what the hell they actually do). If you happen to uncover something consequential, something that could tip the American education system on its head and lead to real, sustained improvement in student outcomes, you get the pleasure of seeing your work completely disregarded.
We have a rich history of pissing all over the work of these dedicated academics. Why, just a few months ago, my state, Michigan, passed a Third Grade Reading Law that requires the retention of third graders who are more than one year behind in reading as measured by the state test (which doesn’t report a grade level equivalent, so who knows how that’s going to work). Legislators did this despite the fact that hundreds of studies have found no academic benefit to retaining students, and a handful indicate that retention leads to higher drop-out rates.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying start times for middle and high school students. From this article:
Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.
Only 15% of American high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8:00 a.m. Meanwhile, my third graders, who don’t need the extra sleep, start at nine o’clock every morning. Research suggests that flipping this around would help a lot of kids. But it’s the way we’ve always done things and basketball practice and busing and parents won’t like it, and blah, blah, so screw helping kids and screw the research.
If you haven’t heard of John Hattie, you will. School districts really like this guy because, like Bob Marzano, he does “meta-analysis,” which, as far as I can tell, is throwing a bunch of research studies other people did into a pile and performing some fancy math Jiu-Jitsu that spits out a number that’s supposed to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Whatever. Anyway, Hattie ranks about 1,000 different factors that contribute or don’t to academic achievement. At the very bottom of his list is depression, with an effect size of negative .42, which is really terrible, not unlike depression itself. Right above that is mobility at negative .34. Mobility means moving around, changing schools. You know, the same thing reformers want kids to be able to do through expanded school choice schemes.
Want kids to learn more stuff? Make them sit in classrooms more, right? And what better way to capture more classroom time than to take away kids’ recess? With greater consequences attached to state assessments, many schools eliminated or curtailed recess time for students, especially following the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Shockingly (he said sarcastically), research does not support such a move.
Research shows that recess in the primary years contributes to physical fitness, improves students’ classroom behavior and focus, facilitates social development and competence, and leads to more learning and achievement.
[Is Your School Cutting Recess? Fight back with research! This book will help.]
Here’s a blunt headline: Researchers: Don’t expand virtual schools as is. Turns out sitting kids in front of a computer and telling them to learn stuff doesn’t work so well. But that won’t stop policymakers from expanding virtual schools. They’re cheap, after all. Reformers like cheap. I mean, they really like cheap. Damn the researchers and their blunt headlines.
Oh, those poor education researchers, toiling away to prove their little theories, only to have them roundly ignored in the places where they matter most.
And yet somehow, despite policymakers’ and school leaders’ willful ignorance, the train keeps rolling. Students learn. They go off to college. They get jobs. The American economy grows. The stock market rises. 401(k)s go up in value. People retire. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, what’s to worry about?
I’m pretty sure my daughter wonders the same thing every time her mom tells her to brush her teeth. Her teeth are fine. They’re white. They’re straight. They don’t hurt. They chew stuff. She eats. She gets bigger. So what if she ignores her teeth?
I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?
I’ve only scratched the surface. What are other examples of policymakers and school districts ignoring research? Sound off in the comments or on Facebook.
At the end of every school day, I tell myself one thing: smile.
No matter what has just happened. No matter how the day has gone. No matter if I want to scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I tell myself to smile. A smile is the simplest way to impress parents.
I wish I could claim credit for this, but I stole it from another teacher. When my daughter was in first grade there were a few occasions when I was able to pick her up from school. The parents of the children who didn’t ride the bus all stood around awkwardly at the front of the building waiting for their precious ones to emerge.
The teachers walked the classes out, one after another, kind of like “The Locomotion,” but without the annoying song. I looked forward to seeing my daughter, but I also looked forward to seeing Mrs. Herrera. Mrs. Herrera taught one of the other first grade classes, and every day when she stepped from the shadow of the school and into the daylight she had a bright smile on her face. She engaged happily with her students and smiled as she handed them over to their parents.
I probably picked my daughter up twenty times over the three years she attended that school. Mrs. Herrera smiled like that every single time.
I’ve never taught first grade, but I imagine it’s like teaching third grade, only with more exhaustion. I am sure there were many days when Mrs. Herrera did not feel like smiling. But smile she did.
As a parent, I was impressed that after whatever she went through during the course of the day, she chose to end it positively. Her smile sent a number of messages:
It turns out there is science to back up my positive thoughts. First, smiling makes us feel better. Research has shown that you can boost your mood by smiling, even if you don’t feel happy at all. Second, smiling is contagious. Participants in one Swedish study were shown pictures of several emotions. When the picture of someone smiling was presented, researchers told the participants to frown. Instead, most of them imitated the smiles they saw on the pictures. It took conscious effort to not smile. So when Mrs. Herrera smiled, most parents couldn’t help but smile back. All this smiling helps forge connections between people, even if they’ve never spoken. We like people who make us feel better, and smiling makes us feel better.
Seeing Mrs. Herrera’s smile made me like her more.
There are at least 50 parents on the blacktop at the end of my school day. I want every one of them to see me smile. I want them to wonder how I can go though an entire day of doing a job a number of them have told me they wouldn’t have the patience for and still end it in a good mood. I want them to think the same positive things I thought when I saw Mrs. Herrera. I want them to smile back. I want them to be impressed.
All it takes is a second to remind myself to do a very simple thing. But like many simple things, it can make a big difference.
I went to Walmart the other day to pick up some adult beverages and help destroy local businesses. As I quickly weaved around an Easter display, I heard:
It was a student from my school. Not one of my students. I didn’t even know his name. But he quite obviously knew mine. He wanted his mom to know it was me.
“Mom! Mom! That’s Mr. Murphy! He’s a teacher at my school!” the boy shouted, just in case someone in the store didn’t know I was there.
Like it or not, we teachers are celebrities. Not huge ones. Not even on the level of a local weatherman. But celebrities nonetheless. Sure, my most rabid fans might be nine-year old kids, but so were Justin Bieber’s, Aaron Carter’s, and Miley Cyrus’s (and look how well they turned out).
If a student sees me anywhere outside of school, it is, for some odd reason, a cause to get very excited. It is as though they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I have a life apart from work. I don’t really get it, but I bet real celebrities don’t quite understand people’s overreactions to them, either. I’m sure Katie Holmes has no idea why people want to take pictures of her walking out of a store holding a shoe bag.
I admit that, like many Hollywood stars, I do not always relish my celebrity. Sometimes, I just want to buy my six-pack and get out of there. But I try to remember that to some kids, I’m kind of a big deal. And I shouldn’t act like Al Kaline.
Think of it this way: If you ran into one of your favorite actors or athletes at the supermarket, how would you hope they would respond to your enthusiastic approach?
You wouldn’t want them to blow you off, act annoyed, be rude or short with you, act as though you were an imposition, or try to get rid of you as quickly as possible.
You’d want them to smile, say hi, sign an autograph, take a picture, and act as though they genuinely appreciated your adoration. You’d want them to be open, gregarious, even giving. You’d want to be able to tell your friends what a great person your favorite celebrity is. Mostly, you’d want them to understand and appreciate the rare position they find themselves in.
There aren’t many people in the world who have fans of any age. Most of the people in that Walmart will never get the kind of reaction I got from that kid from anyone, including their own spouses and children. We’re members of a lucky few. We should try to be grateful for it.
So the next time some kid excitedly shouts your name across a Walmart and runs up to you, tugging his indifferent and somewhat baffled mother along, stop what you’re doing. Turn to him and smile. Ask him how he’s doing. Tell him it’s good to see him.
Then go home, drink the beverages, and bask in the glory of your fame.
When analyzing the classroom often we look at test scores or students’ grades. Grades are important, but what if grades were not a true indicator of success?
Instead of looking at the grades first, what if I asked you about your students’ happiness?
You would think I was crazy.
However, in his book The Happiness Advantage, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor proves that success doesn’t lead to happiness, but happiness leads to success. Instead of looking at results and asking our students to simply try harder, maybe we should prime them for success through happiness.
To have a successful classroom, the question then becomes, “How happy are your students in the classroom?” and equally important, “How happy are you in the classroom?”
Just by smiling at the students, you are showing them that you are happy to be with them. You are also tapping into students’ mirror neurons. These neurons tell the brain to copy what you see. Furthermore, your body language and your mood are so intricately connected, that if you smile (even if you are not happy), your brain begins to release dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, which are the “happy” neurotransmitters of the brain (Psychology Today) .
When students feel in control, they feel safer and happier. My favorite examples come out of a program about classroom discipline called Love and Logic. Love and Logic tells parents and teachers to share control with the students by offering small choices that you feel comfortable with. Here’s an example: “Would you guys like to take the quiz right now or at the end of class?” By doing this you’re letting the students know that they have a voice in the classroom and some control over their environment.
I cry at the end of the movie Rudy every single time. As moving as the story is, I don’t think I would react that way every time if it weren’t for the music. Music directs human emotions. Can you imagine your favorite scene of a movie without the background music? You can use music to move your students to happiness. Do you have an extra Bluetooth speaker lying around? If not, it will be worth the $20 investment. Play energetic music as the kids enter the classroom or play calm music to help them de-stress.
Another way that you can spread happiness is by changing how you greet your students. Usually we say something like “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” Instead of doing this you can tweak your question to lead the students to think positively about their day. I learned this from the book Broadcasting Happiness by Michelle Gielan. For example, I could change my greeting from “How’s it going?” to “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” The answer requires the students to think of something positive.
In a study done with 44 doctors, those primed with candy diagnosed twice as fast as those not primed with candy. Do you know what’s crazier? They weren’t even allowed to eat it until afterwards! I tried the same thing in one of my Spanish classes. I handed out Jolly Ranchers which sat on the edge of the students’ desks until the end of class. By doing this I’m giving the students something to look forward to. You won’t believe how many students beg me to go ahead and pass out the candy at the beginning of class, just so they can know it is waiting for them. This anticipation of happiness increases productivity.
Sometimes, I will notice that my students seem stressed in the classroom. Instead of pushing through the stress (and therefore adding to it), I tell my students to close their eyes. Then we practice 4-7-8 breathing. This kind of breathing hijacks the adrenaline system and slows it down. By doing this, you are placing the students back in logical thinking mode instead of “fight or flight” stress mode. Less stress equals more happiness.
All the above-mentioned hacks require energy, action, and attitude on your part. It is going to be hard to spread happiness if you are not happy yourself. Make sure that you’re doing things for yourself as a teacher. We spend a lot of time thinking about our students. Make sure that you are doing things that make you happy. What’s a hobby that you’ve let go of that you really enjoyed? Have you taken time just to just to sit down and relax and watch your favorite TV show? Take time for yourself and then spread happiness freely in your classroom.