Happy Teachers Make Happy Students

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

The Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology is a K-8 Detroit public charter school with an African-centered educational philosophy. Located in Detroit’s inner city, the school’s population of 351 students — 100 percent African-American. More than 95 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. The goals of the African-centered philosophy are to infuse pride and self-determination in the students, assist with character building and to produce well-educated students.

Since students’ brains are involved in learning, behavior and emotions, teachers should know as much as possible about the brain. Implementing a brain-friendly, “Happiness School” culture and informing teachers about how the students’ brains react in various social interactions in the classroom have positive effects on student learning and behavior. Faculty and staff training sessions have been conducted in these areas, and periodic training is conducted throughout the school year on these subjects.

Brain research on how students learn and how students brains react in social interactions, shared with classroom educators, gives all indications that it is possible to change a school culture, improve student behavior, increase the focus on academics and improve the overall functioning of an inner-city school. Faculty trained in brain education-curriculum designed and implemented a staff training session to build a brain-friendly Happiness School culture, which consists of a caring, tough-love discipline approach, high expectations, believing in the students, seeing greatness in every student and personally connecting and bonding with them. Experience has taught us that a caring, loving and personal connection with each student is good for their brains, learning and improving behavior.

In the training faculty were also introduced to “whole brain teaching instruction” — how important it is to teach with the brain in mind, in terms of multisensory techniques. In addition, they were taught about how critical it is to know how various social interactions in the classroom impacts the behavior of students and their willingness to be attentive and open to learning. One of the keys to learning stressed in the faculty training sessions was about a Happiness School culture and why it is important for the students’ brains.

Happiness School Culture

The Happiness School culture encourages the faculty and staff to smile and maintain a positive attitude at all times. They are encouraged to praise and uplift students, greet students and parents every morning with smiles and warmth, and eliminate hostility and yelling at students. This culture is uplifting, and it seems to make the students happy.

A few of the Happiness School tenets:

  • Safe, caring, loving and orderly school and classrooms are the norm.
  • Make a powerful connection with each student by getting to know all students well.
  • A happy smile on the face of everyone at all times.
  • Always approach students in a calm, caring and respective manner.
  • The rights and comforts of others are valued and a way of daily life.
  • A sense of humor is celebrated.
  • The curriculum and teaching strategies promote student learning, happiness, health, self-esteem, self-confidence, and inner peace.

The new Happiness School culture has a powerful positive effect on students’ brains, resulting in a positive impact on student behavior and motivation to learn, reducing discipline problems and increasing success in the classroom.

It is critical for the administration, teachers and staff to build powerful personal connections with each student, demonstrate they care and avoid expressing anger toward the students. Students seem to listen to teachers when they know they care. The power of personal bonding with students can help some students to shed their angry posturing and can lead to enhancing the internal motivation of students to learn and succeed. Student motivation is further enhanced when others — peers, parents/guardians — acknowledge/recognize the student’s success. The teacher’s personal connection with students, as well as the students being recognized for their successes, can lead to students feeling good about themselves. This combination can have a positive impact on enhancing self-esteem, self-confidence and motivation to continue to learn. Eventually, the students will get an “I can do it” attitude.

Personally Connecting To Students

The brain is social, and the way classroom educators interact with students makes a difference in their receptivity to paying attention and remaining open to learning. When administrators and teachers personally connect and bond with students, care and show interest in them by providing them with support and praise, the teachers and administrators in effect “squirt” serotonin into the students’ brains. (This chemical neurotransmitter greatly influences an overall sense of well-being, helping to regulate moods, temper anxiety and relieve depression). Serotonin opens students’ minds to ideas and creates desires to get to know teachers better and to support what the teachers require.

When students feel good about themselves, endorphins are released in the brain, which has pain-relieving properties and helps students to relax and feel better.

If, however, teachers or administrators get angry, verbally berate or reject students in their interactions at school, this “social pain” proves just as harmful as physical pain, according to human-performance researcher David Rock. This hostility can cause students to be unmotivated, disruptive in the classroom, tuned out, prone to mistakes or indifference. Also, when students perceive to be treated unfairly in the classroom by teachers, their brains will releasing cortisol, a hormone necessary in normal amounts for proper metabolic function, but which in elevated levels has adverse effects on students’ health, mood, body composition and performance. Too much cortisol can cause a brain shutdown and closes students off to new ideas and the willingness to learn.

The Brain is Social: Impact on Student Behavior and Learning

The brain is a social animal and needs interactions and collaboration with teachers and others to grow, learn and survive. David Rock says that some neuroscientists see the human brain as having a social network, responsible for all students, teachers, parents and leaders interacting with their social world, similar to other networks they have for movement, seeing, thinking and memory. The social brain network allows one to understand and connect with others and to understand and control oneself, one’s emotions and one’s behavior. The types of interactions between teachers and students, parents and children make a difference to the brain. The social interactions or collaborations can be felt in the brain as social fairness or social unfairness, influencing student behavior, motivation, performance and learning.

Research shows that the brain finds fairness intrinsically important. In fMRIs brain imaging results, scientists find that when people judge a scenario to be fair, reward centers of the brain light up, just as when they see a loved one or taste good food. Fair treatment may contribute to students feeling positive and feeling good about themselves, having a positive impact on self-esteem. A feeling of social unfairness, on the other hand, generates significant amygdala arousal — the brain’s “fear circuitry” lights up when we experience disgust. According to Rock, one study found that fairness to an individual was more important to the brain than money.

Social fairness can also help teachers, parents and leaders to personally connect and bond with students, helping to meet their need to relate and connect with others.

Students, teachers and parents have basic social needs. If these needs are unmet, it can introduce feelings of threat and cause conflict between people. The basic social needs that affect behavior in a classroom or at home are a need to feel socially connected, bonded with parents, teachers, friends; a sense of fairness, a sense of status, feeling safe, a feeling of certainty, a feeling of autonomy/control and ability to have a choice and make decisions. These needs are either met or are not met through social interactions in the classroom, at work, at home and in society. If these are unmet, it can lead to a sense of threat that can quickly dissolve into conflicts in classrooms. Met, they can lead to classroom effectiveness and improved work performance.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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