A belief I have held for a very long time is that our classrooms are reflections of who we are and how we show up. When I was in my educational neuroscience class, we had the pleasure of participating in a one-hour Q&A session with Dr. Porges discussing his Polyvagal theory and its applications in the classroom.

That night my belief took on a slightly different meaning, even as it was solidified even more for me. Dr. Porges talked about our "social engagement system" and how that impacts our relationships and our own internal state of being.

In other words, my state of being is going to show up in my facial expressions and my voice prosody (sing song or monotone). My students are going to respond to my social cues, and it will either escalate their own internal state of arousal and potentially activate their flight/fight/freeze response, or it will help them to regulate their stress response system and bring them back into a calm/coherent state primed for learning. Clearly, one of these pathways is better than the other in terms of the outcomes in our classrooms.

                             OUR CLASSROOMS ARE REFLECTIONS                                                    OF WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE SHOW UP.

via BehaviorFlip

Yes, students come in with their own stories, their own issues, and their own brain states. However, the way we show up has a direct impact upon whether that student is going to be able to regulate their system and engage in learning, or escalate their response system and show up as behavior issues, hyperactivity, shut down, apathy, etc.

If you wanted to soothe a crying baby, what would you do? What is one of the most effective ways to calm an upset baby? Mothers do it all the time, they use a sing-song voice while smiling and cooing at the child. What about talking to your family pet? What do you do? Most often (except when you are angry) you probably use some sort of a sing-song voice. "Who's a good boy?"

One of my more challenging students, who I have tried just about everything under the sun with, has shown the most response to me when I tried using the soft voice and getting him to look at me (so he can see the facial cues on my face). For the first time, he was able to hear me and accept what I was trying to share with him rather than arguing with me tooth and nail.

The shift in him was noticeable and took me by surprise at first. Now that I have heard from Dr. Porges, I better understand WHY it worked so well for him.... prosody and facial cues, the social engagement system working at its best.  Of course, when I was talking with him, I was feeling very patient in that moment. So, my facial cues were sending the messages of safety and acceptance.

Had I been pissed off and telling him to look at me and using a soft voice to command compliance, I am certain the response would have been entirely different. Again, how I show up will either escalate or regulate the child in front of me.

I invite you to think of your most challenging student. Think about an interaction you had recently with that student that maybe did not go so well. Who were you in that moment? How were you showing up? What social cues were you giving? What was your tone of voice? What facial expressions did you show?

Now, put yourself on the receiving end of those cues as a child. Would those cues have made you feel safe, or would they have created a sense of fear or anxiety? Did your cues escalate a behavior by causing the child to become more dysregulated, or did your cues help that child to downshift into a calmer state?

None of us are perfect. We all have good days and bad days. We all have days that we feel great, and days we feel overwhelmed. WE ARE HUMAN. This is NOT about beating yourself up because maybe you didn’t really show up the way you wanted to. This is about becoming more self-aware and choosing the hard work of self-reflection and self-growth, unless you want everything to remain exactly the same as it is right now.

                                               Teaching is an INSIDE JOB.

The thing is, if you really want the culture of your classroom to improve, if you really want to help your students to grow as human beings, there is just no avoiding the inner work for yourself. Teaching is an INSIDE JOB. Be brave! Be willing to be vulnerable and honest with yourself! Let go of shame if you have a bad day!

As you learn from your experiences, heal your own inner wounds and insecurities, you can "show up" as a cleaner, clearer vessel for LOVE, ACCEPTANCE, AND UNDERSTANDING. This improves all relationships in your life, not just the ones with your students.

But, here is the thing…

To show up with those qualities for another you must first embrace them within yourself for yourself. You must show up with love, acceptance, and understanding of yourself especially when you had a bad day.  When you choose to show up in ways that foster safety and security for yourself and others, you will be amazed with the results in all aspects of your life.

I am so grateful for each and every one of you and everything you bring to your students every day!  Teaching in today’s world is not for the faint of heart.  I am currently teaching in middle school, so I get it and I ‘got you’ if you need it.  If you feel so moved to really invest your own personal growth and self-awareness, let’s chat! I offer many services that can help you in your journey.

Kathy McGinn

Kathy McGinn is a trauma-informed education consultant, trainer, and middle-school science teacher.  She holds a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, Master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology, and Graduate Certificate in Applied Educational Neuroscience.  

For more information about Kathy and her work, go to https://www.kathymcginn.com/coaching.

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