Faculty and Student Wellness: Embracing the Interdependence
August 31, 2021
Earlier this summer, during an online discussion about grading practices, a teacher made a familiar, yet rarely challenged assertion: “When a student gets a D/F—or even an A—in my class, that’s the grade they earned.” My translation: “I provide opportunities for students to succeed. Their failure is on them, not me. It’s their choice.” In what educational world could this statement possibly be true, I wondered. How, when all year long we’ve championed the concept of a learning community, could we, when grades are due, separate ourselves from our community?
Rhetoric about “earning grades” spawns from an unexamined commitment to traditional concepts of free will and independence—the notion that we are all presented with an environment full of choices, and those of us who choose the best options succeed.
This idea is a fallacy.
Classroom behavior is, in the words of education professor Frederick Erickson, “interactionally generated.” We are “coproducing with students the very behavior that [we often take] as evidence of an individual characteristic of the student.” Students’ choices, their behaviors, are interdependent with the teacher’s, which means there is no world where a teacher’s performance and a student’s performance are separable.
As such, we need to approach our classrooms like an ecosystem and recognize the interdependence that is always already there before us. Yes, students have a variety of cognitive abilities, early childhood experiences, cultures, and so on that they bring into this ecosystem—variables teachers cannot control but can influence. We know, for example, that new experiences and learning change the brain, which means every teacher is a “brain changer” by default because teachers, in the words of psychologist Haim Ginott, are the “decisive element in the classroom. It’s [their] personal approach that creates the climate. It’s [their] daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, [you] possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. [You] can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. [You] can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is [your] response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
As an interdependent teacher, I may say we “co-create the climate,” but what Ginott captures here is the awesome responsibility teachers bear. The 10,000 daily decisions we make that affect kids. This reality is why teacher wellness is so crucial because it is interdependent with student wellness and with the health of the community. When teachers haven’t spent quality time with their own children for days, when they continue to forgo sleep or put off that morning jog, when they have another scoop of responsibility added to an already full plate, then they are much more likely to make a child’s life miserable, to humiliate them, to escalate the situation, and to dehumanize. Unwell teachers make for unhealthy educational ecosystems.
In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that “[t]he most basic thing you can do to master your emotions … is to keep your body budget in good shape” because “[w]hen your budget is unbalanced,” brains “search for explanations,” which often “leads us to believe that objects and people in the world are inherently negative or positive.” A teacher’s feeling of chronic fatigue, for example, can exacerbate a student’s misbehavior in their classroom. An unbalanced body budget can turn developmentally normal student behavior into an unprofessional clinical diagnosis, a request from an administrator into a power struggle, or a slightly rude comment from a longtime colleague into a breach of friendship. Sleep, exercise, and nutritious foods are as important, if not more, for effective teaching than is professional development on research-informed educational strategies, which is why school leaders owe it to their students, to the teachers they serve, and to the parents who entrust them with their most precious gifts to place teacher wellness at the forefront of their school’s culture, strategic vision, and daily decisions.
In my experience as a teacher and administrator, wellness is often framed by the academic calendar. If I can make it to Saturday, I’ll get some rest. I’ll be able to play with my kids over fall break. This summer I am going to get in the best shape of my life! Wellness does not work like this. It is an all-the-time thing, not a when-we-can-get-to-it thing. And now, having experienced the tireless fatigue, depression, toxic stress, isolation, and egocentrism this pandemic has conjured, our communities must begin to anchor their decisions within a framework of wellness.
If we held delusions of our independence before the pandemic, those delusions have likely been shattered. Since March 2020, our communities have been humbled again and again, not only to witness our lack of control over external events, but to also feel how contingent our mental, academic, and physical health is on social engagement and safety. Our immediate conditions rarely change so dramatically, which deprives us of the reality of our interdependence. Disruptions like a pandemic, however, offer an opportunity to reconfigure our professions, relationships, society—and schools—based on this reality.
To ignore wellness, then, to not make it a top priority for teachers, students, and leaders in schools, is to have lived through a pandemic in vain. Truly, it’s educational malpractice; or worse, it’s inhumane.
The Interdependence of Emotion and Cognition
Emotion and cognition are also interdependent. Effective teachers recognize this relationship and deploy strategies to support their students’ emotional wellness. In Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (2016), professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang reflects:
“Social and affective neuroscience are revealing more clearly than ever before the interdependence between cognition and emotion in the brain, the importance of emotion in guiding successful learning, and the critical role of teachers in managing the social environment of the classroom so that optimal emotional and cognitive learning can take place” (94).
One major obstacle that prevents educators from adopting an interdependence model in the classroom is a classical view of how emotions are produced in the brain. Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that the “classical view of emotion remains compelling” because we “experience” emotions as reactions, like a “brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.” But Barrett reminds us that the “human mind is not a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for control of behavior.” This image is a remnant of our acceptance of the triune brain model: neocortex (cognition), limbic system (emotion), and reptilian brain (survival). […]. The triune brain is a pervasive neuromyth. We do not, as Barrett reminds us, “have an animal brain gift-wrapped in cognition” to temper our primordial beasts.
So, when we observe our students behaving “irrationally,” whether that’s by shutting down or by lashing out, remember that students’ brains don’t react, they predict—they are not, in other words, choosing that emotional reaction. “From sensory input and past experience, brain[s] construct meaning and prescribe action,” Barrett writes. “[E]verything you feel is based on prediction from your knowledge and past experience.”
If our students’ ineffective emotions are predictions based on sensory input and prior experiences, then teachers can alter the sensory input and provide new experiences for students, as well as effective framing concepts, as a way of “managing the social environment.” But to take that approach, our teachers must be well enough themselves to recognize their role and not attribute fixed characteristics to students who are demonstrating emotional needs, which is again why school leaders must ensure that teacher wellness is a high priority.
Promoting Teacher and Student Wellness through an Interdependent Lens
In recognition of the interdependent model and acknowledging that teachers coproduce classroom behavior, school leaders should consider these ideas to promote teacher, and consequently student, wellness this year.
- Implement a homework policy that focuses on quality over quantity, as the research supports, and create space for grade-level and department teams to negotiate what a healthy homework balance looks like. Educate parents on how to create effective workspaces at home, free from the temptations that turn 30 minutes of homework into an hour.
- Consider banning homework/projects over the weekend or during breaks, even for advanced classes. These days should be kept sacred for family, friends, and fun—for teachers and students.
- Decide if the school should create some healthy limitations on students’ academic schedules.
- Schedule “quiet” weeks for teachers and staff: no email or meetings (unless operationally necessary). Let teachers focus purely on the task in front of them—teaching students.
- Offer mindfulness or meditation opportunities for students and teachers.
- Frequently remind teachers of the counseling services included in their benefit plans, make access to those services easy, and work to destigmatize therapy.
- Work with teachers to sharpen their feedback practices to be more efficient and effective. Disabuse teachers of the idea that more feedback equals better learning. Teachers often spend way more time on grading and feedback than is necessary, time that could be spent in healthier ways.
- Encourage technology-free days for your community and ensure that teachers use “away” messages to protect their free time.
- Model healthy behaviors, whether it be what you choose for lunch or how you speak to the teachers you serve.
Brent Kaneft is director of curriculum and instruction at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, Indiana.