Most educators are called to their work by a love of teaching and of children. Work begins with joy and fulfillment. Working in schools has always been hard work, but these days it seems to feel harder. It is no secret that our profession has suffered a great deal of criticism. While it isn’t often a local message, there is a system wide message that we are not meeting the bar. Too many children are falling behind or dropping out. The reform initiatives from federal and state governments have entered every classroom. The heart of every educator bears the heaviness of this increasingly hard work. We are left wondering what is in our hands, what can we control? The answer is often only ourselves and how we react to what is happening; how we stand in the gap, between what we think and how the children feel it. We do create the culture they experience in school.
Daydreaming, Breaks, and Empathy
Schools are places in which cognitive tasks rule the day. Thinking about how to change the schedule, keep buses running on time, fit in one more meeting, answer a phone call from a concerned parent, assess the success of a new program or class, design new ways to plan and implement lessons, evaluate and be evaluated...all cognitive tasks. But did you know...
When confronted with a cognitive task, your brain requires the empathetic area to turn off to get the job done, notes Anthony Jack, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. (Read “Beyond the Brain” in National Geographic magazine.)... “if you are engaged in a demanding analytic task, it doesn’t leave any room for empathy.” Yet when you are daydreaming, your mind naturally cycles through different modes of thinking, and during this time the analytic and empathetic parts of your brain tend to turn each other off (National Geographic, July 2013).
In order to operate in an environment, where the primary work engaged in involves cognitive tasks, the brain has to turn off its empathetic area! That is one big unintended consequence. Empathy is not simply the act of listening to another person; it requires the understanding and sharing of another person’s experiences and emotions. Merriam-Webster’s definition of empathy: “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings” It happens as a matter of head and heart. The people engaged in the school environment, teachers, leaders and their colleagues, who are feeling frustrated, pushed, pulled, and devalued because the work has become so focused on cognitive activities, are not feeling seen or heard, not feeling empathy or compassion but they push on.
Could daydreaming provide a route for some to help to remember the people, allowing both sides of the brain to be engaged, albeit at alternating times? When both sides of our brains are working, we are much more likely to be focusing on thinking AND people. Daydreaming welcomes our imagination and maybe we become both more empathetic and more creative. Yet, how many children have been told to stop daydreaming?
Days are naturally filled with cognitive tasks. Daydreaming is not a mindless wandering away from thinking, an act to be criticized. When we take our minds off of a problem and stop ourselves from focusing on thinking about how to solve it, sometimes the best solutions arise.
Written about in blogs and articles, discussed in faculty rooms and over cups of coffee are standards, assessments and other topics with themes of stress, lack of efficacy, lack of voice and lack of power. The culture is fatigued and disheartened. Some believe this tiring, frazzled environment is the result of a lack of leadership or the focus on a mountain of mandates. There may be some truth to both. Understanding how the brain works may hold a key to understanding how to change the way we feel.
In a recent Mind/Shift article, Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind was quoted:
People who take regular breaks -- and naps even -- end up being more productive and more creative in their work...You need to give your brain time to consolidate all the information that’s come in, to toss it and turn it.
For students, teachers, and leaders, time for thoughts to roll around...or be focused on an altogether different activity, play, or even daydreaming... allows for new ways thoughts and feelings to emerge. For everyone, a step away from the focused, thinking part of our workday can also shift us into a place where we are more open and empathetic.
Time and Space and Even Daydreaming Are Required
As schools are focused on the hard work of reinventing themselves (designing themselves) as 21st century learning environments, that design thinking requires allocating time for teachers and their leaders to think together and create. Each person we work with has a story, a journey, and something to offer. Each also needs support, encouragement, direction, and opportunities to learn. Everyone needs to be listened to and counted on. Given the opportunity to wonder, take time off task, and restore our confidence that answers live within and among us requires a culture that values its people.
Although the intention and belief may be that people are valued, if all the attention goes to getting the work done the cost is often the time to listen to others and allow ourselves to go to empathy, to find the place within us that can walk in someone else’s shoes. It is not that we have become too busy to care. It is that we have forgotten that care comes first, work follows. It is true for children and for adults. But, teachers without joy produce unenlivened learning spaces. Everyone suffers. The research is telling us, “When confronted with a cognitive task, your brain requires the empathetic area to turn off to get the job done.” Is this the casualty of the reform movement? Did we mean for this to happen to our schools? We don’t think so but it worries us.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.