Notes from Tools for Teaching Part 6

May 8, 2005

“Fight-flight” reflexes are immediate and automatic; you do not choose to have them. The mobilization of the reflex occurs in two phases, an immediate, neuromuscular phase and a slower, biochemical phase. Within the classroom the fight-flight reflex is triggered not every few hours as it might be in nature, but every few minutes. In this environment, every aspect of the neuromuscular phase of the fight-flight reflex represents a potential symptom of chronic hypertension.

There are three basic areas of the brain: the brainstem (lower brain), the paleocortex (mid-brain), and the neocortex (higher brain). Under pressure, the brain eliminates the higher functions in a process called “downshifting.” Under mild arousal, the brain shifts from the neocortex to the mid-brain. Downshifting plays havoc with long-term memory. Under moderate to severe arousal, the brain downshifts all the way to the lower brain and spinal cord. You will do a much better job in the classroom with a cortex. When you lose your cortex, a classroom suddenly becomes thrity cortexes manipulating one brainstem. Those are not even odds.

The slow phase of the reflex has to do with adrenaline. It takes roughly 27 minutes for adrenaline to clear the blood stream. The more upset we become, the more adrenaline builds for several seconds — slowly enough for us to turn it off if we know how.

Power is control and control is power. Diplomacy is often described as “the art of getting the other person to do what you want them to do and have them thank you for it.” All day in the classroom you will be attempting to get students to do what you want them to do and thank you for it. You will take children during their sweetest years of youth and incarcerate them in a school building where you will sit them down and require them to do one assignment after another all day long. And, you will want them to like it so much that they look forward to doing it again tomorrow.

There are two types of power within us — social power and primitive power. They compete with each other to control our behavior. Primitive power begins with the fight-flight reflex. In a social situation, it quickly becomes upset follwed by nagging or worse. Social power, in contrast, is not natural — it is learned. It is subtle and complex, and it is acquired at great effort. It definitely resides in the cortex. Thus the conflict within us between these two types of power centers around the fact that we cannot do them both at the same time. This competition brings us to the most fundamental principle of social power:

Calm is strength. Upset is weakness.

When you are calm, you can bring all of your wisdom, experience, and social skill to bear in solving a problem. When you are upset, none of that knowledge is available to you. You cannot use primitive power all day long to manage a classroom full of young people without alienating them and exhausting yourself.

You will never be able to control another individual, much less a roomful of them, until you are first in control of yourself. Before we can ever hope to mean business, we must be in control of the situation rather than the situation being in control of us. Unless we can first be calm, our fancy management strategies will avail us nothing. They will be in the cortex while we are in the brainstem.

When you look up in the classroom to see a disruption, you will have a fight-flight reflex. No amount of training will prevent it. However, you can abort the reflex by relaxing. Breathing in a slow and relaxed fashion is the most direct route to relaxing your entire body. A relaxing breath is slow and relatively shallow. It is the way you would breathe if you were beginning to doze off. It lowers your heart rate and your blood pressure. Your muscles relax, and your face becomes calm and expressionless. The quicker you relax, the less adrenaline enters your bloodstream. Relaxation keeps you in your cortex while reducing wear and tear on your body.

If you are calm, you will have a calming effect on those around you. Emotions are contagious; you will get exactly what you give. Our objectives in managing classroom disruptions are two-fold:

  • Calm the student.
  • Get them back on task.
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