Born to Teach?
By Anthony Conwright
I was having a cup of coffee with a few coworkers after work one evening and one of them said, “You were born to teach.” I took the complement in stride, but my nonchalant footsteps were halted by an e-mail I received that made me say to myself in a very humble voice, “Anthony, maybe you were born to teach.” I had to look deeper into the statement. The e-mail that has made me question my purpose in life came from a former student. Here is the e-mail in its entirety:
“Hi it’s “blank” I just wanted to email you because well the last day of school I did not really get to like say goodbye and so Yeah I am doing it right now but first I want to say that (please dont get mad) the moment the teacher told me we were going to have a new teacher I thought I am seriously not going to like this new teacher ,and that was certainly not the case but at first in class I know i was being a pain in the butt and I was not really giving you or me any chances to really get to know each other but i felt like at the end of the semester I really like your class and the way you teached and what really always made me happy was when (i admittt) I would be looking in the mirrior to fix my hair and you would tell me I was beautiful .I just really appreciate this phrase you told me because I did not get it alot at school or at home but if I can say you were like my veryd disliked tearcher and know dont tell anyone you are one of my favorite teachers at HTMMA.Well thanks for listening Mr Anthony.
P.S thanks for being gr8 you are almost like a dad to me
I pasted the e-mail into this essay because I believe it demonstrates exactly why I was born to teach. In a TED TALK entitled “The Social Animal” David Brooks, a writer for the New York Times, shared a vital piece of information that all teachers should know. He said, “People learn from people they love.” That statement made me analyze the contents of the e-mail. I noticed in the e-mail the student never mentioned my actual teaching techniques, furthermore, she said the impediment to her enjoying my class was the fact that she was not giving us a chance to get to know each other. She was not giving us the chance to bond. Everything she mentioned has nothing to do with actual content but the relationship between the two of us. She was able to learn after a positive relationship was established.
Before we continue on I have to give the full context as to why I told the student she is beautiful. One day I was teaching a lesson and noticed that the student pulled out her compact to check her makeup. Once I saw her checking her makeup I stopped my lesson and in front of the entire class said, “You are absolutely beautiful. There is no need for you to check your makeup in class. You look great.” Every time she pulled out her compact I told her to put it away because she did not need to worry about the way she looked because she is “beautiful.” I truly believe that my kind words are what made me a good teacher in this case and thus from that point on she felt comfortable enough to let her guard down to learn in my classroom. I made it a point to tell her she is beautiful because I remember having feelings of insecurity when I was in middle school. I know what it is like to feel ugly, stupid or insecure and ndicot have anyone tell you otherwise. I empathized with her in order to build a framework to connect with her so she could learn. The reason why I point this out is to illustrate two points. The first point is that my ability to empathize with her is the largest part of what broke down the barrier for the student to learn. The second point is that the ability to empathize did not come alone but is a side effect of genes at play.
Former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins writes in his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, about a Russian scientist named Dimitri Belyaev. Belyaev and his team of scientist set out to replicate the evolution of wolves to dogs. They put foxes into three classes based on their level of comfortability with the experimenters in order to breed them for their tameness. Class I was the tamest class of the three. The class I foxes approached the handlers with wagging tails and sounds of whining. The scientist continually bred the class I foxes for tameness and found astonishing results.
After six generations of breeding the tamest foxes changed so much that the experimenters dubbed this new class of foxes as the “domesticated elite” class. The domesticated elite class was quick to create human contact and they also whimpered to attract the attention of the experimenters just like dogs. The most important result of the experiment was that the foxes began to LOOK like dogs. Their ears began to become more floppy like a dog and their tails turned upward at the end like a dog. This is important because the dog like features were side effects of tameness. This phenomenon is called “pleiotropy.” Pleitropy refers to when genes have more than one effect. Dawkins said, “Presumably genes for floppy ears and piebald coats are pleitropically linked to genes for tameness, in foxes as well as dogs.” This means that the floppy ears and curled tail came a long with the tameness. They did not happen independently, they were side effects of the tameness. I started to apply this thought to personality. What if the genes or chemicals that someone innately has that makes them a nurturer, a listener, a decent communicator and empathetic are pleitropically linked to what makes someone a good teacher.
I will use two beautiful illustrations that I believe may give more insight into genes and how they are pleitropically linked to someone’s job. Paul Ekman is one of the world’s leading experts in lie detection and facial expressions. Ekman writes in his book, Telling Lies, about a lie-catching test he and his team came up with to see how accurately people in the criminal justice and intelligence communities could accurately catch liars. I will not spoil the results of the test. If you are interested in the results pick up Ekman’s book, it is a delightful read. After Ekman calculated the results he stated, “I am continuing research to learn why just some people are very accurate in detecting deceit. How did they learn it? Why doesn’t everyone learn to spot lying more accurately? Is this really a skill that is learned, or might it be more of a gift, something you either have or don’t have.” I am interested in whether or not someone can be born with the genes or traits that would make them predisposed to lie detection. Let’s refer back to Ekman to see what kind of people did well on the test and how they were able to perform well. Ekman points out in Telling Lies, “Comparing those who were accurate, across all the occupational groups, with those who were inaccurate, we found that the accurate lie catchers mentioned using information from the face, voice, and body while inaccurate ones only mentioned the words that were spoken.” In an interview with Harry Kreisler, Ekman talked about these naturally gifted deception detectors he dubbed “Wizards.” Out of a group of 12,000 people that were tested, Ekman and his team found 20 Wizards. “They’re uncanny. I can describe what they do. They don’t miss anything. Whether it’s every aspect of your speech, every aspect of your mannerism. The group that yielded the most of these [Wizards] are Arbitrators. I think that is because an Arbitrator has to see both sides.” Arbitrators are people that specialize in handling disputes between two opposing parties. They have to be able to see both sides of a situation to be able to make a settlement. Why is it that the people that are naturally gifted at lie detection looked for facial cues? How were they naturally able to do that? What is it about these people that seem naturally gifted at reading facial expressions? Let’s turn to my favorite anthropologist Helen Fisher for her insight.
Helen Fisher is a Biological Anthropologist and the words leading expert in romantic love. In Helen Fisher’s book, Why him? Why her? she talks about a certain personality type that is prone to be able to read facial expressions. This personality type is called the Negotiator. Negotiators have a variety of social skills that stem from the activity of estrogen and oxytocin in the brain. Fisher points out, “These chemicals give you the capacity to override the impulses that distract you from completing your social goals, as well as the ability to read another’s postures and gestures and to recognize someone’s emotions from looking at his or her face.” Fisher also provides insight that may relate to Paul Ekman’s findings about the phenomenon of Wizard’s being arbitrators. “Negotiators also excel at tolerating ambiguity. And estrogen is probably involved-because studies have shown that women, on average, are especially adept at holding two or more opposing ideas in the mind at once.” I am not sure if Ekman is aware of Fisher’s research and vice versa but there seems to be a connection between someone’s genes and their natural ability to carry out a certain task or job.
According to Fisher, empathy is a hallmark of the Negotiator. Fisher notes that empathy has two parts. The first part is the ability to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling, which is called theory of mind. The second part is the drive to respond appropriately to another’s needs and thus connect with that person. Both of those traits are associated with estrogen and oxytocin. Here is why I believe I was born to teach. It just so happens that my secondary personality is the Negotiator. You can see both parts empathy at play in regards to the student that sent me the e-mail. I felt her questioning her beauty but that alone would not have been enough to build a connection. The second part of empathy is crucial. I had a drive to respond appropriately to her need, which eventually led to us connecting and thus learning was born.