Hijacked by the Amygdala

Some of the most charming students I knew sat in my prison classrooms and in middle school detentions. They were the kind of people who smiled when they saw you, told good jokes, livened a conversation, and never had an empty spot beside them in the cafeteria. When they were in their right minds, that is.

What got them into trouble was what Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, calls an amygdala hijack. I explained this to Cory one day in the middle school hallway after he was calm enough to hear me.

“What just happened,” I told him, “is that your amygdala took over your brain.”

This caught his attention, sounding like the science fiction he read, so I went on.

“The amygdala is the part of the brain that handles your emotions. What your amygdala did back there in the classroom when John took your seat was shut down the thinking part of your brain.”

I paused, and he looked up.

“The neo-cortex,” I added, just in case he wanted to know.

“Your amygdala was screaming, ‘Is John going to get me or am I going to get him?’ And in that millisecond, without thinking, you reacted to what seemed like a threat.”

But Cory was thinking now, I could see, his neo-cortex back in action.

“I know,” he said. “After it’s over, I can tell.”

Cory was listening, so I told him about a way to train his brain, to help the neo-cortex inhibit the amygdala.

“You’ve got to slow your reaction,” I said, “to give your thinking brain a chance.”

“How?” Cory asked.

So I told him about the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise:

Think about

  • 5 things you can see;
  • 4 things you can hear;
  • 3 things you can touch;
  • 2 things you can smell;
  • 1 thing you can taste.

“Count it down,” I said, “and, by that time, John taking your seat won’t seem like such a big deal.”

This didn’t cure Cory’s outbursts, but it helped.


Macy Marks and the Bonsai Tree

I once killed a bonsai tree, the most unusual plant I’ve ever owned and a gift from my husband. Bonsai is one of the most intricate forms of gardening, an art that invites you into a world of different dimensions. The aesthetics and techniques and tools are specialized and sophisticated. My bonsai tree died because I treated it like I treated my other houseplants: water once a week along with a dose of Miracle Grow.

And I liked to teach in the same way I cared for my plants—to make a system and expect my students to fit right in. Only Macy Marks didn’t. Sometimes, seeing terrors other students didn’t see, Macy huddled under the corner table, leaving her essay unwritten. Or in a class discussion, she’d hone in on a matter of injustice, say the internment of Japanese who were U.S. citizens during World War II, and not let it go, even if we had moved on to other important ideas, like the change in bus schedules.

Some days, when her emotional load was light, Macy was full of goodwill, extolling the virtues of her classmates and bringing kids on the margins into discussion. But on her dark days, students took the long way rather than pass her desk, and in light of world tragedies, she saw her homework as highly insignificant.

I came to see that my systems didn’t work for Macy, not because she was defiant, but because the voices inside her called so insistently and with such volume. To reach Macy, I had to appreciate and release her intensities, not fight them. Macy sent me back to my books, to theorist like Dabrowski and Piirto. They showed me how to give Macy what she needed (forums for her passions and spaces for her dark times). And they guided me in helping the rest of us cope with Macy’s emotional largeness (not accepting responsibility for keeping Macy happy or taking on the burden of her angst). I needed specialized tools like this to reach into Macy Mark’s world.


The Students Who Choose Us

We knew when it happened—when students chose us. They started using our words and copying our gestures. They came to us with questions about the new immigration laws, which parent to choose in a custody battle, their being a vegan, and whether an Airedale terrier or a Bichon Frise would be the better pet for them. They dropped by to see us after school and sent us e-mails during summer vacation. They invited us to their graduation parties, then stopped by on college breaks, and later brought their children to see us. These were our students.

Ben was one of mine. One morning he rushed into my room and slammed the door shut. He stood against it panting.

“I’m safe,” he said. This is my safe place.”

Ben had chosen me.

Five seventh-grade students came to me one day with a sealed envelope.

“For your husband,” they said.

I took it home. He broke the seal and showed me.

“When Mrs. Swartz dies,” the note said. “Will you tell us so we can come to her funeral?”

Those five students were mine, too.

Around the lunch table in the teachers’ lounge, we knew which students belonged to which teachers.

“Talk to Josie,” I said once to the algebra teacher. “Something’s wrong. She’s losing her focus.”

Why did Josie choose the algebra teacher instead of me? Why do students become devotees of particular teachers?

Maybe because the teacher provides a missing element or seems familiar or syncs with gifts or interests. Maybe because of a match of personality or intellect. Maybe because the teacher is in the right place and the right time.

Whatever the reason, this choosing is an honor, one of the delights of teaching, and a sobering responsibility.

How to Love a Class You Hate

Every class, I learned in my 30 years of teaching, has a personality. And, like many teachers, I learned to flex with these group temperaments. According to need, I could turn energy up or down. I could slow my pace one period and snap to the next. I could teach with charm or with might, humor or concern. I could adjust my style to match each class. And mostly this worked.

But I’ve also clashed with classes. I wanted to like them, but I fought what felt like a fundamental incompatibility. My instinct was to distance myself, to go through the motions and not invest emotionally. But this was a luxury, I couldn’t afford. Because when I withdrew, students didn’t learn.

Over the decades, I found a few ways to change my relationship with classes I didn’t like, to look forward to them, instead of dreading them. Here’s what worked:

  • I quit trying to change my feelings. This gave me energy to change my actions. I acted as if I liked the classes. And gradually I did.
  • I watched my self-talk. The more I complained to myself about a class, the more I found that annoyed me. And the more I affirmed, the more I found to like.
  • I asked my students questions. The more I discovered about their sufferings and hopes and dilemmas, the more empathy I felt for them.
  • I invested. Each time I gave them a gift—like a story about the time I botched a science fair project—I liked them a little more, the generosity of my spirit increased.
  • I rewarded myself. After my bad seventh-period class one year, I always opened the top drawer of my desk for a packet of almonds. This almost made me look forward to seventh period.

Clashing, I’ve found, requires energy I’d rather spend on teaching.


Helping the Good Kids to Not Hurt the Bad Kids

You ask the good kids in almost any class, and they’ll tell you who the bad kid is. This is the kid everyone points to when something goes wrong, the kid it’s okay to pick on, the kid outside the social circle, the kid who bears the brunt of group dissatisfaction—the scapegoat. If it weren’t for this kid, the class would be better.

But it isn’t usually this simple. Some classes seem to feel the need to produce a bad kid. The bad kid livens boring lessons, serves as the common enemy, and boosts the status of the good kids—making their antics seem harmless compared to the bad kid’s atrocities.

Bad deeds, of course, need consequences, but it’s when the narrative moves from a kid having a problem to a kid being the problem that scapegoating occurs. Someone, it seems, needs to be at the bottom so others can claim the top.

In a Dr. Seuss story, the bottommost turtle is Mack. Yertle, the king in the story, wants to see further, to increase his influence and so turtles, all stepping on the neck of poor Mack, pile themselves on top of him to create a higher throne. In pain Mack finally speaks to the top of the stack.

“I know up on top you are seeing great sights
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Teachers often protect good kids from bad kids. But how can teachers also keep good kids from hurting bad kids—from blocking their sights and taking their rights? Here are some strategies:

  • Help good kids see that the scapegoat’s problems are something in which the whole class participates. Ask questions of students who have trouble with a bad kid—are you helping or hurting Matt? Are you finding ways Matt can help you? Are you looking for good in Matt?
  • Work against displacement. Help good kids see how the gap widens when bad kids are ostracized in the lunch room, not invited to parties, and ignored in the hallways. Encourage good kids to stop excluding and start including.
  • Complicate students’ views of bad and good. Knocking a chair to a floor is bad, yes. But so is the rolling of eyes, a judging attitude, and a looking-down from the top of the heap.

In the Yertle, the Turtle, story, no one listens to Mack, down there on the bottom. So Mack takes further measure:

“That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had
And that plain little lad got a little bit mad
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing
He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king!”

We’ve read too many times in the news about measures bottommost students have taken. And good kids can play a reaching role—to help and not hurt.

Syncing the Out-of-Sync

Teaching isn’t simple. You can walk, for example, into a classroom and find that students range from grade three to grade ten in reading ability. How to challenge all without frustrating some—this is the daily dilemma.

But what also complicates teaching is described by a daunting phrase—asynchronous development. Understanding this concept has helped me understand students. And it’s helped students understand themselves.

Take the word apart, I tell students. Chronos means time. It’s the Greek root for chronology. Syn means same, like in synonym. And the prefix a means not.

So if you put it together, asynchronous development means that not all the parts of you develop at the same rate.

Annie, a student in the gifted program, is an example of asynchronous development. One morning when she was in second grade, she showed up for class, her face wan and strained. Her eyes pooled when I pulled my stool next to her.

“I didn’t sleep all night,” she whispered.

And her mom confirmed this when we talked. Annie had watched the news, understanding far more about the recent terrorist attack than most second graders would, more than she could handle.

Annie’s intellectual development and her emotional development were out of sync. And this required greater vigilance by her adults.

Tom, a seventh grade student of mine, showed a different profile, running the household, as he did, for his emotionally and intellectually challenged mother. Tom read below grade level, but he managed his younger siblings with skill, keeping them in clean shirts, helping them with homework, and even showing up at their parent-teacher conferences to help his mother understand. Tom’s emotional maturity far surpassed his intellectual powers. Tom learned best when I acknowledged his asynchronous development, when I matched my tones to his level of responsibility.

Teachers, then, manage not only differing levels among students. They also watch for varying levels within students. Teachers face the daily dilemma of bringing into some kind of synchrony all that is out of sync.


The Burden of Best

“Do your best,” teachers tell students. And most times that’s good advice. But these words place a heavy burden on some students.

The most exhausted students I taught were perfectionists. I found them in all my classrooms—in the prison school, at the middle school, and in the college classes I taught. But perfectionists showed up most often in my gifted classes. These students with high intelligence were familiar with success—but not with failure.

Most of them had grown up succeeding without effort. But at some point, all gifted students—in middle school accelerated classes or high school Advanced Placement courses or college honors or a Ph.D. program—come to a place where effort is required and failure actually seems possible.

Their standards are so high that the new challenges they face can be met only with great difficulty, or not at all. And anything short of perfection, they feel, would lead to disaster.

Some of my students could find only one way out—procrastination. The only way to avoid failure, they figured, was to not start at all or to start but not finish. As long as they didn’t commit, the possibility of perfection remained.

These students linked what they did with who they were. They felt pressured to demonstrate their worth through performance, avoiding mistakes at great cost. Many of them struggled with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even self-harm.

The irony is that students learn best as they make mistakes. And they don’t learn much when they do nothing because they’re afraid they will make one.

So what tools can move students out of this trap of disabling perfectionism? Here are some mantras for self-talk I passed on to students:

  • It’s not all or nothing. Let go of the on and off switch, I’d say, and use a dimmer switch. It’s not all success or all failure. Look for the bad in the good and good in the bad. According to legend, someone once asked Thomas Edison, “How did it feel to fail 999 times while you invented the lightbulb?”

“I didn’t fail 999 times,” Edison reportedly said. “I found 999 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

  • I probably won’t die. Perfectionists tend to catastrophic thinking. If I make a mistake (or get a B or don’t become the valedictorian), I won’t survive the humiliation. Actually, not reaching a standard can often relieve pressure and increase energy in other parts of life.

“I just wish she’d get a B and find out she’ll live,” one parent told me.

  • Live 3-D. Perfectionists often fixate on the possibility of failure. Their focus narrows, letting negatives push positives out of their thinking. And so they lose the balance other parts of life can bring—the catharsis of exercise, the support of relationships, the inspiration of the arts. When students find extra-academic richness, they keep healthier perspectives.

Teachers dream of classrooms of students who want to do their best. But perhaps a better scenario is classrooms of students who value learning so much they’re willing to risk failure to learn.